Dutch courage;Book of the week

15th January 1999 at 00:00
THE TULIP. By Anna Pavord. Bloomsbury pound;30

A single tulip bulb once cost as much as a town house in Amsterdam. Stephen Anderton on Anna Pavord's celebration of an irresistible flower

Would you expect a weighty, beautifully illustrated book called simply The Tulip to be a gardening book? It is not. To make sure there is no mistake, the first words on the dust jacket advise you that it is much more.

But what is it? The word "celebration" springs to mind. The Tulip is a social history and an exploration of how, over 500 years, the nations of Europe have periodically fallen for this irresistible flower hook, line and bank balance.

Anna Pavord is a self-confessed tulipomaniac as well as one of today's best writers on practical gardening. What she has produced here, from many years of research in libraries and from adventures in the baked hills of Turkey, where so many of the wild tulips grow, is a study of horticultural evolution.

In a broad sweep she takes us through the tulip's many phases of high popularity. Even non-gardeners may be familiar with the great period of Dutch tulipomania in the 1630s, when, at its lunatic and speculative peak, a single tulip bulb could cost as much as a town house in Amsterdam. But Anna Pavord has found many other periods of tulipomania almost as virulent, in the Turkish courts of the 16th and 18th centuries, in 18th-century France, and in England and Scotland in the 19th century.

Anna Pavord's readability and ear for a good anecdote never desert her, even when writing in a historical mode. How intriguing it is to hear that Ottoman sultans of the 16th century were just as guilty of ripping out thousands of bulbs from the wild for their gardens as were Western collectors of the 19th and 20th centuries. Or that 18th-century sultans imported Dutch tulips to brighten their gardens in Constantinople. Dead-heading was plainly a different process in the days when the sultan's head gardener was also his chief executioner.

Throughout the centuries the definition of a good tulip has changed, as have the rule books. Even in the 16th century, Turkish florists-in-chief had councils to judge and name the new tulips being bred, in the same way that the Royal Horticultural Society judges new plants today.

The Turks' idea of a fine tulip was one with long, needle-pointed petals which closed together at the top. In 19th-century England the ideal tulip was bowl-shaped, and bred to display its markings. Vitriolic rows raged between Scottish and English tulip growers about the exact nature and vital statistics of show-bench perfection.

From end to end the book is illustrated with all manner of things tulip - tiles and vases, plates and tapestries, marquetry, advertisements, frontispieces and sale catalogues - all showing the influence of the fashions of the day. And there are exquisite flower paintings, many from what were in effect early nursery catalogues. (A flower painting from a Dutch master could be cheaper than the most sought-after tulip bulb during the height of tulipomania.) But the real core of the book, the thing that makes tulips as compelling today as in the 19th century, is the plant's willingness suddenly to change - to produce a wonderfully striped and feathered flower, of red-on-white or purple-on-yellow, from what previously had been a single-coloured flower. Only in the 1920s was it discovered that this "breaking" was due to a virus transmitted by aphids. Until then it was a seductive mystery, and remarkably the underlying premise upon which so much financial speculation in tulip bulbs grew. Fortunes were made and lost on a greenfly's fancy.

Anna Pavord touches on how the periods of tulipomania depended on a buoyant economy, expanding colonial trade, a prosperous merchant class with money to speculate, and that novelty - a futures market. I could have wished for much more in this vein, and an explanation of the real scope and demography of the people who speculated in tulip bulbs. But in this book, finally, the tulip is the star. Its progress across Europe leads the story by the nose, leaving other fascinating doors ajar for further investigation.

Were one to look at cultural history through the development of rubber, for example, or cotton, the story might have greater economic and social resonance. But it is precisely the way in which something so insignificant as a mere flower has influenced art as well as economics that makes its story so appealing.

It is remarkable that a book on the tulip can remain compelling without taking refuge in the more immediate pleasures of the live flower and how to grow it. But Pavord pulls it off expertly.

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