Vases forhave been made in England since the middle of the eighteenth century when some of the first Wedgwood ‘bough ’ made their appearance and the Leeds factory produced wall brackets. They were not made in any great quantity, as far as we know, but there were enough to give proof that flowers or branches were cut, brought into the house and put into containers.
Two hundred years in which to perfect designs, create new shapes or copy old ones—how much has been accomplished and what are now the most attractive, suitable and widely used types of? It is an interesting question to consider when looking through one’s collection of vases, searching, perhaps, for something for a table arrangement, for a pedestal or just a small vase for a few roses. And it is interesting, too, to try to decide which is the most important factor governing the selection of a container—shape, texture, or colour.
One certain fact emerges from such research and that is the usefulness of a pedestal. By a pedestal I do not mean a tall column supporting a large vase for church decoration, but just a small base, and sometimes it is only very slight, to give extra height. Several containers which achieve this height include :
- A wicker basket with an almost exaggerated pedestal. (Flowers here would have a lift of a few inches from the base.)
- An early glass tazza which has to have a shallow bowl to hold the water. This, too, has a high pedestal. A champagne glass has a small , and a porcelain dish has short feet which give it extra height.
- An early glass bowl with a small base.
- A sauce boat produces a raised effect.
- A Wedgwood coffee jug and a wine glass in quite different’ ways give a pedestal effect and an alabaster ornament which at one time held a clock face. This latter is not a big vase, as it will take only a small shallow dish for water in the top, but what is put in it will be shown off well.
- A Staffordshire vase with the conventional pedestal of the time.
- A porcelain shell, has a small, flat base, and a Worcester cake stand also has a low, solid which gives the flowers arranged in it extra importance.
Using any of these, a certain type and shape of arrangement would be suggested by the container. The relation of the container to the flower is of paramount importance. Too many flowers in too small a vase, or too few in a big one; tall flowers in a short vase, or short ones in a tall container—all can counteract the results of time and trouble. Probably the shape is as important as the colour, although clashing colours, or dark colours with dark flowers, can equally spoil an effect, and the character of the container to suit the character of the flowers is almost as important as the shape.
In my own experience, some of the most suitable containers have been glass or porcelain jars or jugs which were never made for flowerat all. For example, old glass scent bottles and decanters make wonderful containers for tall sprays of flowers or for slender branches, the narrow neck giving excellent support where it is most needed. A tea-pot which may have lost its lid over the years and be difficult to fit with another one, can have a new usefulness in life as a container for flowers. A porcelain cake stand with a round painted cake tin to hold the water is one of the most successful containers to use for spreading , particularly for the table. Old sauce boats and gravy dishes are interesting to use with flowers, and an early porcelain soup tureen is one of my favourites for a big arrangement. I’ve also enjoyed doing flowers in an early glass bell jar—originally intended to hold a candle—and a Dutch glass decanter is another special favourite. My own miscellaneous collection of containers includes baskets, painted cake tins, cake stands, little bits of Victorian nonsense, early scent bottles, a fantastic Victorian shell in porcelain, a large genuine shell, and an ebony jardinière inlaid with brass. None of these was initially intended for flower arrangement, but happened to be the right texture, colour, and shape for certain occasions and certain flowers.
It is not necessary for these rather interesting types of containers to be expensive. Most of my own have been found—after some searching, it’s true—in secondhand shops or on market stalls.
In compensation for the growing shortage of antique containers there is much good contemporary material that is being produced at very reasonable prices. Every possible kind of taste is catered for, both in containers and in holders for flowers. To many people these holders are as important as the containers, and they appear in great variety. There are heavy glass ones with holes in them, there are flat pads with needle-like points sticking up from them made of metal and rubber, and there are wire ones made in a double framework rather like a small two layered toasting tray, only circular. My usual method of securing flowers is to use a piece of large mesh wire netting crumpled up into three layers.
