Vic­to­rian Flower Mo­tifs

Their Sym­bol­ism & Hid­den Mes­sages

Just Cross Stitch - - Front Page - By Deb­o­rah Fasamo of His­toric Hand­work­ers

Learn Their Sym­bol­ism & Hid­den Mes­sages

Sam­plers through­out his­tory have been a method of record­ing in­for­ma­tion, learn­ing about stitch tech­nique and record­ing pat­terns. But sam­plers are also dec­o­ra­tive art, and by the 17th cen­tury, English stitch­ers were in­cor­po­rat­ing sub­tly shaded col­ors with the em­bel­lish­ment of silk and metal­lic threads into their sam­plers, as well as com­bin­ing small de­signs of flow­ers and an­i­mals.

As sam­pler mak­ing moved into the schools in the late 17th and 18th cen­turies, de­sign styles con­tin­ued to change. Al­pha­bets and verses were added, along with pic­to­rial ele­ments such as ar­chi­tec­tural mo­tifs, land­scapes and large pot­ted plants. In ad­di­tion, 18th-cen­tury English “nee­dle paint­ing” pic­tures be­gan with a series of arcadian scenes and ex­otic flow­ers and an­i­mals, and be­came widely pop­u­lar.

Many women sought meth­ods of covert com­mu­ni­ca­tion and ex­pres­sion through their needle­work of flo­ral de­signs. Needle­work pro­vided the means of artis­tic ex­pres­sion, cre­at­ing an av­enue through which to com­mu­ni­cate what oth­er­wise could not be said. For ex­am­ple: A wo­man might ap­ply her nee­dle to a dif­fi­cult li­lac pat­tern as a med­i­ta­tion on hu­mil­ity, or she might work through a marigold-pansy theme as a way to come to grips with thoughts on grief.

The lan­guage of flow­ers, or flo­ri­og­ra­phy, is a means of clan­des­tine com­mu­ni­ca­tion through the use or ar­range­ment of flow­ers. In­ter­est in flo­ri­og­ra­phy soared in Vic­to­rian Eng­land. Gifts of blooms, plants and spe­cific flo­ral ar­range­ments were used to send a coded mes­sage to the re­cip­i­ent, al­low­ing the sen­der to ex­press feel­ings which could not be spo­ken aloud in Vic­to­rian so­ci­ety. Armed with flower dic­tio­nar- ies, Vic­to­ri­ans of­ten ex­changed small “talk­ing bou­quets” called nosegays or tussie-mussies which could be worn or car­ried as a fash­ion ac­ces­sory.

The first dic­tionary of flo­ri­og­ra­phy ap­peared in 1819 when Madame Louise Cor­tam­bert, writ­ing un­der the pen name Char­lotte de La­tour, wrote Le

Lan­gage des Fleurs, or The Lan­guage of Flow­ers. This pub­li­ca­tion was the first to in­clude an A–Z list of flow­ers and their as­signed sym­bolic mean­ing, list­ing them ac­cord­ing to the sea­son and month of their bloom­ing.

One of the most fa­mil­iar of the lan­guage-of-flow­ers books is George Rout­leadge & Sons’ edi­tion, which was il­lus­trated by Kate Green­way. First pub­lished in 1884, it con­tin­ues to be reprinted to this day.

Flow­ers cho­sen for their sym­bolic mean­ings be­gan to ap­pear in nu­mer­ous forms of needle­work. For ex­am­ple, lily of the val­ley was con­sid­ered the flower of the evening, sym­bol­iz­ing a “re­turn to hap­pi­ness.” An or­ange blos­som was of sym­bolic im­por­tance in Vic­to­rian so­ci­ety, rep­re­sent­ing mar­riage, fer­til­ity and eter­nal love. It was fre­quently used in bridal cos­tumes in that era. The

Ladies Trea­sury, Vol. 32 (Oc­to­ber 1880) states “A spray of or­ange blos­som can adorn upon a dress or as a wreath in the hair.”

Queen Vic­to­ria wore a wreath of or­ange blos­soms over her veil for her own wed­ding in 1840. As a present for their sixth wed­ding an­niver­sary, Al­bert gave Vic­to­ria a wreath of white porce­lain or­ange blos­soms with gold leaves on a braided black vel­vet band with silk rib­bon ties at the back. The wreath in­cluded four oranges made from green enamel, rep­re­sent­ing the four chil­dren they had at the time. Queen Vic­to­ria loved the gift, writ­ing in her diary that “it was such a lovely wreath and such a dear kind thought of Al­bert’s.” The queen wore pieces of the parure (a matched set of jew­elry or or­na­ments) for all their wed­ding an­niver­saries un­til Al­bert’s death in 1861. It was never to be worn by any­one else af­ter her death, and the pieces cur­rently re­side in the Royal Col­lec­tion solely for dis­play.

The Mar­garet Mof­fat 1896 Sam­pler (see photo at right) em­bod­ies the tra­di­tional in­ter­est and love of flow­ers, hav­ing the typ­i­cal sam­pler em­bel­lish­ments of al­pha­bet, se­quen­tial num­bers and flo­ral mo­tifs. Flow­ers are a sym­bol of fem­i­nin­ity, and deft hands that worked silent nee­dles brought out the best of in­spired young women and their dec­o­ra­tive art. Mar­garet’s use of vi­brantly col­ored silks im­bues a joy of botany and flow­ers. Orig­i­nally stitched in silk threads from North­ern Eng­land, Mar­garet had the means to ac­cess fine ma­te­ri­als.

Flow­ers in needle­work were pop­u­lar and pro­lific for their over­all aes­thetic and de­sign ap­peal, as well as for so­ci­ety’s knowl­edge of their sym­bolic mean­ings. From Bri­tish roy­alty to the for­est and gar­dens of North­ern Eng­land, young women of the Vic­to­rian era em­braced the lan­guage of flow­ers for their own hand­work and for the quiet coded mes­sage they wished to con­vey with their cho­sen flo­ral tex­tile de­signs.

Whether re­cip­i­ent or sen­der, the ex­pres­sion of feel­ings can be heard through the silent mean­ing of each cho­sen flo­ret and bloom.

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