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Roses are Read, Words Are Perfumed: A Romantic History of The Rose

Blog image of Roses are Read, Words Are Perfumed: A Romantic History of The Rose

The most famous flower haunts our unconscious, graces our playing cards, and in the form of tattoos, decorates a million bodies. We met up with ‘scrivener’ and illustrator Sarah Bowerman to learn more about roses and their romantic history.

“The rose is a symbolic figure so rich in meaning that by now it hardly has any meaning left.”

Umberto Eco – Reflections on the Name of the Rose, London, 1983.

“Roses are everywhere in literature. Being rose-like is frequently the highest form of praise for people in books and poetry. My favourite roses in words are not of this type, being William Blake’s ‘Sick Rose‘ (Songs of Experience, 1794) – which I’ve always read as a poem about disease – and Dorothy Parker’s ‘One Perfect Rose’ (Enough Rope, 1926) : ‘Every rose is perfect, but a limo is useful and can be exchanged for cash’.

Dark red roses have long symbolised passion, the strong colour representing blood in the old medical system of the humours.

I genuinely don’t believe that the charm of the rose can be caught in any art – painting, sculpture or even perfumery. However, there are artists who have used the rose to good effect as part of a greater picture. The miniaturist Nicholas Hilliard (1547-1619) used the rose as an adornment and symbol. His flowers, found in many of his portraits of both men and women, are almost heraldic, and quite frequently openly erotic. In his sexually charged portrait of his wife Alice (1578 – Victoria and Albert Museum), Hilliard depicts a rose tucked into her bosom – peeking out from the only bit of exposed flesh in the image (excluding her face). In order to understand that the flecks of red and pink are indeed a rose, the viewer has to get very, very close to Hilliard’s wife, and to a part of her that would have been considered near exclusively her husband’s. Pierre-Joseph Redouté (1759-1840) was a botanical illustrator famous for his roses. Beyond his exacting skill, Redouté is famous for surviving the French Revolution and Terror, despite much of his work having been undertaken at Versailles. He later worked for the Empress Josephine, documenting her roses at Malmaison: Redoute’s skill and roses were beyond politics.

The Roman de la Rose (Guillaume de Lorris c.1230 and Jean de Meun c.1270), a 13th century allegorical French poem which influenced Chaucer, Dante and Petrach provides one of the first examples of roses being associated with chivalric, perfect love. It describes a dream in which a man tries to obtain his preferred rose from within a walled garden. His quest is the description of perfect, unsullied, unconsummated love. The connection between romance and roses is over 700 years old in Western Europe, and may be older in the Middle East and India.

Roses, in different forms, appear to have grown across the world, being known and valued in ancient times from Egypt to China. In Europe and North America the red rose means love. However, in some countries you do have to be careful about which roses you choose to give, and how many. For example, in Russia you should not send an even number of flowers unless it is as a sign of sympathy or to a funeral, and yellow flowers can signify  ‘jealousy’ or ‘the end of a relationship’.

Roses are potent symbols and should be used with caution.”

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