Some plants and flowers inspire us to paint or photograph them because they colourful. They are either bold and dramatic or perhaps pale and delicate. However, other plants are more about shape and the thistle is most certainly one of these. Spiky plants lend themselves to a pared back, silhouette-like rendering. The thistle has inspired many illustrators, artists and designers over the centuries. With its barbed flowers and serrated leaves the history of the thistle motif is seen in many decorative pieces from medieval manuscripts to Elizabethan textiles to Victorian wallpaper.
An early example of a thistle design is a Viking silver thistle brooch dating from the early 10th century now at the British Museum.
The Victorian, Owen Jones, who was an architect and designer, wrote ‘The Grammar of Ornament’ (published in 1856) outlining his theory of design. In his book he and his students attempted to extract and catalogue design motifs from historical sources across the centuries and produce a reference guide for flat patterning.
The thistle becomes more extensively used for ornamentation when monks began decorating medieval manuscripts with native flora. And, of course, the thistle is now known as the emblem of Scotland since it was adopted by James III in the fifteenth century.
My recent photograph of thistles in the front garden inspired me to paint a thistle scarf or two.