Pears for your heirs – planting for the future

In one of those strange moments several threads of my life came together over the Easter weekend. As a keen gardener a four day break with glorious weather was not wasted and I eventually managed to plant two pear saplings and a fig tree.

I also visited my nearest park, Christchurch Park, and popped into the beautiful Christchurch Mansions to take photographs of their 17th-century exhibits. It has been on my to-do list for a while following hearing the rerun of the brilliant recording of ‘God’s Revolution’ by Don Taylor (original broadcast back in 1988). The drama takes us through the English Civil War and as I listened I remembered how my school history lessons had completely drained me of any interest in the 17th century. I had also been left with the impression that the 17th century had been very grey, plain and practical under the influence of the Puritans. It has been a pleasure to discover that this was not the case.

Embroidery panel – Satin stitch appliqué and canvas work scattered on a satin ground. Circa 1650

Of course, skills and craftsmanship did not suddenly evaporate overnight with the Puritans and even though much religious art was destroyed or defaced by the likes of William Dowsing, plenty of interesting examples of visual culture survived the 17th century including new work created during that period. Just think of the monumental splendour of Wren’s St Paul’s. And, then we have at the other end of the scale of English creative expression, small, private handiwork such as this beautiful embroidered panel (above) dating from around 1650.

A startled or slightly comical lion was a popular motif to include. (Bottom right corner of Christchurch Mansion panel).

The full embroidery panel shows a young woman in a garden filled with images of nature. These flowers, animals, birds and insect motifs represented natural gifts from a bountiful God and were celebrated as such. The abundance of nature was a common theme for domestic pieces at this time as displaying overt religious imagery became less popular. It is interesting that the lion and leopard each have their own corner. Their placement is probably significant as it is not an uncommon arrangement, as seen below, in another similar embroidery from the mid-17th century.

Laid silk embroidery circa 1660. Image from Witney Antiques.

Also included in the embroidered menagerie of the Christchurch panel is a unicorn. According to Ruby Hodgson of the V&A, when a lion, leopard and unicorn appear together it is thought to be a reference to royalty.

Looking at the Christchurch panel the most striking representation of the abundance of nature is the pear tree laden with ripe pears in the centre of the composition. It occurred to me that as this example shows a young woman alone in her garden, that the pear tree with fruit maybe a symbol of fertility and allude to her as a potential wife and mother, especially as she stands with her hand outstretched drawing the observer’s attention to the tree.

However, it might simply have been the convention to include a fruiting pear tree as the visualisation of the 17th century English proverb, ‘Walnuts and pears you plant for your heirs’. Old English varieties of pears take years to mature before they bear fruit perhaps not fruiting during a single lifetime and therefore are grown to benefit future heirs. I know that planting avenues of trees for the future such as the famous Spanish Chestnut avenue at Croft Castle, has been a long tradition for the grand and wealthy, but ‘pears for your heirs’ is a discovery for me.

Another pear tree. Mid-17th century embroidered panel. Photo from Wilkinson Auctioneers.

And, that brings me to the third thread of my Easter Weekend, my heir, my daughter. She spent most of her four day holiday break in London moving between Waterloo Bridge, Oxford Circus and Marble Arch as part of the Extinction Rebellion civil disobedience protests. Like so many others including all kinds of folk from all generations, she wants the climate crisis at the top of the global to-do list. Since Easter the recent summary from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has highlighted even more bad news regarding human beings’ detrimental effect on biodiversity. We have become accustomed to disregarding our natural environment and it appears that since the 17th century ‘pears for your heirs’ has faded from common use and yet . . .

It is time we started planting for the future.

. . . attempting to finish on a more optimistic note, it is not just me who has been planting a tree or two, the Woodland Trust hope to plant 64 million trees over the next decade.

Author: agnesashe

Artisan, blogger and passionate East Anglian working from home.

11 thoughts on “Pears for your heirs – planting for the future”

  1. Thank you so much for a fascinating post, loved all that embroidery and your interesting comments. Congratulations to your daughter, she and her friends are doing a most important job.

    1. Thank you – I will pass on your comment to my daughter. We can only hope that governments will start to take this issue truly seriously and begin to make genuine changes.

  2. You must be so proud of your daughter. Good on them all! We planted a pear tree in our house in Sheffield. It first fruited (we spotted it later) fruiting the year after we had moved out…. And thanks for showcasing these pieces. I think handwork from this period has great charm, though had I lived then, I don’t think anything I’d worked on would have made the cut.

    1. Oh I agree with you about this type of handwork. I do love it, but I am not that patient. My mother once embroidered one of my designs for me for a dining chair seat cover. I will at some point take some pics and post about it. Sadly, I didn’t inherit her skill or patience. My mother also had her moments of getting involved with political issues and it looks like my daughter is following in her footsteps. Yes, I am proud of her and support what they are doing. Let’s hope they are taken seriously.

  3. “Pears for your heirs” – I can picture that taking root (no pun intended) in my sub-conscious, and popping out somewhere in my writing. Good on your daughter for standing up for what she believes in. We elect our next federal government in a week’s time. It’s quite laughable when our current government tries to assert they have environmental credentials.

    1. I think the expression was probably still going strong into the 19th century as planting Perry pears for a type pear ‘cider’ was popular. And, Perry pears can fruit for over 250 years! Although it isn’t directly what my daughter is researching for her PhD, she has spent part of the last two years marking one of the Earth Sciences Dept’s undergraduate climate modules and it has certainly opened her eyes. The XR movement are desperate for big changes soon – halting biodiversity loss and getting greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2025. Looking at national governments around the world it appears not one is ready to step up this challenge.

      1. I read just the other day that it is not that the majority of our current government members are climate change skeptics or deniers, but subject to the intense lobbying of industrialists and other organisations whose livelihood is threatened by any actions that would reduce their emissions. And I just read that our richest woman, Gina Rinehart, has acquired a majority shareholding in a Canadian coal field. The tentacles are wide-spread and insidious.

      2. Yes, that all sounds about right, and yet when it is pointed out, in UK anyway, that these vested interests are purely looking after themselves a whole bunch of loud voices chorus “Oo, politics of envy”. All so disheartening.

      3. We are off to the Federal polls tomorrow. Meanwhile, one of our “great” former Prime Ministers died last night. It will be a looooong night waiting for the result. Hopefully, not another hung parliament.

      4. Yes, I saw a fair amount of commentary about Bob Hawke – quite a character. I vaguely remember when he was your PM and we were enduring Margaret Thatcher. Wishing you and your fellow Australians an incident free election.

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