Of Rabbits, Oak and the Autumn Equinox

On the Autumn Equinox, Rebecca provides us with an in-depth look at William Morris’ Brer Rabbit and the significance of oak.


Brer Rabbit (or Brother Rabbit), 1882, block printed cotton furnishing fabric, William Morris (1834-1896),
Morris and Company (Merton Abbey). Source: the Whitworth

In meteorological terms, at 14:30pm today, 22 September, we can mark the true start of Autumn, bidding the last sighs of summer goodbye with the arrival of the Autumn Equinox in the Northern Hemisphere. The equinox marks the swift onset of autumn and according to an old Irish Proverb, ‘Autumn Days come quickly, like the running of a hound on the moor.’ Yet on the first night of the equinox, the sun is directly above the earth’s equator and night and day are of equal length. After the Autumn Equinox, the sun begins to gradually rise later and nightfall quickens, so ending with shorter days and the Winter Solstice on 21 December.

William Morris’ furnishing fabric design, Brother Rabbit or Brer Rabbit from the Whitworth Collection, brings autumn to life with charm and a little bit of a contemporary twist. The title was taken from J.C. Harris’ children’s stories, ‘Uncle Remus, his Songs and Sayings’ (published 1881), which was being read by the Morris family at the time. A fine example of block printed, indigo discharge cotton. It features a mirror repeat pattern of pairs of rabbits wrapped in what appears to be scrolling oak leaf (Monrovia) and acanthus leaves facing each other along vertical stems, alternated with pairs of facing birds amidst an elaborate infill of small flowers and tiny acorn adorned oak trees. Interestingly, this particular pattern was designed in anticipation of the opening of the Merton Abbey works in 1881 (although not registered with the Patent Office Register of Designs until 1882), and eventually produced in at least three other colourways, including a red and white example. Ultimately adapted from Italian silk textiles of the 13th and 14th centuries, Morris’ use of the paired animals and birds among the fantastic autumn foliage in this design clearly illustrates his interest in medieval European textiles.

Scenes from the Life of the Virgin. Unattributed Flemish oak carving, C.1540-60. Source: the Whitworth. The history of oak is rich. It has long been the stuff of folklore as well as a practical material intertwined with our daily lives.

As summer languidly comes to an end there is a sense of time slowing, even stagnating as it stumbles into autumn. The oak tree has long been a symbol of national identity in Britain and while such seasonal changes are illustratively highlighted in Brother Rabbit, they are also brought to life with the words of James Canton who has written extensively about the seasonal changes, history and symbolic power of an ancient oak tree, the Honywood Oak, in his new book, The Oak Papers. In a recent online interview for Camden New Journal, Canton spoke of ‘the wider ecosystem of the oak, the myriad of creatures which live within the realm of the world that an ancient oak tree provides for thousands of bees, birds, insects and other living beings.’ He relishes moments when he encounters an owl, hare, deer or a heron. ‘In such moments of connection, there is a sense of time stalling, of the second hand being halted… We stay a while, transfixed by the presence of each other.’

Capable of living for up to 1,000 years, the noble oak’s slower time frame is the stuff of myth and legend. Historically, our pigs grazed the fallen acorns, we built our houses and boats from its wood and ground the acorns into flour in times of famine or hardship. This tradition is long gone, yet we remain innately connected to the land, to our arterial ancient woodland that thrives in and around our cities. Our relationship with nature and trees, such as the oak, has deep roots – perhaps buried and maybe even forgotten, but nonetheless; there to be rediscovered and held in our gaze again. A persistent set of mythologies, traditions and rituals that lives on, embedded in the ancient language of the oak. Stories of famous oak trees, such as Herne’s Oak, thrive long after the original tree has died.

Herne’s Oak, Windsor Great Park. Unattributed. Pencil on paper. C.1830? Source: the Whitworth.

The slow drip of autumn marries beautifully with an oak’s symbology and the age-old connection between mankind and nature. The quiet stealth of the equinox gives cause enough for us to momentarily slow down, tune in, still ourselves and take note of what is past and what remains to come. It’s a season of mid harvest, of gathering, of all that is summer past; a time to prepare, take stock, in readiness for winter; for all that is to come.

Resources

James Canton, The Oak Papers, (Edinburgh, 2020).

Lucy Popescu, ‘Rooting for the oak tree’, 27th August 2020 in Camden New Journal: http://camdennewjournal.com/article/rooting-for-the-oak-tree

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