Thursday, July 26, 2018

A Passion for Exotic Flowers

Winterthur print featuring the ten-petaled passion flower.

A different colorway from the Victoria & Albert, 
which identifies it from designer Samuel Matley, printed in 1824.

Another stripe, this one from the Cooper Hewitt Museum's collection

European interest in exploration created a rage for exotic chintzes to decorate English rooms, one reason we see so many passion flowers in early cottons.

From Winterthur's collection.

Passiflore de Belot
The genus Passaflora has over 500 species, mostly tropical.

About 1700, Portuguese explorers found the unusual flowers in South America and seeing Christian symbolism everywhere (there was an Inquisition going on so piety may have been a requirement) they decided the plant was a metaphor for the Passion of Christ, the Crucifixion. Ignoring the native name they called it Passion Flower (Passaflora). 

R. J. Thornton, Passiflora caerulea, from the 1807 Garden of Nature

In this metaphor, the blue ring represents heaven, the ten petals represent the ten apostles (it was a reach.)

Passiflora caerulea in a print for London draper Richard Ovey
by Bannister Hall printworks. 
The Victoria & Albert captions this piece as 1802.

Ovey and Bannister Hall printed many yards of passionflower prints.

Victoria & Albert Collection
Ovey commissioned this piece printed to shape and cut into a chair cover from Bannister Hall about 1800.

Detail from a Bromley Hall print designed by William Kilburn,
attributed to about 1775 by the V & A

Bannister Hall's competitor Bromley Hall also did passion flowers.

Detail of a print credited to Bromley Hall printworks,
1816-1817 by the Cooper Hewitt.

They have another piece in a white colorway with full-chintz coloring.

Wholecloth quilt once in the McCarl Collection.

Two distinctive features of the tropical Passiflora:

1) A prominent stamen and style 
2) surrounded by rings

The center of the flower catches your eye in American quilts made before 1840 or so.

Quilt by Amelia Heiskell Lauck, 1823, Virginia,  in the collection of the DAR Museum.

Stripe in a border of a medallion quilt by the Allston family of
South Carolina, Smithsonian Institution.

Same print in an applique medallion in the collection of the International Quilt Study Center & Museum #2008.040.0019 from the Dillow Collection.

It's the rather pinkish stripe, the second last border.

The ten petals are also a characteristic but botanical accuracy was not a priority.

Two passion flower derivatives in the popular peacocks with chicks chintz.

Detail of a print in a quilt date-inscribed 1830 from dealer Pique Trouver

Some prints eliminate most of the botanical detail. This one with a fancy machine ground behind the flowers looks more like a hibiscus than a passion flower.

In the U.S. we have a hardy hibiscus called the Rose of Sharon with a prominent
stamen and five petals.

Another Smithsonian quilt. 
The light flower in the right border
looks more like a hardy hibiscus than a tropical passion flower.

This English palm tree panel includes passion flowers and hibiscus
with exotic pheasants---Asian natives.

Smithsonian quilt found in Vermont.

I have many more examples in my files of American quilts with passion flower prints than I do of British quilts. In fact my British examples are only marginally seen as passion flowers.

The Austen quilt at Chawton Cottage has far more domestic flora.

Pieced British quilt

Is it possible that most of the British prints with passion flowers and relatives were designed for the Portuguese market (the export market) and shipped to the Americas where taste was thought to favor the exotic? Yet, Richard Ovey would not have been commissioning passion flower designs for furnishings if they weren't popular in London in 1805. Perhaps the fashion became passe in the 1820s and was then thought suitable only for the foreign buyer.

Whole cloth quilt from Cindy's Antique Quilts inventory

The passion flower prints are distinctive and in American quilts probably offer us clues to a date of about 1820-1840. The sources are probably the big English printers Bromley Hall and Bannister Hall and their imitators.

Stripe described as a Portuguese print, probably English designed for export market.
Collection of the Cooper Hewitt.
See more about the Portuguese stripe style here:

Passion flower prints give us a little more insight into the fabric trade in the first half of the 19th century.  The more prints I look at carefully the more I see a division between what shows up in British quilts versus those made in the U.S. Two very different markets.

Small quilt made by Hephzibah Jenkins Townsend, Charleston, South Carolina.
Smithsonian Collection


  1. What a TREAT to find this to read this morning! Such wonderful photos and historical info!! Thanks so much.......must go back to earlier posts to see what I might have missed!

  2. Living a short distance from Jane Austen's house - the quilt is quite lovely up close, although I don't think I'll be attempting to have a go at that any time soon!
    Love the florals very much, thank you.

    PS currently having a bit of a drought here - my blue hibiscus is having the best show of blooms since we've lived here!

  3. Beautiful flowers and florals.
    Amazing prints, piecing and quilting on those old quilts.

  4. I love reading informative posts everytime!