Context is Everything

7 January 2021 by Julie Whyman

My first article, The Victorian Language of Flowers Nipped in the Bud looked at how our pre-occupation with the language of flowers as a tool for interpreting flowers in Pre-Raphaelite art is leading us down the garden path. How and why does that matter? Let’s take a closer look at just one example to see how “meaning” can be skewed so easily.

Edward Coley Burne-Jones, Portrait of Georgiana Burne-Jones (ca. 1883)
their children Margaret and Philip in the background, Oil on canvas, 76 x 53 cm, Private collection.

Stephen Wildman and John Christian in Edward Burne-Jones: Victorian Artist-Dreamer (1998, 260) describe Burne-Jones’s portrait of his wife Georgiana as follows:

In her hands she holds an herbal, open at an illustration of a pansy or heartsease, an actual specimen of which rests on the page.  The flower symbolizes undying love, and Georgie was to invoke this meaning again when she placed a small bunch of it in Burne-Jones’s grave when his ashes were interred at Rottingdean in 1898.

Stephen Wildman and John Christian in Edward Burne-Jones: Victorian Artist-Dreamer (1998, 260)

It is clear that Georgiana is holding an herbal. It is equally acknowledged that Gerard’s Herball was popular in Pre-Raphaelite circles and both Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Morris owned copies. If the herbal in the painting is Gerard’s Herball, as Sotheby’s auction catalogue (2010) suggests,  then it must be an abridged version, for the principal text is a considerably larger volume with four woodblock illustrations for the pansy on one page, not just the one we see in the portrait. The Burne-Jones illustration is identical to one of the four, but it was not uncommon for woodblock images to be plagiarised by other herbalists. 

Gerard’s Herball woodblock illustrations for the pansy, (854) compared to the herbal illustration in
Edward Burne-Jones’s Portrait of Georgiana.

The pansy highlighted in the portrait relates specifically to the wild pansy. An actual specimen of the flower lies between the pages of the herbal.  It is interesting that our eye is drawn to the pansy flower and not to the book upon which it rests, presumably due to its colour. From here we make the assumption that the flower is placed to point us in a particular direction – it must symbolise something and that something can only be accessed by referring to the Victorian language of flowers. But could there be any other alternatives worth exploring?

It is true that Burne-Jones was known for not just illustrating flowers, but rather wringing their secrets from them.  Contextually, it might seem perfectly reasonable to deduce that the flower symbolises “undying love” as Wildman and Christian state.  Sotheby’s auction catalogue tells us that “According to the traditional language of flowers, the heartsease (pansy) is regarded as symbolical of loving thoughts and memories, and notably of undying affection, even if with associations of sadness and loss.” However, according to the most quoted floral symbolist of the age, John Henry Ingram, the pansy’s meaning is remembrance or thoughts. The pansy’s ‘thinking of you’ epithet from the French pensées (thoughts) has become embellished over time to become undying love, fitting seamlessly into the grieving widow’s offering of purple pansies at her husband’s final farewell service. In this way, a subjective narrative is born and taken as fact.

What if we pause just for a moment and instead of commencing with the assumption that the flower must symbolise something and that this something relates to the Victorian language of flowers, what if we think about the book on which it rests, and the page highlighted?

According to Gerard’s Herball, the wild pansy differs from the garden pansy in leaf, root and branch and the flowers are of a bleak and pale colour: far inferior to the beautiful garden pansy. Jan Marsh attributes the solemnity of Georgiana’s expression “and the unflinching gaze with which she returns the artist’s inspection of her to be displaying something of the unhappiness of being the artist’s long-suffering wife, which he perhaps did not see when he was painting it“. ( 1985, 334) Is it possible, therefore, that the less than ostentatious pansy alludes to Georgiana’s demeanour, or could the flower have been chosen to reflect the simplicity of Georgiana’s faith (the flower also known as Herba Trinitatis (the Trinity Herb) in many old herbals)? 

In the recent catalogue to accompany the Tate exhibition of Edward Burne-Jones’s work, Charlotte Gere points out that Gerard’s definition of the pansy is strictly medical.  She further suggests that the herbal’s presence may have personal significance to the family.  (2018, 154) These are interesting claims, given that two of Georgiana’s three surviving children also occupy the portrait. Could the relationship between the herbal, the flower, the mother and the children be significant in this painting?  

It is widely reported that there was a marked rise in scarlet fever mortality in England and Wales in the mid-nineteenth century.  Philip (on the left of the tableau in the background) contracted the disease in the summer of 1864, shortly before his mother fell ill with the same condition.  Her illness led her to give birth prematurely to a second ill-fated son, Christopher, who died soon afterwards.  Margaret (on the right) was born in the summer of 1866, mother and oldest son having survived the ordeal.  Herbalism was commonly used in the mid-nineteenth century.  Indeed, an herbal’s primary function was to help readers to identify specimens and their specific role in alleviating symptoms of any number of ailments and diseases.  According to Gerard’s Herball, “The pansy flower is especially good for children – curing convulsions and the falling sickness, and it is commended against inflammation of the lungs and chest, and against scabs and itching of the whole body, and it heals ulcers.”  Is Georgiana being immortalised as a doting mother who used her knowledge to ease the symptoms of this potentially fatal disease, delivering her two children from childhood?  Or conversely, is this a picture of a grieving mother, thinking about how her absent child would have been part of the happy gathering if the natural medicine had worked?  The flower is also associated anecdotally with growing older and the wisdom that comes from negotiating life’s challenges.  Is Burne-Jones reflecting on the binary opposition of his progeny, full of hope and promise, and his wife in the foreground, who has experienced both the joys and disappointments of life? 

All of these possibilities, beyond the cottage garden of the Victorian language of flower idiom, add rich context to the painting. We don’t know which, if any, was intended by the artist, and besides “the meaning” of the painting as a construct is largely immaterial. What matters is that there are many other interpretations to be teased out and it is time for the garden wall erected rather precariously around the language of flowers to be dismantled.

Further reading:

Georgiana Burne-Jones, Memorials of Edward Burne-Jones (London: Macmillan, 1906), 120.

John Gerard, Herball or Generale Historie of Plantes (London: Adam Islip, Joice Norton, and Richard Whitakers, 1636), 853-54.

Charlotte Gere, “Portraits,” in Edward Burne-Jones, ed. Alison Smith (London: Tate, 2018): 147-168. Gere highlights that William Morris owned a copy of Gerard’s Herball and the woodcut illustrations inspired his pattern designing. She suggests that this herbal may have been borrowed from Morris as a tacit acknowledgment of his close friendship with Georgiana. It is, according to Gere, also a reminder of the hours spent in the studio reading aloud to her husband while he worked, a task shared by the children as soon as they were old enough.

John H. Ingram, Flora Symbolica: Or the Language and Sentiment of Flowers (London: Frederick Warne, 1869), 164.

Fiona MacCarthy, The Last Pre-Raphaelite: Edward Burne-Jones and the Victorian Imagination (London: Faber, 2011), 506.

Jan Marsh, Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood (London: Quartet Books, 1985), 334.

Stephen Wildman, John Christian et al, Edward Burne-Jones, Victorian Artist-Dreamer (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1998).

Victorian and Edwardian Masterpieces, Sotheby’s auction catalogue (2010).