We recently purchased a late 19th century flower book for our library collection - The Flowers of Shakespere [sic], published in 1883. Comprising 30 enchanting full-colour botanical plates, accompanied by quotes from Shakespeare, the book shows how artists, in particular female artists of the 19th century, responded to Shakespeare’s works. Our new acquisition has multiple uses for researchers and visitors. We might even reproduce it as a calendar, as we did with Jane Elizabeth Giraud’s book Flowers of Shakespeare.
Over the past few months, I have researched and written several blogs discussing flowers from Giraud’s books and how she uses Shakespeare’s works to accompany her visual representations of plants. Often described as a fad, the craze for flowers not only included books but also greeting cards and needlework. Botanical art offered women in the Victorian age one of the few opportunities for artistic expression. Flower books contain dictionaries, lists of flowers and their assigned meanings, which became known as ‘floriography’, the language of flowers. The books were small enough to fit into a lady’s pocket, and some were so small they fit into the palm of a hand.
Flower books contain floral legends, poetry and a selection of coloured plates, often by anonymous women artists. The compilers and editors, however, were in most cases, men. Of course, they made sure their names were on the title pages of flower books, whereas the woman artist would be referred to as ‘a lady’, as ‘anonymous’ or under a pseudonym. Whilst painting plants was regarded as a suitable pastime for a lady, publishing under her real name was not so. Thus, it isn’t surprising that the artist of our new acquisition is only known as Viola. I think this is quite an apt pseudonym for an illustrator of a flower book: the name is Italian for violet, a plant, which enjoyed immense popularity in the Victorian age and was one of Queen Victoria’s favourite flowers.
Many of these books show a debt to Shakespeare; for example, Henry Phillips’s book Floral Emblems contains plenty of Shakespeare, and I will keep an eye out for this book when browsing online bookshops!
Our 'new' book is currently still in transit from a bookstore in America and I can’t wait to add this floral gem to our collection!