The general conceit of The Pre-Raphaelite Language of Flowers is that Debra N. Mancoff has collected a range of paintings by the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and she’s decoded the paintings with a focus on what the flowers in the paintings mean. In some cases, the artists are only dimly associated with the 19th-century art movement.
Her task is made that much easier since the paintings date to the Victorian era and its focus on floriography. Otherwise known as the language of flowers, floriography was a big deal since you could send someone a message by sending a particular type of flower. Combining flowers allowed you to send more complicated messages.
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Blog posts about floriography will often say you could send a message and no one else would know what it meant. I disagree with that assertion because anyone who knew floriography would know what your message meant. But in principle, it did mean you could say something without actually ‘saying’ it. So you could send the correct flowers that meant ‘sorry’ without having to actually apologise. In this light, floriography becomes a symbolic set of gestures rather than being an actual coded language.
Back to the book though!
Mancoff provides a thorough introduction about the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, who wanted to reach back to art principles before Raphael when they felt art was more true. Three of its most famous ‘brothers’ were John Everett Millais, William Holman Hunt, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti.
The book does include a lot of other artists, including female artists in the Brotherhood. They’re often overlooked by overviews of the movement so to see their work here is definitely a treat.
It’s a simple layout, with the painting on one page and then the discussion on the opposite page. It’s easy to read, and it’s fascinating the way she’s decoded the images according to the flowers within them. The paintings also make this book beautiful to look at.
To give you a couple of examples, we have for instance ‘The Beloved’ by Dante Gabriel Rossetti.
In this one, Mancoff talks about what the image means, and the abundance of roses in this painting. The damask rose represents the woman’s complexion, the cabbage rose is ‘the ambassador of love’, and the Persian lilies represent sensual pleasures. In other words, what you get after the marriage takes place.
Meanwhile, ‘Vivien’ by Frederick Sandys deals with Vivien from Arthurian legend.
She seduced Merlin and he taught her magic, and then she trapped him with one of his own spells. In this painting, she’s portrayed as a haughty beauty. She’s surrounded by peacock features which Mancoff thinks represents luxury and the sin of wanting luxury in your life. Vivien’s also holding an apple which recalls the Fall of Man.
The rose and the sprig of daphne make an interesting pairing. Daphne is associated with coquetry and the desire to please, but the whole plant is toxic, and here it represents toxic femininity. That’s offset by the massive and often complicated associations of the rose.
Is The Pre-Raphaelite Language of Flowers worth a read?
It’s an interesting book, but sadly none of the readings of the paintings are hugely in-depth. Many could do with being longer and the discussion of the language of flowers is often shoehorned into the final paragraph. This happens when Mancoff spends too much time giving the background of the painting or the legend on which it is based.
I would have preferred more of the language of flowers upfront because that was why I picked the book. This makes the title slightly misleading. But at the same time, she has collected a really interesting group of paintings, and it’s amazing to see how the flowers tie such a wide range of paintings together once you see them all in one place. There’s definitely plenty of scope for someone else to take this concept further.
The book also just goes to prove that Victorian art always has a message and more to look at than just a pretty image.
I’d recommend The Pre-Raphaelite Language of Flowers for fans of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. It’s nice to find out more about them and especially in such a specific way.
However, I wouldn’t recommend it for those interested in floriography because it doesn’t give the wealth of information that you might be looking for.
Click here to buy The Pre-Raphaelite Language of Flowers.
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