These festoons with their sumptuous cascades of ripe fruits and fragrant roses suspended from a striped silk ribbon resemble at first glance sections of stone ornament, or plaster moulding. But closer inspection reveals the roses to be cabbages, the delicious looking fruits are in fact beetroots and onions, the elaborate silk bow is a curtain cord, and a wooden finial has been pressed into service as a classical-looking prop, hiding the ends of plant stems at the top of the arrangement.
All the festoons, swags, garlands and other embellishments in Festons und Decorative Gruppen aus Pflanzen und Theiren, or, Festoons and decorative groups of Plants and Animals, are constructed using similarly inventive combinations of flowers, vegetables, taxidermy and domestic objects. Published in Vienna in 1893 by Martin Gerlach, this book of elaborate photographic collages was intended both as reference and inspiration for artists working across a range of crafts using pattern, from wood carving, plaster work, textiles, illustration and wallpaper design.
Judging by the seasonality of the plant materials Gerlach used, the photographs were taken over the course of many months. Early spring blossoms of apple and cherry with nesting birds give way to the lilac, roses and hollyhocks of summer, while autumn provides a profusion of gourds, sweetcorn, grapes, apples and pumpkins. Winter is represented by arrangements of pine cones and stuffed squirrels placed amongst evergreen conifer branches.
Some of the most effective designs use only leaves – the winding stems of creeping cinquefoil form a delicate narrow border, while larger sprigs of oak leaves and acorns could be imagined as infill sections for fabric or wallpaper. Peony flowers and leaves carefully spaced over a diamond grid background would have been helpful for an artist designing a repeat pattern.
Garlands of citrus fruits are shown in half-sections, the smaller fruits at the edges, gradually increasing in size towards the middle. Some of the most elaborate festoons include tools and musical instruments – in one example a gardener’s spade intersects with a watering can, while a straw basket (or maybe an upturned straw hat?) overflows with produce, celebrating the bounty of harvest.
From the middle of the 19th century photographers such as Adolphe Braun (1812 – 1877) and Charles Aubry (1811 – 1877) saw a commercial opportunity to produce still life studies of flowers as reference material for artists. Although photographs could not entirely replace living specimens, it must have been an immense advantage to be able to see forms of flowers, their leaves and the growing patterns of stems and branches throughout the year, especially in winter, when it was not possible to observe these from life. Gerlach produced a number of reference books in this genre, including plant forms, trees, examples of wrought iron and other architectural details.
Martin Gerlach (1846 – 1918) was born in Hanau, Germany and trained as an engraver. He established a jewellery business in the 1860s but this enterprise was unsuccessful. Having become interested in photography, Gerlach started a publishing house in the 1870s in Berlin which produced his reference books and a crafts magazine, Die Perle. He re-located his company to Vienna in 1872 and continued his work there, eventually publishing more than forty books about design and a series of books for children including songs, poems and fairytales.
By the end of the 19th century decorative motifs like those celebrated in Festons und Decorative Gruppen, and popular in Europe since Roman times, were soon to be swept away by new ideas and fashions associated with Modernism. Today Gerlach’s plant and vegetable festoons and garlands have almost a contemporary feel to them – it’s not hard to imagine a photographer inspired, perhaps, by carvings or plaster work in a historic house, deciding to re-create them with real materials as a post-modern photographic project. More than one hundred years after publication, this collection of images continues both to inspire and document the complex role of photography in design.
Links to source materials below:
Festons und Decorative Gruppen aus Pflanzen und Theiren – pages from the book digitized by the MK&G here
Martin Gerlach on Wikipedia here
Gerlach’s photographs are collotypes – Wikipedia definition here
The Photographer in the Garden (EastmanMuseum/Aperture) here