Floriography: the Victorian art of speaking through flowers

6 February 2018

Image Source: Boston Public Library/CC BY 2.0

The Victorian era was awash with illicit glances, unspoken longing, and repressed emotion. Yet few periods have birthed the kind of artistry it saw. Nowhere was this more evident than the literary world: the scandalous tales of Byron faded into the distance, making way for the rhythmic verse and potent imagery of Tennyson. Another artistic revolution was imminent – modern floristry was taking its first, tentative steps, with the emergence of tussie-mussies, nosegay bouquets, and more.

It was a poet-adventurer, aristocrat, and feminist, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu – who first inflamed high society with its fascination for floriography. This lady of letters was married to the British ambassador to Turkey. Sharing many of her peers’ orientalism, she became enamoured by Selam – a secret language that used flowers to pass messages between harem courtesans and their lovers. Exotic, elegant, and ripe with the promise of the forbidden – those words of love and hate that polite society could not allow.

"Near them the Vi'let glows wth odours blest And blooms in more than Tyrian Purple drest The rich Jonquils their golden gleam display And shine in glorys emulateing day."

—Constantinople, Mary Wortley Montagu

In the decades that followed, floriography dictionaries – beautiful books illustrated in the realist style of the era’s naturalists – sprung up and proliferated. They catalogued the meaning of each bloom: Narcissus, unrequited love. Purple Violet, daydreaming. Blue Canterbury Bell, fidelity. Aspen Tree, sorrow. The language of floriography was prominent in the arts. Jane Austen, Emily Dickinson, and Charlotte Bronte used it in their novels; pre-Raphaelites like Dante Gabriel Rossetti added it to their paintings.

Image Source: Boston Public Library/CC BY 2.0

It is fitting that a poet helped to popularise floriography. The Victorian language of flowers has more in common with verse than prose. Meanings are ambiguous, evolving within the contexts of how flowers are arranged, wrapped and gifted, to whom they are gifted, and the particular way they are combined. Oscar Wilde, the noted Victorian wit, once asked his friends to wear green carnations – a decision which he suggested would both represent homosexuality, and yet convey no meaning at all.

Floral arrangements, like verse, can have rhythm – the eye passes over an arrangement in particular ways, dictated by the shape of its composition. Each element the eye focuses on is a beat within the wider score of the arrangement itself. Likewise, a floral arrangement has tone: vibrant colours, as well as the themes and motifs that accompany certain blooms convey emotional content and a range of meanings. 

Image Source: Cigarette cards, NYPL Digital Collections

Victorian floriographers developed the language of flowers to a greater degree than any who went before them, or have come after. Modern florists interested in unpacking the secret subtext in Victorian art, and crafting messages of their own, should learn from them.

What you should read to learn more: The Artistic Language of Flowers, available online at: https://archive.org/details/cu...