Saturday 18 February 2012

Growing Frustrated!


Here is Holman Hunt’s painting “Isabella and the Pot of Basil”

It was his illustration for the poem by Keats [based on a tale in Bocaccio’s Decameron] which tells the tale of a young woman whose family intend to marry her to "some high noble and his olive trees", but who falls for Lorenzo, one of her brothers' employees.

When the brothers learn of this they murder Lorenzo and bury his body. His ghost informs Isabella in a dream.

She exhumes the body and buries the head in a pot of basil which she tends obsessively, while she is pining away.

It is an amazing painting. Look at the marquetry detailing on the column, the embroidery on the cloth, and the sheen on the majolica pot – and the way her clothing drapes so beautifully, and that fabulous lush crop of green leaves waiting to be harvested for pesto sauce…HH used his wife Fanny, as the model [she was pregnant at the time and gave birth to their son a few months later. Sadly she died soon after.

I am posting the picture for two reasons – the first reason I will explain next week [but suffice it to say that Bob and I have been muttering smugly about this picture since last Monday night, and can’t understand why we’ve not seen it mentioned on Twitter yet]

The second reason is because I wish I could grow things.

But I just can’t!

I am trying so hard, I really am – but I struggle to grow the simplest things. Like cress on a flannel! I started off another batch on Monday, in the hopes of Marmite and cress sandwiches next week. But I returned from 24 hours away visiting the family down south to find this sad collection of mustard&cress seeds languishing on the windowsill.


Even three year olds in Playgroup can grow cress in the shape of their initials.

How hard can it be?

[and please don’t tell me that it was all down to Isabella’s choice of fertiliser – that is definitely not an option under consideration]

And I know you are all falling about laughing, because out in your gardens there are carrots growing away under the ground ready for hearty casseroles - and next summer, you will not know what to do with all those tomatoes which will spring from pots and grobags and ripen into luscious crimson orbs. You will write many blogposts sharing recipes for pasta sauces and tomato preservation methods.

And I’ll be astounded by your green fingers, as I am every year.

What am I doing wrong?


  1. You'll notice in Isabella's pic, bottom right-hand corner, a watering can!Basil is a thirsty plant and needs lots of water to grow...just like your little mustard and cress seeds which perhaps dried out on their flannel - try growing them on some cotton wool but make sure you keep it moist at all times.You'll soon get spurned on when you see the little green shoots emerging and pretty soon, we'll all be reading the recipes for your home-made delights!

  2. I'm not a grower...while I haven't exactly got black thumbs, they're a definite yellowish colour! We have a very spindly plant growing...everyone else's is bushy and beautiful. Ours is very odd. I might blog about it one day!

  3. well first of all this is not a good time of year to coax anything into growth because of low light levels and short day lengths. It may be that you gave them too little or too much water - they need to stay on a just-damp surface. Two very simple things you could try to grow - beansprouts and garlic greens. Google sprouting seeds for instructions - bascally soak the seed overnight, drain and rinse twice daily. The easiest ones to begin with are alfalfa - use a scant teaspoon of seed. Or take a few cloves of garlic, put them in a plant pot filled with compost(make the hole with your finger - if you just push the bulb in you will compress the compost beneath the bulb and impede root growth)with about 1/3 of the bulb still visible. Once it has produced some foliage you can snip the leaves one at a time to add to a salad for a garlic kick - beware, they are strong-tasting. Be sure to put them where there is plenty of light at this time of year and keep the compost just moist. Cold stimulates growth in garlic and onions which is why you don't keep them in your fridge, so a couple of days in the fridge may get them off to a racing start. Good luck!

  4. Hello again, Angela. I forgot to tell you that I've mentioned you over at Fat Dormouse. I've been awarded a versatile blogger award, which required me to award it to fifteen (!!!) other blogs. As so many that I read are "award free", like you, I gave up trying to pass the award on, but I mentioned your blog anyway, as one I enjoy reading. So consider yourself awarded, but without the hassle of doing anything about it!!!

  5. My basil never looks like Isabella's but I draw the line at heads as fertilizer.
    Jane x

  6. My first thought was also of pesto (basil is my favourite herb and I sing its praises every summer). My basil always grows best in the ground; it never seems to thrive as well in a pot. Think I'll skip Isabella's fertilizer.

    Mr. M grows sprouts in a special little gadget (gift from family member) that keeps them evenly moist. He only puts them in the sun for the last few hours to green them up. Perhaps you could keep your plate away from the sun and cover it with a bit of plastic wrap to hold in the moisture, then move it to the windowsill on the last day (plastic should come off at that point).

    I love the Pre-Raphaelite artists and the lush textural detail of their work. Note the little skull on the side of the pot - symbolic?

  7. The painting Isabella and the Pot of Basil is owned by Rod Stewart. He discusses it in his new autobiography.

    1. I didn't realise that. Thank you for the information - although Holman Hunt painted more than one version [making variations to the prie dieu decoration] I have seen the one in the Laing Collection.
      I am glad that there's at least one copy available for public viewing!


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