The both precise and accurate depiction of the plants in this picture points toward a painter with considerable aptitude as a botanical draughtsman. It is distinguished by its negotiation of the diagrammatic and the naturalistic modes. The arrangement of the plants in separate, distinct zones across three registers recalls the arrangement of plants in early engraved illustrations to scientific texts; one could think away the setting and imagine the work as an engraved plate. On the other hand, the close attention to detail of colour, chiaroscuro and modelling - for example, the skillful rendition of the projecting leaves of the thistle - and the determination to set the botanical subject in a convincing setting (the terraced mound) draws closer to a still-life aesthetic. The picture thus caters both to an Enlightenment thirst for accurate factual information about the structure and appearance of plants, as well as to an aesthetic appreciation of their visual beauty.
The double hyacinth depicted in this work was not generally cultivated until 1708, suggesting this year as a terminus post quem for the date of the picture. The tendency to place plants in a convincing setting grew throughout the eighteenth century, and can be observed in the work of artists such as Pieter Snyers (1681-1752) and Aert Schoumann (1710-1792) (see D. Scarse, Flower Drawings, Cambridge, 1997, p. 40). An attribution to Philip Reinagle (1749-1833) has been suggested on the basis of photographs - best known for his sporting pictures, Reinagle was also an observant painter of plants, for example in his work for Houghton Hall, commissioned shortly after 1778. Toward the end of the century Reinagle painted a number of oils to serve as models for the coloured plates produced for R. Thornton's celebrated botanical album The Temple of Flora (1799-1807). As with the present work, these oils are marked by sharing a dark background and the persistent suggestion of a landscape setting; one of the most striking examples is Reinagle's Lilium superbum, now in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge [fig. 1].
Roger Warner purchased the present picture in 1956 from a sale at Hidcote Manor, noting that 'This picture and another very fine Italian flower piece with a light blue background were sold together as one Lot, and bought by me against Vyse Milliard with money I had just received from him for a pair of Chippendale carved giltwood mirrors ! He later told me he would have bought the pictures if he had not been feeling so hard up that day !'
In 1907, Lawrence Johnston's mother, Mrs. Gertrude Winthrop, bought the Hidcote Manor Estate. Johnston came to live at Hidcote and spent 41 years creating what would become one of England's most influential 20th-century gardens. The garden was developed in the fashionable Arts & Crafts style: a series of outdoor 'rooms' offering surprises and discoveries at each turn. Lawrence Johnston was also an accomplished plantsman securing rare and exotic species by sponsoring and taking part in plant hunting expeditions. The expeditions introduced over 40 new plants to cultivation in the UK, many of which bear Johnston's name.