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

Country Life Every Week - - In The Garden -

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

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