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'Painting the lily': Illustrations of Lilies in Rare and Early Printed Books

Discover the meaning and medicinal uses of one of Shakespeare's flowers, the lily.

Mareike Doleschal

Shakespeare’s mention of flowers has inspired many expressions, including 'gilding the lily', which is a slight misquote of his words. In King John, Act 4, Scene 2, the character Salisbury says: 'o gild refined gold, to paint the lily'. Painting or gilding a lily is a waste of time since something already beautiful and perfect requires no further embellishments.

The lily, not unlike the rose, has long been equated with purity. In paintings of the Virgin Mary, the Madonna is often seen holding a lily. Shakespeare was aware of the lily’s associations with purity. In Titus Andronicus, Titus describes his daughter Lavinia as a 'gathered lily almost wither’d' after a brutal assault. The pure lily she once was, has withered due to the violence inflicted upon her.

During Shakespeare’s time, audiences were more connected to nature. They knew not only the tales and meanings of flowers but also their medicinal purposes.

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The red lily in Gerard's herbal

A person who was an expert on the medical benefits of flowers and plants was the herbalist John Gerard. In his book The Herbal, or General History of Plants (1633), Gerard lists a range of lilies, including white, red and saffron-coloured lilies. He writes about their features, names and places where they thrive. His description of their virtues is particularly intriguing. It shows how in touch people were with their natural environment. Gerard recommends the leaves of the red lily for treating the stings of serpents. If the roots of the red lily are 'boiled in wine, the corns of the feet will fall away'. According to Gerard, the root of the red lily can even remove wrinkles and 'deformity of the face'.

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Perdita's bouquet in Giraud's book The Flowers of Shakespeare

During the 19th century, flowers were a popular subject with artists, as numerous botanical illustrations from that century in the Trust library testify. Shakespeare also enjoyed popularity, and his works and flowers were an ideal combination for artists such as Jane Elizabeth Giraud. In her book, The Flowers of Shakespeare (1845), her delicate watercolour drawings of flowers are accompanied by Shakespeare quotes. The lily features twice in her collection; the first time the flower appears in her book, it is part of a bouquet, illustrating lines from The Winter’s Tale:

...daffodils,

That come before the swallow dares, and take

The winds of March with beauty; violets, dim,

But sweeter than the lids of Juno’s eyes

Or Cytherea’s breath; pale primroses,

….bold oxlips, and

The crown imperial; lilies of all kinds,

The flower-de-luce being one!

The character Perdita speaks those lines in The Winter’s Tale, Act 4, Scene 4, in a pastoral scene set during spring. Like a happier version of Ophelia, Perdita distributes flowers among guests. No wonder that Florizel compares her to Flora, the Roman goddess of nature and flowers.

The artist Jane Giraud knew her bouquet of Shakespearean flowers would appeal to a Victorian audience. Victorians had a keen interest in flower arrangements and could read the 'secret' language of flowers. Primroses, for example, signified young love and was a reference to Florizel’s and Perdita’s romantic feelings for each other. Lilies, as mentioned above, represent purity and innocence: Florizel and Perdita agree to wait until marriage to consummate their relationship.

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Illustration by Walter Crane

Giraud’s illustration appears traditional compared to Walter Crane’s visual interpretation of Perdita’s lines. Unlike Giraud, Crane dedicates an entire plate to each flower mentioned by Perdita. The pastoral speech was a source of inspiration for Crane, eight plates in his book Flowers from Shakespeare’s Garden (1909) feature words from her speech about flowers.

For the lilies, Crane chooses three female figures. They are half-human, half-flower and represent the words 'lilies of all kinds'. Two of the figures, both standing, represent the white lily. The flowers’ blossoms are part of their attire: their bodices and headgear are made of lilies. The sitting figure also holds a lily, a saffron-coloured one, and like for the other two, Crane creates a costume, a skirt and bodice, out of petals. The figure's side-away glance suggests she is waiting for someone to appear - perhaps another lily-person?

Lilies bloom in early summer, May and June, so we don’t have to wait long until we can admire them.

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