The Wedgwood factory is producing sonic containers of excellent shapes and colours, some of them plain and others decorated in the style of the original jasper ware. They are very reasonably priced and would fit well into almost any furnishing scheme. The Wedgwood factory have had, among others, Anna Zinkeisen and John Skeaping modelling for them.
George Monro & Co., of Covent Garden, have lately introduced a series of bowls and containers for plants and flowers, the plainer ones of which are suitable for contemporary settings.
The work of Stephen Sykes is well known for its originality and particular application to plants. Fritz Lampe designs glass containers suitable to hold only one or two flowers—an encouraging idea from the point of view of arrangement when so many vases are made to hold far too many. Lucie Rie, working with Hans Coper, produces pottery and stoneware which are described as ‘original, sometimes bold and striking, sometimes delicate, with a graceful application to use’.
Constance Spry has a comprehensive range of all shapes and sizes of containers produced for the most part in white. (These can then be dyed in softgreens, apricots, greys and dirty mauves if required.) A very lovely chalice shape comes in a dark aubergine colour.
In the Italian magazine Domus there were photographs of the work of Ettore Sottsassjun. He has made many experiments with plexiglass and brass wire, and is one of the few designers who express a free and contemporary feeling for flower holders.
The Rosenthal Porcelain Company have called in well known American and European designers and have held interesting exhibitions of porcelain, including unusual contemporary flower containers. When selecting a container it is well to remember whereabouts it is to go in one’s room, the comparative heights of the objects near to it, and, of course, the colouring most suitable to the furnishings.
It is the greatest help to have one ‘foolproof’ vase. I like to describe it like that, because if it is a favourite vase that is almost what it finally becomes. It is selected because it is a good, easy shape in which to arrange. It is a vase which will hold a reasonable number of flowers, but does not look ridiculous with a smaller quantity. It becomes the vase which one uses most frequently and which, in time, one can almost arrange with one’s eyes shut. The flowers usually look graceful in it, and the colour—most important—will go with anything.
Once such a vase has been selected, installed and become a favourite one, then any others which are collected are useful, or fun to use, or specially good for branches, or better still for dried arrangements; but none of them is as necessary or as dependable as this particular one. This is not in any way to minimise the delight one can have in trying out different containers, or in finding exciting vases or bowls which may only be suitable for certain occasions or flowers—a friend of mine brings out of her porcelain cupboard a special treasure which is only used for Christmas roses, as it suits them so perfectly. Experimenting with kitchen dishes, baking tins, and different types of baskets can all be most stimulating, and the more variety one can have, the more chance of trying out new ideas there will be.
Design can be varied within the same shape of container. A flat dish can provide a base for two or three large flowers with foliage, or it may be used quite differently for a cluster of smaller flowers. This contrast of outline gives many opportunities for trying out various sizes and types of flowers, although the general shape of the container remains the same.
A further variation is obtained by using containers made of different materials. Sometimes a plain white porcelain one will give the desired effect, sometimes glass is the answer, and sometimes wood. Copper often provides a suitable background, especially with bronze and yellow coloured flowers such as nasturtiums, dahlias, and; and old Bristol glass, if it can be tracked down, in its inimitable deep blue, makes a satisfying colour scheme with the crimson and cerise found in certain zinnias.
A great deal can be done to enhance the effect of a handful of flowers by setting them off in a good contrasting colour: blue and orange crocus in a small black jug, or bright yellow mimosa in a yellow glass vase, or the clear red of ranunculas against the rather deep green of a Wedgwood dish.
It seems to me well worthwhile—and not necessarily extravagant—to select a container suitable only for certain colours if the vase is attractive in itself. It is stimulating to think out something new to go well with it, and you may discover material that you had not thought of using before. An example of this was a sauce boat, or gravy dish, in cream porcelain with a decoration round the brim and round the base in brown and yellow. This might reasonably be considered restricting, but in fact this dish looked enchanting with Mermaid roses and bronze Korean chrysanthemums in the autumn, and in the summer it was well suited to buttercups, creamy-yellow honeysuckle, and sprays of Rosa hugonis.
