Patricia Francis, Curator at Gallery Oldham, on their otherworldly collection of large scale Brendel plant models
Most of our visitors love the Brendel plant models; once they’ve seen them they become entranced. They arouse our curiosity and make us want to know more.
They were made to help with the teaching of botany at a time when there weren’t the cameras and other equipment we take for granted today that help us make living plants bigger and more detailed. So they are large-scale to help us see how plants work and what makes one family of plants distinct from another. They are made absolutely correctly to scale and many come apart to show the complicated internal workings. That’s the really clever thing about them.
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Manufactured in Germany from the late 1800s to the 1920s they were made by a father and son called Robert and Reinhold Brendel who worked in Breslau and Berlin. The Brendels quickly found a niche in the market and their models became very popular in Britain. Today you may encounter them in museum and university collections across the country and beyond.
As you might expect they are now highly collectable and occasionally come up in antique sales where they fetch quite a lot of money because really, they’re exquisite artworks.
The petals are largely made from papier-mâché and then there are additions of small pieces of wood, canvas, rattan, glass beads and feathers to make the details. There are also some tiny features made with card and wool has been used to make flocking to represent hairiness. There’s a massive variety of materials used, but all are natural.
The models in the Oldham Collection were acquired in two batches in 1923 and 1928 from Flatters and Garnett in Manchester, a dealer who didn’t cease trading until 1961 and who specialised in science objects and equipment for schools, universities and museums. They were bought, together with models of insects and mushrooms, with funds from a trust established for the natural history collection by Dr James Yates who was the advocate and founder of Oldham Museum, which opened in 1883.
“They do look otherworldly. At first glance you think, what on earth are they?”
Most of the models are of United Kingdom plants, which are of course generally quite small and diminutive. They don’t have the big, exotic blooms that you think of in tropical parts of the world, but because the models are large scale they take on that façade of being something tropical.
You would find the majority of these plants growing in the wild in Britain or perhaps, like the nasturtium and the iris which aren’t native, in a garden. If you look at the willow, the oak and the hazel, they’re not standard flowers because they’re wind pollenated and therefore don’t need petals to attract insects. And then you’ve got the traditional more showy plants with petals like the poppy, which stands out most because it’s bright, bright red.
But they do look otherworldly – at first glance you think, ‘what on earth are they’?
In terms of engaging people with plants, which can be really difficult in a museum context, I think they’re great. They’re not things that people will just whizz past in the museum – they will stop and read the labels.
“Lots of flowers are really quite complex structures and with these you can explore each in detail”.
It’s so obvious using these models to show how plant families differ from each another. Botany was a big, big subject in universities and teaching when these were acquired in the 1920s – through field studies and in museums – so these models were used to show people how each plant actually works. You can take them apart and see the insides. Lots of flowers are really quite complex structures and with these you can explore each in detail.
From the historical point of view they also are a definite mark in time. The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were a heyday for natural history. There was a desire to find out more and the Brendel models were produced to help people do just that.
A lot of people were in search of knowledge and in the North West there was a definite movement of the working class, “bettering themselves” by going to evening classes. So these models would have been great in a class where everyone could see them together.
You would spend your day in the mill but then you spent your evening learning and your weekends out in the fields, collecting flowers or insects or fossils.
We don’t need to use the models now for their original purposes because we’ve got all sorts of clever gadgets and cameras that we can attach to microscopes and TVs and all the rest of it, but these come from a time when the study of science and natural science – and not just botany – was in its prime.
Patricia Francis was speaking to Richard Moss
The Brendel models are on display now and will be transferred to the redeveloped 1883 Museum building appearing in a new Discovery Area celebrating Oldham’s natural history collections.
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