Art UK has updated its cookies policy. By using this website you are agreeing to the use of cookies. To find out more read our updated Use of Cookies policy and our updated Privacy policy.

There are tulips, roses, irises, forget-me-nots, daffodils and snake's head fritillaries among the vast array of colourful flowers on display here. Their elongated stems overlap as if they are still growing and competing for prime place in the arrangement.

A Stoneware Vase of Flowers

A Stoneware Vase of Flowers c.1607/1608

Jan Brueghel the elder (1568–1625)

The Fitzwilliam Museum

Nicknamed 'Velvet' Brueghel for his ability to paint with enviable precision and delicacy, Jan Brueghel was one of the leading flower and landscape painters of his time. He was one of the sons of Pieter Bruegel the elder, the famous painter of peasant scenes who died when Jan was young. Jan and his siblings lived with their maternal grandmother, Mayken Verhulst, a watercolour artist who most likely taught her grandchildren to paint.

Alongside the insects and cut flowers on the ledge are pieces of jewellery and loose diamonds. The vast majority of diamonds imported into Europe during the seventeenth century, especially into the Low Countries, came from India. It was once thought that this painting may have been commissioned by a diamond merchant, but it is more likely that the precious stones are there simply to dazzle the viewer. When speaking about another of his works, Brueghel said to a patron, 'under the flowers I have painted a jewel with coins, and with rare objects from the sea. It is up to you to judge whether or not flowers surpass gold and jewels.'

At a time when collectors spent enormous sums on tulip bulbs and other flora and fauna, Brueghel's highly detailed paintings were seen as a substitute for the real thing: one claimed he could imagine the flowers' scent and appreciate their everlasting colours, especially in winter.

This is one of more than 130 flower paintings in The Fitzwilliam Museum bequeathed by Henry Rogers Broughton, 2nd Lord Fairhaven. The bequest also included more than 2,500 botanical drawings, floral miniatures and watercolours by artists including Nicolas Robert, Georg Dionysius Ehret and Pierre-Joseph Redouté. This generous gift transformed the museum so that it is now recognised as having one of the most outstanding collections of botanical art in the world. Every three years, the museum curates an exhibition around this collection. The latest, 'Scent from Nature: Beauty's Botanical Origins', is open from 18th May to 29th August 2021.

Henrietta Ward, assistant keeper, paintings, drawings and prints, The Fitzwilliam Museum

A version of this article was originally published by The Guardian as part of The Great British Art Tour