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'Of all the flowers, methinks a rose is best': illustrations of roses in rare and early printed books

Have you ever wondered what Shakespeare's favourite flower might be? Explore illustrations of roses and discover the flower's meaning in Shakespeare's works.

Mareike Doleschal

I am sure many flower lovers would agree with Emilia’s view on roses that she so eloquently expresses in Shakespeare’s and Fletcher’s play Two Noble Kinsmen. Nor would I be surprised if Shakespeare’s favourite flower was the rose. He mentions roses over seventy times, more than any other flower.

Roses’ conventional positive associations with love, beauty and sweetness are familiar to all and border on the cliché. Shakespeare also used the rose to convey the painful side of love and the passing of time. In Juliet's lament on love, the rose is a metaphor for the darker aspect of love.

'Is love a tender thing? It is too rough,

Too rude, too boist'rous, and it pricks like thorn.'

Romeo and Juliet, Act 1, Scene 4

Shakespeare even employs the flower as a symbol of war to represent two warring factions.

The world Shakespeare lived in was filled with roses. At Europe’s royal courts, roses were legal tender. Elizabeth I, the virgin queen, used the rose as her emblem - the white eglantine. People not only admired them for their aesthetic value but also their medicinal benefits.

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The Great Holland Rose

In his book The Herball or General Historie of Plantes (first published 1597) John Gerard lists the medicinal virtues of the Great Holland rose:

'The distilled water of roses is good for the strengthening of the heart, and refreshing of the spirits, and likewise for all things that require a gentle cooling.' He also recommends the juice of roses as pain relief, in particular, pain in the eyes, and praises the flowers’ smell for helping to induce sleep: 'It mitigateth the paine of the eies proceeding of a hot cause, bringeth sleep, which also the fresh roses themselves prouoke, through their sweet and pleasant smell.'

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A selection of roses in Gerard's Herbal

We are lucky to have several editions of Gerard’s Herbal in our library: two are hand-coloured. The editions feature illustrations of old English roses, including the above mentioned Holland Rose, a damask rose, a rose without thorns, and the Rosae rubrae. Gerard’s Holland Rose originated, as its name implies, in Holland. Dutch horticulturalists created the rose in the late 16th century. An abundance of petals characterises this rose, and thanks to the person who counted them, we know it has over a hundred petals. In England, the rose was named Cabbage Rose, probably because of its round shape. The Holland or Cabbage rose was also a favourite with 17th century painters who liked to show their female sitters with roses, signifying beauty.

The damask rose hailed from further afield, the Eastern Mediterranean and is one of the oldest historic roses, known for its heady fragrance. Shakespeare references it in 'Sonnet 130': 'I have seen roses damask'd, red and white.' Popular with the perfume industry, the damask rose is also used to flavour food and to make rose water. In 1629, a group of English gardeners compiled a list of roses, and Gerard’s roses may well have been among those 24 roses that the gardeners had come across or even cultivated.

As mentioned above, Shakespeare used the rose to represent war. Three of his plays focus on a war that lasted thirty years, between the House of Lancaster, whose emblem was the red rose, and the House of York, whose emblem was the white rose.

The Rosa alba or the Rosa canina inspired the White Rose of York whilst the Rosa gallica was the inspiration for the Red Rose of Lancaster. The union of the two houses created a new rose: the red and white Tudor rose. The rose became the national emblem of England.

The expression ‘War of Roses’ (1455-1485) was coined much later in 1829 when Sir Walter Scott wrote about the conflict in his novel Anne of Geierstein.

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The red and white roses in Jane Elizabeth Giraud's book The flowers of Shakespeare.

The conflict between the red and white roses inspired Victorian botanical artist Jane Elizabeth Giraud. In her book The Flowers of Shakespeare (1846), the artist chooses a scene from the Temple Garden where the warring factions are asked to pick a side by plucking a different coloured rose. A comment from the Earl of Warwick, who selects a white rose (Henry VI Part I, Act 2 Scene 4), accompanies her delicate drawing of a red rose gallica and white rose alba (or canina).

