Sunflowers

Painting: “Girl with Sunflowers” by Michael Ancher

Sometimes a good experience, such as my walk last Friday round Bedford Park in West London, is enhanced by the smallest events. Amongst these I count: arriving at the bus stop just as the 391 bus arrived, both on the way to Chiswick High Road and back again; and discovering that I should offer sunflower hearts and seeds to the bullfinch visiting my garden.

Thomas Bulfinch was an American Latinist, banker and author of “Bulfinch’s Mythology “. In 1855 he wrote: “Our work is … for the reader of English literature, of either sex, who wishes to comprehend the allusions… which occur in polite conversation.” He explained, for instance, that “the sunflower is a favorite emblem of constancy”, with reference to the Greek myth of Clytie and Helios. Owing to the virtue that attracts the flower to the sun, the sunflower stands for the constancy of honest love that follows its object everywhere.

Bedford Park, the first Garden Suburb, was developed in the era of Aestheticism, which inhabited the shift from Victorian to Modern. Sir John Betjeman assessed it as “the most important suburb in the Western world “.

H.R. Fox Bourne edited The Bedford Park Gazette, which appeared monthly between July 1883 and July 1884, giving us a chronicle of the community’s early spirit and aims. In “The Early Community at Bedford Park”, Margaret Jones Bolsterli explains that the most outstanding example of cooperation in Bedford Park was the Bedford Park Club. She notes that at the annual Club dinner in 1882, “the worship of the sunflower” was the last toast proposed.

She also identifies Jonathan Carr, developer of the estate, and Moncure Conway, minister and journalist, as the two most influential figures in the Park. Conway suggested that when it came to choosing the interior decoration for their newly built homes, incoming residents favoured decorations by William Morris so heavily that Morris would have to build a shop near Bedford Park to handle the trade. It was Morris who popularised the sunflower motif in an Arts and Crafts context, and it can be seen on the outside of various houses in this area.

H. R. Fox Bourne appears somewhat disingenuously to have been responsible for the “Outsider” column of the Gazette. He surely stands for constancy to the community object, however, in his riposte to a correspondent who worried that “the locality would…become like Battersea, Dalston, and such compound lodger places”.

Fox Bourne wrote that if the correspondent believed correctly that “Bedford Park was meant to be an aggregation of units, holding aloof from one another on account of their “superior social position” or anything of that sort, it strikes me that the project has failed completely, and that its failure is a matter of hearty congratulation.”.

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