Honeysuckle is the birth flower for the month of June. In Native American cultures the woodpecker is the spirit animal for the period of June 21 through July 21. As Europe began to explore the world beyond its borders, interest developed in the plants and animals in far off lands. The Renaissance saw the development of zoos and botanical gardens along with the sciences of zoology and biology. Artists, both women and men, were called upon to draw detailed images for publication in catalogs. Many of these artists are not well known, but their images are remarkable.
“Honeysuckle” (6”x7’’) (1935) is a colored woodcut by the English artist Mabel Allington Royds (1874-1941). It is the flower for people born in the month of June, and it represents sweetness, happiness, affection, and love. Like many women artists, Royds was popular in her time, but she did not make it into the art history lexicon. Her talents were recognized early, and she was awarded at the age of fifteen a scholarship to the Royal Academy in London. She instead chose to enroll in the equally prestigious Slade School of Art in London. Later she traveled to Paris to train with noted printmaker and painter Walter Sickert. She taught art at Havergal College in Toronto, then she relocated to Scotland in1911 to teach at the Edinburgh College of Art. At that time, she began to make color woodcuts in the style of Japanese Ukiyo-e prints. Royds married in1913, and she traveled extensively with her husband in India. Her first popular woodcuts were of people and places in India.
Royds and her husband returned to Edinburgh, and they continued to teach at the College of Art. From 1933 until 1938, she changed her subject matter to flowers. She developed her own technique, using powdered color in a readymade medium, rather than rice flour paste to support the color, as used by the Japanese. “Honeysuckle” illustrates the intense color achieved by this method. Two fully-opened honeysuckle blossoms show the unique features of the blossom. For hundreds of years, children and adults have pulled one of the yellow trumpet-shaped flowers from the center and sucked a drop of the sugary sweet nectar. The flowers have a sweet aroma that is attractive to people, bees, hummingbirds, and butterflies. The bright green leaves are paired, creating the symbol of affection and love. Honeysuckle was often found in wedding bouquets to represent happiness.
Madame Charlotte de la Tour’s The Language of Flowers (1819) was the first popular book to collect information about the symbolism of flowers from different time periods and cultures. There are two flowers for each month; June’s other flower is the rose. Numerous well-known artists have painted roses, a topic for future discussion. The Language of Flowers tells the history of honeysuckle going back to China where it was valued for its sweet nectar and beautiful flower as well as for its medicinal uses for a wide variety of ailments. It is an edible flower, and its sweet nectar is used in perfumes. In 4th Century Ireland, Druids carved a series of parallel lines on upright stones and tree trunks as a symbol of honeysuckle. The symbol was to commemorate a person, and meant one should follow one’s own path. It was intended to attract the sweetness of life. In Victorian England, planting honeysuckle by the entrance door brought good luck and stopped evil from entering.
‘Honeysuckle” (1883) (wallpaper) was one of the first designs by May Morris during her early years working for her father William Morris in his still famous Morris & Co. in England. “Honeysuckle” was one of her most successful, long-lasting, and well-selling patterns. Like the plant that grows well on trellises, the brown branches intertwine across the surface of the pattern. Light and dark green leaves appear in pairs. Morris designed the wallpaper using the most common honeysuckle vine. Each blossom lives about three days, and turns from white to yellow. The twining of the branches and flowers as they climb and cling to posts and walls symbolizes nurturing, protection, loyalty, and formation of strong bonds.
John James Audubon is the name that one thinks of when illustrations of American birds are discussed. However, “Ivory-billed Woodpecker” (1731) (etching) by Mark Catesby (1683-1749) of London is one of 220 etchings of the birds, mammals, plants, and others from his trips to America and the Bahamas in 1712 and 1722. Catesby’s etching clearly depicts the distinct characteristics of the ivory-billed woodpecker: black feathers, a notable long ivory beak, yellow eyes, a crest of red feathers on the male, a pattern of white feathers on its head, white feathers trailing down its back into the tail, and remarkable large talons made for climbing trees. Catesby has included acorns; nuts and berries are food for woodpeckers. However, his accuracy fails here, as frequently happened, when he randomly picked foliage from his many drawings of birds, plants, and other animals.
John James Audubon (1785-1851) depicts in “Red-headed Woodpecker” (1840-44) (10”x6.5’’) (lithograph) some of the characteristics of woodpeckers that are significant to their symbolism. They are committed, kind, and nurturing. Woodpeckers mate for life, and both the male and female create the nest, taking turns to peck a hole in the tree. They are considered creative because of the way they create their nest. They do not go back to the nest once it is used, leaving it for other birds to use. Other characteristics are their tenacity in making the nest, their intuition in finding insects for food hidden in trees, and their ability to balance on the bark or trees.
Their pecking, like drumming, is thought to be communication between humans and the spirit world. The brilliant red feathers of the male crest are used by shaman in their rituals. Their pecking indicates their ability to be good communicators and thus good listeners. To hear pecking is considered an awakening, an opportunity is knocking, a call to find a new path, to keep moving forward, or to seize the moment. In ancient Rome the woodpecker was sacred to Mars, the god of war, and was associated with augury. Native Americans and other cultures, such as the Chinese, consider seeing a woodpecker very good luck.
Beverly Hall Smith was a professor of art history for 40 years. Since retiring with her husband Kurt to Chestertown in 2014, she has taught art history classes at WC-ALL. She is also an artist whose work is sometimes in exhibitions at Chestertown RiverArts and she paints sets for the Garfield Center for the Arts.