The primroses are out in splendid fashion this year – two severe blasts of snow appear not to have cramped their style (let’s see what the third, allegedly due later this week, will do). Quintessentially plants of woodland and hedgerow, they seem to be remarkable adaptable, and will grown anywhere that isn’t too dry: which means that the damp problem in my back wall must be worse that I thought, as one is flourishing in the cement just under the doorstep…
The primrose is part of the family Primulaceae, which includes the androsace and (perhaps more surprisingly) the cyclamen. It is native over most of Europe, as well as North Africa and the Middle East, and was given its binomial, Primula vulgaris (which Linnaeus adopted), by William Hudson (c.1730–93). Born in Kendal, where his father kept the White Lion inn, he was sent as an apprentice to a London apothecary, and won the Apothecaries’ Company prize for botany, a copy of John Ray’s Synopsis (as did his near contemporary William Watson).
Hudson spent some time in 1757–8 as a sub-librarian of the British Museum, where he appears to have studied Sir Hans Sloane’s herbarium, and in 1762 he published the first edition of his Flora Anglica, which both Sir J.E. Smith and Richard Pulteney regarded as having established the principles of Linnaeus in Britain. While continuing to work as an apothecary, he also held the post of Praefectus Horti at the Chelsea Physic Garden, while producing an enlarged second edition of the Flora in 1778 (a third was produced posthumously in 1798).
A major disaster occurred in 1783, when a fire at his home destroyed most of his collections, including the material he had assembled for a planned Fauna Britannica. He joined the Linnean Society in 1791, and died in 1793 of a paralysis, being buried at St James’s, Piccadilly, just round the corner from Jermyn Street, where he had lived in his last years. He left what remained of his herbarium to the Apothecaries: some specimens remain at Kew and in the Natural History Museum.
Given that the primrose is a native European plant, it is curious that it does not often appear in art before the early modern period. Roses, strawberries, violets, pinks, snowdrops, poppies, cornflowers, all abound in medieval manuscripts, but there are very few primroses. This plant is from the amazing Grandes Heures d’Anne de Bretagne, in the Bibliothèque Nationale, part of a sequence of flowers throughout the work, but it is a bit stylised to fit the rectangular format, with the stems too long.
I wondered vaguely if the reason primroses don’t occur very much is because the background colour on which they are painted – either the vellum itself or a painted panel – is frequently a yellowish tone against which the delicate colour of the flowers would not really stand out?
John Parkinson has a list of seven types of primroses (which he calls Primula veris, while cowslips are Paralysis): the single white primrose, the single green primrose, the single green and white primrose, the double green primrose, Master Hesket’s double primrose, the ordinary double primrose, and the small double primrose. (I’m frustrated at not being able to find out who Master Hesket was, but odd hints suggest he may have been proverbial rather than actual?)
The ready ability of primroses to hybridise (which has led to apparently ‘natural’ colour variations, as captured in this image by Redouté) presumably gave rise to these varieties.
In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, a sport arising in both primroses and cowslips produced a petal-like calyx which looked like a second row of petals: they were called ‘hose-in-hose’ after the male fashion for wearing two sets of stockings in two different colours, one over the other, but with both colour visible. (Horribly uncomfortable, one would think, even with silk, never mind wool.)
There is a lovely page of spring flowers including primroses in the watercolour album Simulacrum Scenographicum Celeberrimi Horti Itzsteinensis painted by Johann Jakob Walther (the artist, not the musician) between 1650 and 1670 to show the plants collected by Count Johann of Nassau-Idstein. (Idstein is in Hesse-Darmstadt, Germany.
Two versions of the album survive, one in London and one in Paris; a third, formerly in the Darmstadt Landesbibliothek, was destroyed during the Second World War.)
In the great age of botanical illustration, Maria Sibylla Merian leads the way (as so often) with this lovely pageful, showing various colours of primroses, primulas and polyanthus:
Primrose sellers (bringing the country into the city) were a subject of Francis Wheatley’s Cries of London sequence painted between 1792 and 1795, and were later transmogified into lavender sellers for the benefit of Yardley, the perfumier.
In the nineteenth century, primroses were often the symbol of innocence in a rather sentimental genre of paintings, of which this example by David Fulton (1848–1930) is a good example.
Meanwhile, on the scientific front, I have mentioned before that Professor John Henslow was the first botanist to record the two types of primrose flower, the so-called ‘pins and thrums’; primroses collected by him feature in the Cambridge University Botanic Garden’s herbarium collection.
The quantities of primrose-like hybrids must today run into the thousands, but like so many other flowers, especially in springtime (snowdrops, narcissi…), there is really nothing to beat the uncomplicated, unspectacular, un-double, primrose-coloured originals.