A blooming masterpiece
Mark Griffiths describes how a dinner-party question led to the uncovering of the true identities of the lilies in Sargent’s Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose and the extraordinary history of their use and current revival
Last January, a friend, longenchanted by John singer sargent’s
Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose, resolved to plant the exact same kinds of lilies as appear in that lantern-lit masterpiece. Over dinner, she explained: ‘He painted them carefully from life, so lilies like these must have existed, but which varieties are they?’ I promised to help her.
In authoritative-seeming studies of the painting, I found them identified as aurelian lilies, but they’re nothing of the sort. the aurelians are garden hybrids, the earliest of which were bred in France in the 1920s. Western eyes first beheld Lilium henryi, the future parent of the aurelians, in the wilds of its native China in July 1887. By then,
Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose was not only finished, but on show at the Royal academy’s summer Exhibition.
In fact, the painting’s lilies are of two quite other kinds. Behind the Barnard sisters (11-year-old Dolly, on the left, and sevenyear-old Polly, on the right), the golden-rayed white blooms are all Lilium auratum, and accurately depicted. No less convincing is the single stem of L. speciosum var.
rubrum, its flowers red-spotted and pinkflushed, that stands on the far left in the foreground.
these two lilies are among several Far Eastern Lilium species and varieties that captivated us soon after their introduction to Britain in the 19th century.
to the first of these arrivals, the pardpetalled Lilium lancifolium, we gave the name tiger lily and fondly fancied that it had a snarling temper to match. ‘O tiger-lily,’ says alice to a garden specimen in Through
the Looking-glass (1871), ‘I wish you could talk!’ to which it replies: ‘We can talk, when there’s anybody worth talking to.’
Despite the fact that it hailed from the land of shinto, we christened L. longiflorum the Easter lily and imported its flowers to garnish those holidays. In place of Europe’s smaller and more fragile Madonna lily, its long-lasting stems of great white trumpets also became an essential prop for Oscar Wilde and his fellow aesthetes—a fad satirised, not entirely unjustly, in Gilbert & sullivan’s comic opera Patience and in George du Maurier’s cartoons for Punch.
Like the paper lanterns that illuminate them, the lilies in sargent’s painting were manifestations of Japonisme, the fashion for things Japanese, which, in Britain, was fed chiefly by Liberty & Co. today, Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose seems as blissfully English as Broadway in the Cotswolds, where it was painted. In its day, however, it would have spoken of a smart exoticism cultivated by Victorians with progressive artistic taste, in which Far Eastern exports transformed home and garden.
Ultimately, even these most outlandish of blooms became naturalised in our culture. L. auratum (probably L. speciosum, too) seems to have inspired John Henry Dearle to create Golden Lily, one of Morris & Co’s best-loved prints. It would be hard to imagine a more English design.
sargent had painted L. auratum before. stems of it tower around the subjects of Garden Study of the Vickers Children (1884), an effect both sweet and slightly sinister. the garden was at the East sussex seat of albert Vickers, industrial magnate and sargent’s then patron. Given which, it’s not surprising that each lily in this earlier painting is tightly potted and rigidly caned, grown for display and in deference to the fact that L. auratum was a status symbol, still comparatively new and costly as well as spectacular.
In 1885, sargent encountered the species again. this time, it had been liberated, allowed to mix with other flowers in a popup paradise created by his friend Lily Millet (a compulsive gardener) during a summer’s lease that she and her husband, Frank, had taken on Farnham House in Broadway.
Here, sargent perceived the true aura of L. auratum, and conceived Carnation,
Lily, Lily, Rose. the following year, when the Millets took a longer tenancy on Russell House in the same village, he went with them, working on the painting in the new garden that Lily now made and for which he supplied 50 lily bulbs.
these were started in pots, an unnecessary precaution, but understandable: they were precious and their hardiness was not yet understood. Once growing lustily, they were planted out among the roses and carnations in an informal, casual-seeming, but exquisitely calculated composition. this was a new style of planting and soon being imitated by the gardeners among the crowds who flocked to see the finished painting.
Country Life provided the next great boost to this Belle Epoque romance. In its pages, Gertrude Jekyll related her experiences of Far Eastern lilies, explaining how to keep them happy in the ground all year and year after year. In 1901, the Country
Life Library published her Lilies for ➢
It would have spoken of a smart exoticism cultivated by Victorians with progressive taste
The glorious Lilium regale, championed by Gertrude Jekyll in Country Life; the magazine also published her influential 1901 book Lilies for English Gardens