Walking along the riverside in the winter of 2020, as I began thinking about making a wallpaper with CommonRoom, it struck me that if my walks had walls they would be papered in brambles. Brambles, blackberries or briars: the plant comes up in any patch of ground that has been left alone. We might only seek them out in autumn when it’s time to pick their sharp metallic berries, but whether we notice them or not, they’re accompanying many of our walks, commutes and errands throughout the year.
In winter, brambles’ thorny loops gleam purplish, bare of all but the scrappiest leaves, a darkly exuberant tangle that props up the collapsing remnants of other plants. New shoots get going before the year is out, propelling the season forward. By March, there is no visible beginning or end to the plant. Each stem arcs upwards as if testing gravity: the curve finds its apex, falls, re-roots, begins again. Blossom arrives in early summer, the flowers blushing pink and bearing centres of stamens as profuse as roses’ (a giveaway that they are from the same Rosaceae family). This plant lines so many of our pavements and field edges, its arching stems making a wild running stitch that tacks the country together – at least vegetatively.
I made many drawings of brambles on my walks, but quickly found that the only way to draw them is to look at a detail. Those mad arching stems can’t be contained on a single sheet of paper; they make the rectangle of a page seem absurd. But the thing about wallpaper is that it doesn’t have to stop. A wallpaper’s repeat can acknowledge the plant’s looping habit: it goes on and on, joining up with what’s gone before, silently continuous. Drawing a plant into a wallpaper can give it a different kind of time.
I became a bit obsessed with the brambles, and the fact that they crop up everywhere made it worse. But though I knew I wanted to make a bramble wallpaper, I didn’t want to use any drawing I had made from life. The plant was too untameable to be contorted into an obediently repeating pattern. I had, however, seen a drawing someone else had done a long time ago which I thought could work. It was in a 6th century manuscript, a pharmacopeia or herbal by the ancient Greek physician and botanist Dioscorides.
This manuscript is thought to be one of the first artworks we know of to have been commissioned by a woman. It was created in about 515 AD for Juliana Anicia, a Byzantine imperial princess in Constantinople. Though created as an object of great luxury, the book went on to survive many more practical uses, ending up in a hospital in the 15th century where it was used as a medical textbook, before passing into the hands of the Holy Roman Emperor in Vienna. It is now housed in the national library there, and is known as the Vienna Dioscorides.
The 6th century bramble had first flickered across my computer screen during a webinar I attended deep into the UK’s first lockdown. I’d reached out to screengrab it before the lecturer moved on to the next slide. Its sinuous thorny stems looked weirdly familiar, strikingly alive. I knew their shapes from my river-path walks; a small snapping stem on the right hand side of the drawing I had seen only a week before. It was fifteen-hundred years old, and it was contemporary.
It was also season-less. The plant in the drawing has leaves, but its main stems are wintry-bare; the tips are flowering as if it’s high summer, but as you move down the stem the flowers are replaced by autumn berries, like a time-lapse recorded in a still image. The bramble stretches upward with youthful vigour, but its lowest shoot has already rooted and begun to create a daughter plant. Everything a bramble does throughout the year is there, distilled into a single drawing. And it still seems to be in motion, reaching up to the light.
We don’t know who drew the blackberry in the Vienna Dioscorides. It is one of 383 images in that manuscript, and their variety of styles suggest that numerous artists were involved. Most – maybe all – of the images were copied from earlier drawings rather than drawn from life. Two other manuscripts of Dioscorides’ herbal, now in Naples (7th c.) and New York (10th c.), depict brambles with very similar structure and shape to the Vienna one: the same arrangement of flowering tips and rooting stems, and even the same snapping stalk at the right-hand edge. It’s now thought that all three manuscripts may have been copied from an even older book that has not survived.
The more I read about these images, the more their genealogy and growth away from an original source seemed to have a parallel with the spread of brambles themselves, and with the plant’s own ability to regenerate and multiply from a fragment of root or stem. It was as if the plant’s behaviour was suggesting the way it should be portrayed. I felt this also gave me permission to use the images as a source for my own; I would be the next in a long line of re-drawers.
In my studio I began by extracting stems from the later two manuscript drawings, cutting them out on my computer screen like some kind of digital horticulturalist, grafting new plants. I wanted to incorporate them into my drawing of the Vienna bramble, acknowledging the image’s history and reach and adding another layer of complexity. I also needed new stems to create the pattern repeat. The digital collage then became the source for my own re-drawing. Working on paper placed over the grafted stems on a lightbox, I drew in black ink with small horizontal lines, a transcribing mark, but working in negative.
My lines marked out the spaces between the stems, leaves, and flowers, rather than the plant itself, so that the bramble you see in the final design is really just the un-marked colour underneath. The horizontal marks felt like a way of drawing that paid tribute to the earlier images rather than obliterating their lines under my own.
My final wallpaper is based on Juliana Anicia’s blackberry, but with stems from later manuscripts woven in. So, the three brambles from across the centuries, now residing in libraries across continents, have entwined themselves into a thicket.