Autumn scenes and stories in our collections
Savour the colourful spectacle of autumn with this selection of autumnal works of art and objects in our care.
Artists and designers have long been inspired by the changing seasons of the natural world. Autumn, with its fiery colours, abundant harvest and seasonal traditions, has led to the creation of some eye-catching works of art in our collections.
Autumn is the time when fruits, vegetables, fungi and nuts are gathered from orchards, hedgerows and fields. These fruits of nature have frequently been celebrated in painting.
Bunches of grapes, pears and leaves turning from green to red make up this autumnal still life by Eloise Stannard (1829-1914) at Greenway, Devon.
Themes of transience and natural decay are explored in Cornelis de Heem’s late 17th-century still life at Dyrham Park. Fungi and wild flora overtake an abundant floral display, as slugs and snails slide by in the foreground.
Pears, grapes and corn give this 17th-century composition at Kingston Lacy, Dorset, a distinctly autumnal feel. It’s by Dutch painter Joris van Son, who is principally known for his still lifes of fruit.
Apples and autumn leaves
Entitled ‘Still Life of Apples with Autumn Leaves and Honesty Pods’, this oil study is the work of Rosalie Chichester. A keen amateur artist and photographer, Rosalie left her home of Arlington Court, Devon, to our care in 1948.
From deer rutting to mass bird migrations, autumn has its fair share of natural spectacles and abundant wildlife to inspire artists.
With fewer leaves on the trees the bright colours of the jay are easier to spot, although you won’t see this variety in the UK. It’s a crested jay, from southeast Asia, depicted in a set of watercolours at Scotney Castle, Kent.
Squirrels spend the autumn busily collecting food. This watercolour of 1754 of a Carolina brown squirrel is by Sarah Lethieullier, Lady Fetherstonhaugh. A proficient amateur artist, Sarah's influence is still apparent in the decoration at Uppark House, West Sussex.
This scene of geese in flight is from an early 18th-century jar from Arita, Japan at Osterley House in London. The decoration on the jar is full of symbolism; here, flying geese amongst reeds represent autumn migration.
One of the most spectacular autumnal sights is that of a pair of rutting stags locking antlers. Anglesey Abbey’s exquisite silver-gilt cup, crafted by goldsmith Melchior Baier around 1600, captures the magnificence of a single stag.
A Michaelmas fox
Philip Webb’s drawing of a fox at Wightwick Manor is dated Michaelmas Day (29 September). Details include the fox with a goose in its mouth (the traditional fare for Michaelmas Day) and late summer flowers such as ragwort.
In Britain, autumn is seen as a time of abundance, when the bounty of the warm summer is harvested or foraged in preparation for the winter ahead. The season begins with the Equinox on or around 21 September and ends with the Winter Solstice on 21 December. Traditionally, one of the biggest festivals of autumn was Harvest Festival, which falls on the Sunday closest to the harvest full moon in early October and marks the end of the agricultural harvest that started on 1 August (also known as Lammas or Lughnasadh).
Agricultural customs were, until the early 20th century, central to the lives of most people who lived in the countryside, and the end of harvest in early autumn was the high point of the year. William Maw Egley’s vibrant 1860-62 painting ‘Hullo Largesse’ captures the East Anglian custom known locally as 'hallering largesse'. Just before the last corn was cut, the harvest workers would ritually holler or shout in thanks for a gift of coins, beer and beef or cake, from their employer.
The last strands of straw from the harvest were traditionally gathered and intricately woven into corn dollies. The dollies, symbolising the spirit of the corn, would then become part of the table decoration during feasts in the darker months and only discarded in the spring when new life returned to the fields.
Picture: '"Hullo Largesse", a Harvest Scene in Norfolk' by William Maw Egley (1826-1916), Scotney Castle, Kent.
In orchards throughout Britain, apples and pears are picked, fermented and turned into cider or perry. In Cornish orchards, such as those at Cotehele, it’s traditional to leave windfallen apples on the ground for the pixies. In West Cornwall at the festival of Allantide on 31 October, red Allan apples are sold, given as gifts and eaten to celebrate this feast day of St Allan.
The harvesting and foraging of autumn grains, fruits, nuts, vegetables and fungi is important to many cultures and for millennia these bounties have held symbolic significance and meaning in religion, myth, folklore, and popular culture.
From paintings and works on paper to tapestries and ceramics, these autumnal works of art are just a small selection from the more than one million objects in our care.