Nature and Art (Part III)

Over the last couple of weeks Fang’s series of posts on Nature and Art has explored the complex relationship between art and the natural world, starting with evolution and Gustav Klimt’s Tree of Life and continuing with British Wildlife. Today, the series concludes with Vivien’s Experience.

For more on animals and nature, have a look at the curator’s blog.

Vivien’s Experience

ex ‘Experience’, Living Worlds Gallery, Manchester Museum

According to the description of the Experience case in our Living Worlds gallery, “nature is full of beautiful things, and sometimes scary things… We all think about plants, animals and places in different ways because of our own unique experiences”.

Approaching the Experience case, we are greeted by a peacock and its background image of a beautiful lady, ‘Vivien’. The original Vivien is an oil painting by Frederick Sandys, and it is currently housed in the Manchester Art Gallery.

1.pngVivien’ by Frederick Sandys (1863), ©Manchester City Galleries


Frederick Sandys and Vivien

Frederick Sandys (1829 –1904) was an English Pre-Raphaelite painter, illustrator and draftsman, of the Victorian era. The model for the painting was Sandys’ lover, Keomi. She is portrayed as Vivien, an evil enchantress in some legends of King Arthur. Vivien’s father died in battle against King Arthur just as her mother died in giving birth to Vivien. Her hatred of the king was hidden behind her beauty. She seduced the king’s wizard, Merlin, and trapped him using magic she had learned from him – the first disaster that led to the fall of Arthur’s kingdom. Vivien represents the femme fatale, a symbol of seduction, deception and destruction.

“The ‘fatal woman’ may reflect late Victorian male fears as women campaigned for equal rights and new roles” 

(extract from the display label of ‘Vivien’ © Manchester Art Gallery).

Sandys’ Vivien is envisaged as a beautiful, self-assured, noble woman with a brooding “cold cruelty”. Besides luxurious jewels and her shawl, several symbolic elements from nature empower this expression.


Peacock: Showy charm

The backdrop to Vivien of radiating peacock feathers signifies the themes of luxury, confidence and charm.

‘Nature is full of things that people find attractive because of their patterns, shapes and colours.’

The peacock is the perfect example; an attractive creature combining all these features. People have been amazed by the stunning beauty of peacocks for thousands of years, and peacocks have been used as the basis for artistic designs in many cultures.

Peacocks are male peafowl, known for their iridescent colouration and large, extravagant “train” of feathers, the purpose of which has been extensively debated. Charles Darwin thought they were a visual attractant to females, that had evolved by sexual selection. The more recent ‘handicap theory’ of Amotz Zahavi suggested that such features were a ‘honest signal’ of male fitness, as only the stronger males could survive carrying such large and conspicuous structures.

Whichever is the case, the female peafowl, called peahens, are less colourful and choose to mate with the brightest / strongest males. The dazzling show of its “train” of feathers makes the peacock one of the most iconic bird species and spectacular wildlife sights in the world!


Follow this link to a video analysis of the mechanisms behind the display.



Left: Common Pea Fowl, Lithograph by Daniel Giraud Elliott and John Gould, c.1880 Brooklyn Museum. Right: Indian Peacock specimen from Manchester Museum (currently on display at the Vermilion, Manchester, as we reach out to connect more people with our collections).


Apple: The forbidden fruit

The apple placed in front of Vivien’s bosom may refer to the story of Adam and Eve. The apple here is likely to be a symbol for temptation and sexual seduction – the biblical ‘fall of Man into sin’. In Eden, Adam might have enjoyed sharing the apple with Eve, but there was a notion that the forbidden fruit stuck in his throat, which may be why the larynx, more prominent in men, has been called the ‘Adam’s apple’.



Top Left: a terracotta apple, currently on display on the 3rd Floor of Manchester Museum. Top Right: a bronze statue of Aphrodite with an apple in her right hand, online collection, ©Manchester Museum. Bottom: Adam-and-Eve’s Apple (Source).

Well, if somebody was tempted by the Museum’s terracotta apple, or the bronze apple in the hand of nude Aphrodite (the ancient Greek goddess of beauty, pleasure, love, and procreation), oh, no! I couldn’t image the consequences!