'And here I prophesy: this brawl today,

Grown to this faction in the Temple garden,

Shall send, between the Red Rose and the White,

A thousand souls to death and deadly night.'

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Embroidered binding by Ethel Webling

The war of the roses inspired another Victorian artist, Ethel Webling. A stylized Tudor rose graces the handmade binding of Ethel Webling’s 1892 copy of King Henry VIII. Hand-drawn sketches of actors and an autograph by Ellen Terry feature in the book. For the binding, Ethel chose green velvet. She stitched a red and white rose next to the play title.

Victorians created a language for flowers, which enabled them to express thoughts and feelings they wouldn’t be otherwise able to convey in a world where courtship had to adhere to strict rules. Each flower had its specific meaning, depending on its colour, its shade of colour and arrangement with other flowers. No wonder, that there is a wide selection of botanical illustrations in the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Library from the 19th century.

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Illustration by Walter Crane

Unlike Jane Elizabeth Giraud, book illustrator Walter Crane was not too concerned with botanical accuracy. His illustrations for the book Flowers from Shakespeare: a posy from the plays (1909), features stylized images of flowers and young figures of androgynous appearance who are half flower half-human and evocative of the Pre-Raphaelites. Crane’s illustration of roses includes two such figures. They appear to have merged with the rose bushes which surround them. Their heads and bodies are fused with roses. Petals decorate the body of one of the figures. Rose leaves decorate the waist of the other creature. They are embracing and about to kiss. Walter Crane accompanies his illustration with a quote from Richard III. It relates to a murder that takes place off stage. The character Tyrell reports their murder and describes the princes as kissing when the murderer took their lives:

'Their lips were four red roses on a stalk,

Which in their summer beauty kissed each other.'

Richard III, Act 4 Scene 3

Shakespeare and his roses continue to inspire artists and horticulturalists. The latter have cultivated roses inspired by Shakespeare, such as the Othello Rose, the Prospero Rose and the Glamis Castle Rose (Macbeth). In the Shakespeare Borders in the Birthplace gardens, visitors can find Rosa Falstaff and Rosa Sweet Juliet. Falstaff is dark crimson and has a medium fragrance. Sweet Juliet is a peach coloured flower and also has a medium fragrance. Last but not least, there is also a rose named after Shakespeare himself.

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Sweet Juliet in the Shakespeare borders, Shakespeare Birthplace Trust garden


With thanks to SBT gardener Bertie Smith.

Bibliography

https://bardgarden.blogspot.com/2014/03/roses.html [accessed 30th March 2021]

http://theshakespeareblog.com/2011/05/a-rose-by-any-other-word/ [accessed 30th March 2021]

http://www.davidpublisher.org/Public/uploads/Contribute/5f87a9d0ba8ae.pdf The symbolic meaning of roses in Shakespeare’s sonnets Dong Yuping [accessed 30th March 2021]

http://news.samsungcnt.com/shakespeare-roses-everlands-2016-annual-rose-festival-2/ Everland Rose Festival, 2016 [accessed 30th March 2021]

https://www.countrygardenroses.co.uk/about-us/history-of-the-rose/ [accessed 30th March 2021]

https://racingnelliebly.com/strange_times/secret-language-roses-victorian-era/ [accessed 30th March 2021]

https://thesmellofroses.com/victorian-flowers-meaning/ [accessed 30th March 2021]

https://web.extension.illinois.edu/roses/history.cfm [accessed 30th March 2021]

HARRISON, NICOLA. “A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE ENGLISH ROSE.” https://www.historyextra.com/period/tudor/history-english-rose-represent-colour-tudor-virgin-mary-wars-roses-cleopatra-elizabeth-i/ [accessed 30th March 2021]

WHITAKER, JANE. "AN OLD ARCADIA: THE GARDENS OF WILLIAM HERBERT, 1ST EARL OF PEMBROKE, AT WILTON, WILTSHIRE." Garden History 42, no. 2 (2014): 141-56. Accessed March 22, 2021. http://www.jstor.org/stable/24636208. [accessed 30th March 2021]

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