The Victorian Language of Flowers Nipped in the Bud

3 January 2021 by Julie Whyman

What is it about the Victorian language of flowers that elevates it as the go-to resource when we want to decode flowers in artwork of the period? Following Sarah Phelps Smith’s PhD dissertation “Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Flower Imagery and the Meaning of Flowers in His Painting” (University of Pittsburg, 1978) art historians tend to accept that it is possible to read Pre-Raphaelite flowers as clearly as a sonnet on the frame.

The bowl of sprightly, yet tight-lipped crocus (Cheerfulness) in John Everett Millais’s Trust Me must reflect the duplicitous behaviour of the mistress of the house.  

John Everett Millais Trust Me (1862) Oil on canvas, 112 x 80cm, Private collection.

The pink azaleas (Temperance) in James Whistler’s Symphony in White, No 2: The Little White Girl  commend moral fortitude in the face of orientalist temptation.  

James Whistler, Symphony in White, No 2: The Little White Girl (1864), Oil on canvas, 76 x 51cm, Tate. NO.3418

The weeds in the street hawker’s basket issue a salutary warning to heed the rural poor in Ford Madox Brown’s Work.  

Ford Madox Brown, Work (1852-63), Oil on canvas, 137 x 198cm, Manchester Art Gallery.

Given the possibility that an appearance of a particular flower in a Victorian painting means something, the quest to determine definitive meaning is relentless and uncompromising.

Here are five reasons why this compulsion is leading us well and truly down the garden path:

1. Its Origins

The Victorian language of flowers was never designed to facilitate art historical interpretation. Instead, this unspoken form of indistinct communication had its genesis in frivolous courtship with Eastern promise. Mme Louise Cortambert, writing under the pseudonym of Mme Charlotte de Latour, is credited with being one of the first to immortalise this spurious form of exchange in print with her Le Langage des Fleurs (1820). In this ludic volume she outlines the main principles de notre mystérieux langage, l’amour et l’amitié, assigning meaning to flowers, while further manipulating meaning according to whether the flower was in bud, had thorns, possessed leaves, or was placed on a particular body part.  

For example, according to de Latour, a rosebud with its thorns and leaves denoted “I fear, but I am in hope.” Stripped of its thorns, it suggested “there is everything to hope for,” while stripped of its leaves it indicated “there is everything to fear.”  It was also possible to vary expression by placing flowers on different parts of the body.  She gives the example of marigold, which if placed upon the head signifies peine d’esprit (spiritual malady), on the heart peine d’amour (love sickness), and on the chest ennui (boredom).  Whereas, if held on the right side of the body, the flower indicates the bearer; on the left, the object of one’s affection.

This “language” is deemed to have become a socially acceptable symbolic language used to communicate romantic aspirations between (what we like to think of as) sexually-repressed Victorian courting couples. However, instead of a universal symbolic language, the language of flowers was a haphazard collection of vocabulary lists which, at best, were inconsistent.

2. Its Credibility

Even what is considered to be the most complete floriographic work published in England,  John H. Ingram’s Flora Symbolica: Or the Language and Sentiment of Flowers, received a less than effusive reception when it was first published in 1869, for:

The language of flowers is extremely pretty and pleasant, if only you can learn it perfectly; but, like other languages, if you bungle at it you render yourself painfully ridiculous.  And you may easily bungle at it, in spite of the most praiseworthy industry and application, simply because it does not appear to be a fixed language.

Athenaeum, Book Review, no. 2198, 11 December 1869, 770-771
Flora symbolica; or, The language and sentiment of flowers. Including floral poetry, original and selected
by John Henry Ingram (1842-1916). First published 1869.

The Athenaeum literary critic reviewing Ingram’s Flora Symbolica succinctly highlights why the language of flowers is unreliable – firstly, we have to apply ourselves to learn the language (which might differ according to the volume to which we refer) and secondly, even within one volume, definition is often mutable.  To demonstrate the dilemma, the writer goes on to present typical faux pas:

We began by plucking and presenting with a desponding and dejected aspect a fine Tulip, which our pretty little book had noted as a symbol of “hopeless love.”  This Miss Mary received with a delighted smile – at that time to us most perplexing, but we now see the reason; for Mr Ingram tells us that the tulip means “a declaration of love.”  Next, in our simplicity we presented a sprig of Clematis, but alas!  We now find that this signified “artifice.”  We then tried a bit of Geranium, but how malapropos was this; for it means, according to Mr Ingram, “deceit.”  

A magnificent Dahlia was at hand, and we plucked it, and confidently handed it to Mary, little suspecting that it signified “instability.” Evidently, we were not signalling aright to Mary’s lovely mind, but we felt sure we could make no mistake in indicating to her that we despaired of her remembrance, and dreaded her obliviousness, when we offered a Scarlet Poppy; but this, however, was the unluckiest of all our floral presents, for it appears in the present work to symbolize “fantastic extravagance.”

Athenaeum, Book Review, 771

The language of flowers is simply not credible as there is no guarantee that misinterpretation can be avoided.

