Day 3 – Sir Nathaniel Bacon, Cookmaid with Still Life of Vegetables and Fruit, probably 1620s, Tate Britain, London.
Originally posted on 21 March 2020
So what, I hear you ask, is the best cabbage in art (see #POTD 1)? Well, one of you asked, so thank you Sarah! I have two nominations, but I’m going to cut to the chase and give the award to Sir Nathaniel Bacon, for his ‘Cookmaid with Still Life of Vegetables and Fruit’ @Tate #Britain, probably painted in the first half of the 1620s. I admire these plants for their sheer size, and for the loving attention to detail with which Bacon has painted them, for their subtle variations of colour and tone, with a soft sheen on the inner, lighter, suppler leaves, and the clarity of the ribs giving architectural support to the darker, firmer – if a little frayed – outer ones. They may well have been grown by Sir Nathaniel himself: he came from a family of gardening aristocrats, the most famous of whom was his uncle, statesman and philosopher Sir Francis Bacon, whose essay ‘Of Gardens’, written in 1625, was one of the first on the subject.
There are three of these behemoth brassicas, each of which seems to have a life and character of its own. The one on the left seems to be eyeing up the Cookmaid, almost licking its leaves, puckering up like Audrey II in ‘The Little Shop of Horrors’, preparing to devour her. Indeed, one of its leaves, framed by a fence in the background, reaches past the end of the wall like the extended hand of Michelangelo’s God the Father on the Sistine Ceiling, about to give life to the Cookmaid’s melon. And yes, she is inordinately proud of her melons. Despite his name, Bacon has painted an entirely vegetarian image, but even so there is a lot of flesh on display. This is a painting of burgeoning fecundity, richness and plenty, with rampant root vegetables, tumescent squash, and bulging pumpkins.
In the background we can just pick out the kitchen garden, growing an entire army of enormous cabbages. There is also a couple in conversation – it could even be towards them that the stray leaf is pointing. Bacon painted them after the background, and they have worn a little thin, so it’s hard to see what is going on. I really can’t work out what the woman is holding, but the man has a basket on his back containing the most enormous carrots. I suspect he has approached her because he wants to give her one.
Looked at in this way you could divide the whole painting into male and female. There is nothing scientific about this division, it should be said, but that’s how the objects appear, how they are grouped in the painting. On the left, the richly-coloured and feminine flowers and fruits, with the Cookmaid as ‘Best in Show’, face up to the man-spreading, muscular vegetables on the right, with each side displayed to perfection against the background of a wall. The space between them opens up to the garden, and keeps the two sides frustratingly apart, a leaf nestling cherries and plums on a basket of beans being the only point of communication.
It is a display vegetable abundance, yes, but also of artistic skill. Bacon is showing off his ability to depict different colours, shapes and textures – just look at those beans, bursting with vitality and goodness, not to mention the bloom of the plums, and the intricacy of the basket itself. He was a remarkable, but unusual, artist, a self-taught aristocrat, as we learn from the inscription on his funeral monument in Suffolk:
“Look Traveller, this is the monument of Nathaniel Bacon, A Knight of the Bath, whom, when experience and observation had made him most knowledgeable in the history of plants, astonishingly Nature alone taught him through his experiments with the brush to conquer Nature by Art. You have seen enough. Farewell.”
And the moral is…? I hate to think. But you’ll be hard pressed to find a display like this in your local supermarket now. Perhaps we should all get gardening in case it goes on longer than we think.
p.s. If you haven’t ‘seen enough’, you should read this fascinating blog post from The Gardens’ Trust about Sir Nathaniel, his family, his plants and his paintings: