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Floral and foliate patterns are common in the Turkey Red Collection. They range from naturalistic styles to abstract patterns and they were produced for both the domestic and export markets.

Flowers and their meaning

Floral and foliate designs have a long history in printed, woven and embroidered textiles. Traditional crewelwork embroideries often included ‘fanciful plant forms and trees’, which provided some of the inspiration for the chintzes imported from India in the eighteenth century. British printed cottons of the same period were typically of delicate floral sprigs, usually on a white ground emulating fine patterned muslins from India. Most ancient cultures in the east had messages, myths and folklore attached to flowers and herbs, which means that British textile printers who exported to these markets incorporated a hybrid of cultural influences in their designs, though whether the designers and production line workers were aware of the meanings abroad is unclear.

In the mid-nineteenth century there was a stress on accurate and detailed floral representation in textile design for the home market, with many designers trained in botanical drawing, and this naturalism, which incorporated some of the exotic blooms that could be viewed in public botanical gardens, was aided by innovations in fine printing technologies. Floral and foliate patterns for the Indian market, however, were more stylised because they were copied from traditional symbolism and iconography. Groups of flowers were often used to represent the female form, while lotus or jasmine flowers were seen as symbols of fertility. Full and half lotus flowers appear regularly in border designs for saris, and also in the end pieces. The stylised lotus was commonly placed alongside a pair of parrots, which represented love, with pink the usual colour. The most striking representation of a lotus, this time in blue, appears in a design produced by John Orr Ewing and Co. in the early 1880s showing a part-opened flower in the hand of Lakshmi, the Hindu goddess of wealth, fertility and wisdom.

Other floral and foliate designs without specific religious connotations were still connected with ancient traditions, such as creeping or trailing vines, which were also popular on printed textiles for the British market, sometimes naturalistic, sometimes with rococo flourishes or abstract leaves with jagged and angular edges, or represented in trellis formations. British furniture prints of the later nineteenth century, doubtless influenced by the work of iconic designers like William Morris, included easily recognized native flora, such as oak leaves and ferns, sometimes incorporating woodland birds. Roses were commonly placed in Turkey red designs for the home market, as were native blooms like the primrose, heralding spring and first love. Designs intended for or influenced by China included chrysanthemums and peonies, the former signifying good luck and the latter symbolic of nobility and peace. 

The paisley motif

Another popular design motif that can be categorised as floral is the paisley shape, which is ubiquitous throughout the National Museums Scotland Turkey Red Collection, is instantly recognized and appears in numerous forms across the globe. It is generally known as ‘paisley’ through the association with the town of Paisley and the nineteenth-century Paisley shawl industry, but what we now recognise as the paisley shape developed out of earlier patterns, though the exact evolutionary route is debated. It has been argued, for instance, that it originated in ancient Babylon and is based on a palm frond, or it may have come from the ancient Persian pinecone. By the eighteenth century it had long been used in Indian decorative art, often called buta (or boteh), which means flower, further hinting at its origins.

The elongated and swirling shapes that we recognise today became popular in Europe in the eighteenth century with the rising demand among fashionable elites for luxurious Kashmir shawls, which were then woven more cheaply in towns like Norwich and Paisley. The paisley motif is found in different forms and styles in Turkey red prints, appealing to many markets abroad and at home. It appears both as the main decorative motif, as on a sari end piece, as well as adorning other patterns. It frequently features in small filling patterns and was often used in conjunction with peacocks for the Indian market, thus combining two traditional decorative forms. Printed Turkey red shawls with paisley patterns were made for home and export to markets like Australia or North America. One beautifully drawn design on paper, which may have been intended for the Far East, shows a paisley shape incorporating carp in a fishpond. Another unites the paisley pattern with laurel leaves and Prince of Wales feathers and crown.

  • Black pineapple on red ground

    Black pineapple on red ground
  • Blue flowers on purple ground

    Blue flowers on purple ground
  • Multi-coloured chintz flowers

    Multi-coloured chintz flowers
  • Multi-coloured paisley

    Multi-coloured paisley
  • White flowers on red and pink ground with border

    White flowers on red and pink ground with border
  • Intricate flowers, interlacing lines

    Intricate flowers, interlacing lines


Next: Animals and birds >

Text © Stana Nenadic and Sally Tuckett, ‘Colouring the Nation: Styles and patterns.’

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