The Devil is in the Detail

A review of the Conversation so far and how to approach the decoding of Pre-Raphaelite flowers.

One day, when I had just started my PhD studies, I found myself in the library.  I had thought, naively as it transpires, that I would spend my time, by-and-large agreeing with the status quo, and perhaps finding one or two nuggets that had been missed.  Instead, I was decidedly confused, bewildered, and edgy.  I loitered in the history of art section for a while, aimlessly scanning the spines of large, impressive volumes.  Suddenly, my eye alighted on a little book.  I picked it up and went for a coffee in the nearby university café.  Plonking myself down in middle of the melee, I casually opened the book,  and read the dedication.  That was how it started:

May this little book help to bring the phoenix bird of imagination

back into the contemplation of art works.

Now – we come to today –  the viva is over, the dissertation has been deposited, and my research journey wends its way to who knows where.

I have been really touched by so many people reaching out to me to join in the Pre-Raphaelite floral conversation.  It is nice to know I’m not alone in being ever so slightly obsessed with interrogating flowers.  In the first week of the site being live, has had more than 1500 visits from people all over the world.  

During the week, in Conversation, I planted the seed that the contents of the vagrant’s basket in Ford Madox Brown’s Work might be forget-me-nots. The ensuing conversation flowed along these lines (please excuse my paraphrasing) 

  • I need a tool to understand why the flowers are there.  
  • I know what the painting is about so I can determine that the flowers must be symbolic. 
  • They must denote a connection through time as the flower has an obvious meaning of remembrance. 


  • The flowers must be exaggerated if they are forget-me-nots.  Violets are bigger and more likely to fit the bill. They have their own symbolism and possibly had a personal connection with the artist.


  • I’ve always read this differently.  The flowers look like forget-me-nots but I think they are watercress flowers.  Watercress sellers are mentioned in Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor.


In summary, we can explain the trajectory of this conversation in terms of:

(i)  Enquiring

(ii)  Acquiescing based on known facts

(iii) Associating with symbolic value

The “WAIT A MINUTE” moment based on close visual analysis of the flowers in situ  

(iv)  Historical contextualising

Eventual conclusion (pending).

Acquiescing based on “known facts” can be misleading: academics can get it wrong; commentators can get it wrong; critics can get it wrong; artists can change their intention mid-painting.   I found numerous examples in Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s work of inaccuracy in the identification of flowers.  More worryingly, these dubious descriptions act as embarkation points for further consideration, much to the detriment of art historical discourse if you believe, like me, that flowers bring incalculable value to these paintings we love so much.  What if we choose to dispense with stages (ii) and (iii) above and commence with the “wait a minute” moment?

Let’s look at another conversation – that around the crocuses in John Everett Millais’s Trust Me.  Predominantly, this conversation revolved around symbolism, and according to our discussion, the diminutive crocus signifies a variety of attributes:

  • early spring
  • early awakening
  • coming out of winter
  • new life
  • awakenings
  • innocence
  • gladness
  • hope
  • secret love and the disapproval of it
  • life and warmth in winter
  • eternal hope and love
  • power of a new love and the future
  • youth
  • spring of love
  • denial
  • Christ’s passion

It seems clear that meaning is indeed “little more than an accident of nature”. (Gombrich, 1985, 3) (See my article Flowers with No Meaning.)  We all approach interpretations buoyed by our own experiences, unconscious prejudices, readings, knowledge, subliminal agendas.  That is no bad thing, of course.  The phoenix bird of the imagination should be encouraged to fly high, but there arises a fundamental question:  is it possible to create a more consistently shared, botanically accurate, historically sound understanding?

  I think it is. 

Below I share a method I developed when examining Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s flowers.  Here it is simplified, condensed, and translated so that it can apply to any Pre-Raphaelite artist.  This is the first step of a five-stage process:



Start, not with historical context, but by examining the flowers in detail.

  • Can the flowers you are looking at be identified?
  • How are they presenting themselves?
  • Are they blooming or withering?
  • Are they whole or represented by petals?
  • Is it a single flower or several?
  • Are they one colour or more?
  • Where are they placed in the picture plane?
  • Are they larger than life or diminutive?
  • Are they turning towards or away from the viewer?
  • Are they in a relationship with anyone/anything else or deliberated distanced?
  • Are they as nature intended or stylised?
  • How significant are they in relation to the rest of the canvas?
  • Do they take centre stage or are they marginalised?
  • Are they growing or are they cut?
  • Are they contained within a vessel ?
  • What does the vessel add to our understanding?
  • What would be lost if they were not there?  


Suspend any desire to establish meaning.  Put symbolism to one side. Ignore the Victorian language of flowers altogether. There are five primary reasons for excluding it – see my articles The Victorian Language of Flowers Nipped in the Bud, and Context is Everything.  Imagine that the flowers you are looking at do not mean anything at all. They are meaningless, but for their manifestation in this artwork.  This is purely about accurately and minutely describing what you see in front of you.


Then, and only then, begin your historical research, and do this discerningly.  Do not believe everything you read. See my article Will the Real Walter Pater Please Stand Up? Be critical.  Be aware of the artist’s initial intentions, but trust your gut instinct.  Keep an open mind.  Try wherever possible to consult primary sources, and particularly the correspondence or diaries of the artist. Be aware that artists change their minds, so read ahead of any mention of the flower he/she was planning to paint. Consult, but do not rely on, the Catalogue Raisonné alone as this can contain errors carried over from earlier commentators, or indeed omissions, both of which can undermine your research.  And finally – 


Return to the flowers in the painting.  What, if anything, does the historical research bring to your initial assessment?  What conclusions can you reach based on this first stage of the process?


In the next article, I will share the second stage in this five-step process, but in the meantime, please feel free to contribute to the conversation.  Your insight is very much appreciated.  Thank you again to everyone who has already been in touch.