This is an obvious case of the container dictating not only the shape of the arrangement but also the colour.
Now let us stake the claims of a white vase. Apart from taking any coloured flowers, including white, it will fit in with almost any surroundings and look just as good either with soft colours or strong ones.
A favourite arrangement combines grey foliage with white flowers, such as Santolina maritima, orlaxifolius with sprigs of white sweet rocket (cut quite short) or white bluebells, or sprays of the floribunda rose Prosperity or one or two clear white, golden centred marguerites cut very short. White would be especially lovely.
On the other hand bright colours show well against a white vase : a mixed bunch of clear red, yellow freesias or wallflowers, mist blue grape or one or two deep purple anemones, and a small cluster of primroses and violets would all bring colour, which may be spread out in the garden, with concentrated effect into the house. Almost any roses look attractive in a white vase. The softer tones of aquilegia, love-in-a-mist, and mignonette, will show equally as well against a white vase as the deeper jewel colours of wallflowers, antirrhinums and zinnias.
It is well known that white introduced into a mixed group acts as an interval between colours that might otherwise clash. A white vase has the same effect.
Then there is the question of whether containers should be transparent or not. If they are of porcelain obviously the stalks will not be seen. Sometimes this is a good thing, but at times a glass container becomes an important factor in an arrangement. This is especially the case with some of the spurges, whose lowerhave a fascinating escalator like formation, as do also some kinds of veronica. However, an advantage of porcelain is that if the water is discoloured it will not show, whereas with glass it may have to be changed instead of just being topped up from time to time.
A practical point about cleaning a decanter or narrow-necked glass bottle might, perhaps, be helpful, for such a container may present something of a problem unless one is familiar with it. I use newspaper or stiff tissue paper—soft paper tissues are too soft and crumple up too quickly—either pulled into small pieces or left in long, tight rolls and pushed gently into the bottle when it is three quarters full of water. The paper should be allowed to stand in the water for an hour or so, and then the bottle should be shaken firmly and the water swished round and round. Sometimes gritty sand is recommended or cold tea leaves. In every case it is essential to have the glass only three parts filled with water so that whatever is used will produce friction. Too much water prevents this happening.
The mention of cleanliness of glass, of course, applies to all other textures of containers. Most porcelain vases, for instance,—unless they are badly cracked or have been repaired with a kind of glue which will not stand up to heat—are all the better for an occasional complete soaking in really hot soapy water. Brass, copper, and silver containers must be kept bright and shining and cornucopias, on account of their narrowing shape, should frequently have a good rinsing out, preferably under a running tap. (Vases for large arrangements, for use usually on special occasions, such as weddings, receptions, etc. are mentioned elsewhere.)
Reverting again to the question of the suggestion of a shape being made by the container, it is interesting to notice the different types of vases and containers selected by different schools of flower arrangement, perhaps in different countries. In the Far East many baskets are used, some of them hanging, made out of bamboo. Other containers suspended from the ceiling may be constructed from bronze, to provide an opportunity for using curving branches as a decoration. Sometimes a vessel is made from a gourd or a lobster basket, or the flowers are arranged on a flat antique mirror. This may be raised up on a low platform called a `Kwadai’ or `Shiki-its’, to give extra importance and height. Then there is the use of a shallow dish where an expanse of water is left clear so that the flowers or foliage look as if they are growing out of it.
American arrangements may be dependent on small ornaments (often figures), a swathe of curtain material or a cluster of fruit. The use of wall brackets is popular and their value appreciated for parties or special occasions. Dried arrangements are sometimes composed round a suitable piece of bark and may stand on another. Pedestals are valued for the additional height they will give and quite smallsometimes stand on a plinth or specially constructed base.
This also applies to many Australian arrangements and, again, there is emphasis on the use of fruit and accessories.