The present watercolour is the earliest known dated work by Marshal, the only English florilegist in the 17th century. In the recently published book on Marshal's florilegium in the Royal Library at Windsor Henrietta McBurney writes: 'it is the only significant extant representative of native botanical art in England in the 17th century' (P. Leith-Ross, op. cit., p. 28). The only surviving works by Marshal, the whereabouts of which are known, are The Windsor Florilegium, containing 159 folios, a group of 33 watercolours in the British Museum, the present watercolour and as few as eleven other works, including one still-life in the Yale Center for British Art (see M. Cormack, A Concise Catalogue of Paintings in the Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, 1985, p. 154)
The hand-painted florilegium or flower-book was developed towards the end of the 16th century when flowers were first cultivated for their beauty rather than for their utility and the phenomenon reached its highest popularity in the 17th century. Wilfred Blunt and William T. Stearn count Marshal among the finest of the early florilegists, mentioning with him the German artists J. Walther and J. Simula and the Dutch painter J. Camerarius (see W. Blunt and W.T. Stearn, The Art of Botanical Illustration, London, 1994, p. 330). In the 17th century foreign artists were most highly regarded and it was thus a huge compliment for Marshal to have been described as one of 'Our Modern Masters comparable with any now beyond the Seas' (W. Sanderson, Graphice, London, 1658, p. 20).
Marshal lived in South Lambeth in the 1640s and painted a florilegium on vellum of the plants in the garden of his landlord John Tradescant the Younger (1608-1662), the present whereabouts of which is unknown. The watercolours in the British Museum and the present still-life are all thought to date from this period.
Marshal is also known for his copies after contemporary artists such as Sir Anthony Van Dyck. It was particularly the Dutch masters that influenced his work and he is thought to have known J.B. Gaspars who lived in Lambeth at the same time as Marshal. The dark background of this watercolour and the oil painting at Yale are examples of this debt to Dutch painting. It has however been suggested that the background of the present watercolour was added at a later date. Marshal spent the early part of his life in France and he was probably familiar with the work of Nicholas Robert (1614-1685) who worked for the French royal family on the Vélins du Roi in Paris. The watercolours in the British Museum are very much in the style of Robert.
Dr Robert Freind, Marshal's nephew and headmaster of Westminster school, inherited much of Marshal's property and then bequeathed it to his son Dr William Freind, Dean of Canterbury. Freind's effects were sold at Christie's on 25 April 1777 and it is from this catalogue that we glean the most information about Marshal's oeuvre.
Not only was Marshal a talented botanical artist and horticulturist but he also had a reputation during his life-time as a great entomologist. In addition he was known for his research and experimentation into pigments from minerals and plants.
For watercolour studies of the plants in the present still-life see P. Leith-Ross, op. cit., nos. 93, 112 and 118.