3.  Its Veracity

Although these floriographic texts pay some deference to age-old emblematic connotations – the red rose equating to passion, the white rose, to innocence, for example –  by Ingram’s own admission, he was not always the most fastidious in his research.  Despite claiming to have “thoroughly sifted, condensed, and augmented the productions of his predecessors,” Ingram readily accepts that he made use of “numerous anecdotes, legends and poetical allusions,” travelling into “shadowy obscurity as far back as the ancient Greeks.” The Athenaeum responded critically:

for if you gallantly present your Mary with a Calceolaria, you intimate either “I offer you my fortune,” – which no doubt she will instantly accept, – or “I offer you pecuniary aid,” which she will doubtless indignantly reject.  Should you present her with the Garden Daisy, you florally announce “I share your sentiments”; but pray avoid the Wild Daisy, which only means “I will think of it.”  Not only must you distinguish between different daisies, but also between differently coloured roses.  With the White Rose you mean to say, “I am worthy of you,” if the flower be fresh; but take heed that it is not withered, in which state it indicates “transient impression.”  The Austrian Rose is very appropriate, as it signifies “Thou are all that is lovely,” and nothing could make a deeper impression on Mary’s lovely mind; but pray do not mistake by offering the Japan Rose, which says “Beauty is your only attraction.”  Give her a Christmas Rose, and you petition thereby “Tranquillize my anxiety.”  Should she only return you a leaf from the same, she in effect says, “You may hope.”  But beware of the Musk Rose, which, though you might naturally presume it to be a very suitable offering, really intimates “Capricious beauty.”

Athenaeum, Book Review, 771.

This ludic review prompted further derision, for two weeks later, on Christmas Day, the Athenaeum published the following complaint: 

 Mr Ingram, the author of Flora Symbolica, writes to us about what he calls our “facetious review” of his book, but he does not send us the expected botanical symbol of “I feel my obligations,” which would have gratified us more than the date of his birth.  He explains that he did not write all the title-page, nor all the matter of his volume – “The vocabulary belongs to the publishers.” 

Athenaeum, no. 2200, 25 December 1869, 873.

Ingram, himself highlighting the potential inaccuracy of the editorial process, reveals Flora Symbolica to be not only a pastiche of random ideas, but partly written by unidentified persons within the publishing house.  Perhaps it is not that surprising that Ingram never again ventured into the world of floral symbolism, although he subsequently established a reputation as a biographer and general interest author, with enticing titles including The Works of Edgar Allan Poe ( 1875), Claimants to Royalty (1882), Oliver Madox Brown. A Biographical Sketch, 1855-74 (1883), The Haunted Homes and Family Traditions of Great Britain (1884), Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1888), and Christopher Marlowe and His Associates (1904).

4. Cultural Relevance

You may ask how something that started as a silent foray into the art of seduction assumed its status as a tool for art historical interpretation, particularly as there is little evidence that the language of flowers was treated with any seriousness at all.  Beverly Seaton emphasises that these floral lexicons may have only tenuous ties to nineteenth-century life. Although these texts were undoubtedly circulating in popular culture, there is little evidence that they were used with any frequency.  They were so variable, with sentiments based on whim, country of origin or personal preference, that actual transmission of information would have been near impossible. 

5. Artist Use

I am still to find any evidence that Rossetti owned or used a floral lexicon, and to date it has not been possible to cite a specific floral lexicon used by any of the Pre-Raphaelites. Although emblematic use of flowers, their Classical, Biblical, Medieval, Shakespearean, and Romantic associations may or may not have contributed to assigned meaning in floral lexica of this period (nuances with which the Pre-Raphaelites would have been almost certainly familiar), syncretisation was “a hit or miss affair.”

Further reading:

John H. Ingram, Flora Symbolica: Or The Language and Sentiment of Flowers, including Floral Poetry, Original and Selected. By John Ingram. With Original Illustrations, Printed in Colours (London: Warne & Co., 1869).

“Flora Symbolica,” Book Review, Athenaeum, no. 2198 (11 December 1869), 770-771.

“Mr Ingram’s Flora Symbolica,” Athenaeum, no. 2200 (25 December 1869), 873.

Michael Waters, The Garden in Victorian Literature (Aldershot: Scolar Press, 1988).

Molly Engelhardt, “The Language of Flowers in the Victorian Age,” Victoriographies, 3:2 (2013), 136-160.

Beverly Seaton, The Language of Flowers: A History (Charlottesville and London: University of Virginia Press, 2015), “The Language of Flowers in the Victorian Age,” Victoriographies 3:2 (2013).

Debra N. Mancoff, Flora Symbolica: Flowers in Pre-Raphaelite Art, Munich, Berlin, London, New York: Prestel, 2003.

Sarah Phelps Smith, “Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Lady Lilith and the Language of Flowers.” Arts Magazine 53 (February 1979): 142-45.

Sarah Phelps Smith , “Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Flower Imagery and the Meaning of His Painting.” PhD dissertation. University of Pittsburgh, 1978.