One January day the wordsmith came by bringing me “A Shakespearean Botanical,” a beautiful little volume by Margaret Willes. In it woodcut illustrations from the 1597 herbal by John Gerard accompany quotations from Shakespeare. Willes also includes bits about the medical and cooking uses of plants and gardening in Tudor England. She mentions a new theory that Gerard and Shakespeare were friends, certainly they were contemporaries.
Willes has much respect for Shakespeare’s familiarity with plants, and she’s plucked lines from the plays containing familiar names – rosemary, roses, and rue – and less familiar, long purples and mandrake.
Many criticize Gerard’s illustrations for inaccuracy (they are copies of copies of woodcuts from continental sources), but in this lovely volume they are regular and rhythmic illustrations. Willes uses the copy owned by the Bodelian Library as source material, and notes that perhaps because of copper in the pigments, colors in leaves have sometimes turned from green to turquoise.
Looking at these five hundred year-old woodcuts I think of the flowers that remain the same – violets and the tiny daisies in our scrubby lawn. But also I think about the changed nature of others like primroses, colorful offerings outside the grocery store this time of year.
So Gerard’s illustrations will be my starting point for February days with a line (or more specifically brushstroke). In the tradition of medieval woodcut artists, I’ll copy – not for accuracy but to see where it takes me.