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Val Scully

Your Sweetest Empire is to Please

This was the title of an art installation which took place at Gibside in the summer of 2018.  It was inspired by the life of Mary Eleanor Bowes and positioned beside her Orangery as part of the research study Mapping Contemporary Art in Heritage Experience

The artist Fiona Curran has created a giant Wardian Case from which an array of enormous, gaudily-coloured plants bursts forth in a display of exuberant defiance.  Click here to read Fiona's blog as the installation was taking shape.

In the early C18th, botany was seen as an entirely innocent study, an acceptable pursuit for a respectable lady: flowers were representative of her delicacy and virtue.  But when in 1735 Carl Linnaeus published Systema Naturae, his plant classification system which made shameless observations about the reproductive organs of plants, the atmosphere changed dramatically.

Strong reservations were expressed about the dangerous influence of botanic study on the delicate female sensibility: philosophers and moralists argued over whether botany was any longer a suitable subject for a lady.  Click here to read a summary of the debate.

The title Fiona chose for her installation, Your Sweetest Empire is to Please, is taken from a poem called To A Lady with Some Painted Flowers by Anna Laetitia Barbauld (1743 - 1825)

In her Vindication of the Rights of Women, Mary Wollstonecraft quoted the poem in its entirety, passionately objecting to Barbauld's depiction of women as delicate flowers 'born for pleasure and delight alone.'  

To read more about this, see The Cambridge Companion to Mary Wollstonecraft, edited by Claudia L. Johnson, p.153)