The Thistle – Spiky Yet Inspirational

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.

The ‘thistle’ inspiration for different thistle motifs is a spiky plant, but not always the same one. The Scotch thistle (onopordum acanthium) is probably the one that springs to mind, but the globe thistle (echinops) pops up from time to time. Both the Scotch and globe thistles are at least in the same botanical family Asteraceae. The other thistles that are popular as design inspiration are the sea hollies (eryngiums), but they are in the family Apiaceae.

Dürer Self Portrait holding thistle
‘Portrait of the Artist Holding a Thistle’ Albrecht Dürer, 1493, at the Louvre, Paris.
Holding sea holly (eryngium).

An early example of a thistle design is a Viking silver thistle brooch dating from the early 10th century now at the British Museum.

viking silver thistle brooch
Silver thistle brooch of ball type. Viking 10th century.
Length: 511 mm Diameter: 190 mm Height: 36 mm
Weight: 678 g

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.

echinops eryngiums white hydrangea
Thistles – Globe Thistles (echinops) and Sea Holly (eryngium)
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Architectural Ornamentation – The Anthemion Motif

anthemion moti
Victorian illustration of the anthemion motif – lotus flower with palm leaf.

I always have my camera with me to snap attractive colour combinations or interesting patterns. Architectural and sculptural details are a great source of diverse ornamentation such as the anthemion motif.  The design is based on combining the lotus flower with palm leaves and has a long history of being reinterpreted and reworked over the centuries. The term ‘anthemion motif’ as a decorative expression appears to have sprung into use in the mid-nineteenth century with anthemion literally meaning ‘flower’ in Ancient Greek.

Ancient Egyptian lotus
Victorian drawing of Ancient Egyptian lotus flowers.

The Victorians were great organisers and cataloguers not only did they classify the wonders of the natural world – beetles and finches spring to mind, but they also applied their energy to sort and order the history of the human-made world. On the 15th December 1856, Owen Jones published the now famous Victorian reference guide to decoration – ‘The Grammar of Ornament’.

Ancient Greek motif
Victorian representation of Ancient Greek lotus-palmette design.

Looking through this beautiful, illustrated book of decorative details it is possible to follow the migration of the lotus-palmette motif from Ancient Egypt, through time to the Ancient Greeks and across the ancient seas giving rise to this Etruscan version currently displayed in the British Museum.

Etruscan sculptural detail
Etruscan carved stone showing the lotus-palmette design, the anthemion motif.

Now, in the 21st century we take for granted the near immediate global transmission of ideas, image, text and music on the Internet, yet there is something pleasing in knowing that we are part of a continuum of the interaction and exchange of designs.