But you can certainly have a visual appreciation of them, and many other attractive objects that are not currently on display, by viewing the Museum’s collection online, while we’re undergoing our exciting hello future transformation.


Daphne – Fatal Bouquet

Vivien is holding in her right hand a spray of daphne. The name Daphne comes from the Greek myth in which the virginal nymph Daphne appealed to Aphrodite to save her from the lustful god Apollo, so she was turned into a laurel tree.



Top Left: Vivien’s Daphne, ‘Vivien’ by Frederick Sandys (1863), Detail, ©Manchester City. Top Right: Galleries a blooming Daphne mezereum, © Janet Cubey, (Source). Bottom Left: Herbarium specimen, 1846, Manchester Museum. Bottom Right: a jar of dried Daphne twigs, donated in 1990 by Prof. Daniel John Leech, Pharmacy Department, University of Manchester. The specimen may have been used for teaching and research on their toxic properties, and now belong to the Materia Medica collection, ©Manchester Museum.

Daphne is a genus of both deciduous and evergreen shrubs with scented flowers and colourful berries, many of which are grown in gardens as ornamental plants. However, all parts of Daphnes are poisonous, and one species, Daphne mezereum, is very toxic because of the compounds mezerein and daphnin present especially in the berries and twigs. Due to its attractive flowers, Daphne mezereum is so popular in gardens that people often forget its danger. ‘Handling the fresh twigs can cause rashes and eczema. If poisoned, victims experience a choking sensation.’  This makes Daphne the iconic charm for a femme fatale!


Poppy – Deadly Beauty

A red flower lies on the ledge in front of Vivien. Scholars (including Mancoff and Treuherz) describe it as a dried rose, implying that love had died in her heart. However, in the object description of ‘Vivien’ from the Manchester Art Gallery, it is recognised as a red poppy. To me, it is more like a poppy flower. Despite some confusion over species, Even though we might not have a definitive identification, let’s have a look at some poppy objects from our Museum collections.



Left: Opium Poppy, Papaver somniferum, (Source). Right: Jar of dried seed capsules, donated in 1990 by Prof. Daniel John Leech, Pharmacy Department, University of Manchester. The latter might have been used for teaching and research on its medicinal properties, and now belong to the Materia Medica collection, ©Manchester Museum.

Opium poppy is a variety of Papaver somniferum (literally ‘sleep-inducing’ poppy). Its opium-containing latex is present throughout the plant, but concentrated in the seed capsules. Opium contains morphine, an important chemical medicinally used in the management of severe pain, but sometimes misused, and many deaths have resulted from overdose of the narcotic morphine and its derivative heroin.

Below is its non-narcotic cousin Papaver rhoeas (common names include common poppy, corn poppy, field poppy, Flanders poppy or red poppy). This poppy is notable as an agricultural weed and as a symbol of remembrance following the First World War and other conflicts. Compared to the rose, the opium poppy might be a far better symbol of a deadly beauty, like Vivien.



Left: Common Poppy, Papaver rhoeas, Herbarium specimen (collected by the English botanist William Wilson in 1826). Right: Vintage illustration, ©Manchester Museum.


There are many other objects and displays here at the museum that explore the themes of Nature and Art, and we invite you to come and discover them and make some connections of your own!

Fang Zong

With special thanks to Henry McGhie (Head of Collections and Curator of Zoology) for his advice, support, and insights into the gallery design.

And thanks to my former colleague Lasma Poisa for her inspiring tour, ‘Art Treasures at the Manchester Museum’.


Find out More

  1. Vivien at the Manchester Art Gallery
  2. Frederick Sandys
  3. Into The Light Frederickn Sandys: Rossettis Shadow
  4. Daphne plant
  6. The poison garden
  7. Papaver Somniferum
  8. A take of two poppies (Kew)
  9. Debra N. Mancoff, The Pre-Raphaelite Language of Flowers, Prestel
  10. Julian Treuherz, Pre-Raphaelite Paintings from Manchester City Art Galleries,





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