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Decoding The Victorian Flower Language: A Floriography Guide

Here at Lillicoco, we love the hidden symbolism and provenance in antique jewellery. Whether that is decoding a heraldic intaglio on a Victorian Bloodstone fob or researching the meanings behind Suffragette jewellery, antique jewellery is one of the most lavish pieces of decorative art. 

Plus, we are head over heels with floral motifs in jewellery! From blooming Garnet roses to enamelled pansy pendants, intertwined ivy leaves and forget-me-nots on 15ct Gold lockets, antique jewellery from every era is blossoming in inflorescence. 

Antique 15ct Gold Amethyst Brooch Pendant with Painted Floral Details, Source - Lillicoco

Poets, painters, tapestry makers, fashion designers, seamstresses and goldsmiths have been in love with nature’s most beautiful and transient creation for centuries. This culminated in flowers being attributed with a variety of meanings. It is no secret that flowers were used in pagan herbal remedies, given as romantic gifts, and used to ward off evil spirits. 

In the Victorian era, the intense love for flowers blossomed even further.  Major scientific developments in the 18th century led to more knowledge over plant autonomy, morphology, and life cycles. Botanical art pollinated society, interestingly with many women artists on the scene creating vibrant saturated images.

Orchid Drawing, Samuel Holden, c.1837, Source - The Victoria and Albert Museum 

The Victorian era was also a time where public displays of affection were considered alien. Strict codes over courtship meant that you couldn’t simply just approach someone if you thought they were attractive. Affections were illicit in every way, so how could a relationship progress? Ultimately this was done through flowers.

Origins of Floriography and Victorian Flower Symbols

Floriography was a seismic cultural and sociological shift in the Victorian era. Whilst floriography had a major impact upon Victorian society, it first originated during the Georgian period. Historians attribute this to one women: Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1682-1762). 

Portrait of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, John Richardson the Younger, c.1725, Source - Wikimedia Commons

An English aristocrat, poet, and writer, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu is remembered today for more than just her impact on floriography in the Victorian era. The wife to Sir Edward Wortley Montagu, the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire in the Georgian period, Lady Montagu wrote extensively about her life and travels to the Ottoman empire. These letters have been widely published and can be easily read today. During these visits, she encountered the court of Constantinople and its obsession with tulips. Her letters told of how flowers were used as a coded language to express love, devotion, rejection, and even hatred. A language that gripped the Victorian era 100 years later. 

“There is no colour, no flower, no weed, no fruit, herb, pebble, or feather that has not a verse belonging to it: and you may quarrel, reproach, or send letters of passion, friendship, or civility, or even of news, without ever inking your fingers”

A society that was in love with the past, of the Gothic medieval era and ancient classical civilisations, this language struck a chord with them. 

 

Colour Lithograph "Langage Des Fleurs", Alphonse Mucha, c.1900, Source - Wikimedia Commons

It is believed that the first actual published book upon this language was by Frenchwoman Louise Cortambert under the pseudonym Madame Charlotte De la Tour in 1819. From this, British flower dictionaries exploded. Spreading faster than pollen in hayfever season, flower language fascinated western society, and in particular the domestic spheres of women. In the USA during the 19th century, numerous women editors in journals and publications wrote on these subjects. 

Floral Poetry and the Language of Flowers Book Cover, c.1877, Source - Wikimedia Commons

Much like jewellery, art and literature wholeheartedly embraced floriography, with the most notable example being Ophelia by John Everett Millais, based on the Shakespeare's Hamlet. 

"There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance.

Pray you, love, remember. And there is pansies,

that’s for thoughts . . .

There’s fennel for you, and columbines.

There’s rue  for you, and here’s some for me; we

may call it herb of grace o’ Sundays. You must wear your

rue with a difference. There’s a daisy. I would

give you some violets, but they withered all

when my father died."

Here, fennel is a symbol of strength, columbine stood for folly, daisies symbolised innocence and violets symbolised faithfulness and modesty. 

 

Ophelia, Sir John Everett Millais, c.1851-52, Source - Photo © Tate CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported)

Another painting that is famous for its rich floral language is John Singer Sargents Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose. A quintessentially English bucolic scene, this painting is rich in both beauty and innocence. A peachy purple light flows over the painting, with the flowers having an ethereal-like quality. 

Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose, John Singer Sargent, c.1885-86, Source -  Photo © Tate CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported)

Once you notice the impact of floriography in art, it’s difficult to not look away or simply see a painting in the same light as before. From Monet’s expansive Waterlillies series to Lawrence Alma Tadema’s saturated neoclassical paintings and 18th century Flemish still life. 

Waterlilies, Claude Monet, c.1917-1919, Source - Wikimedia Commons 

In the 19th century floral jewellery bloomed like never before. Artistic movements like the Aesthetic and Art Nouveau shied away from the cold and hard world of industry, turning towards the natural world for inspiration. The language of flowers were etched into pendants, lockets, brooches, stick pins, hat pins and buttons. 

 

Antique 15ct Gold Pink Pansy Pearl Pendant, Source - Lillicoco Archive

Our Comprehensive Flower Language List

Flower language meanings have shifted and changed considerably over the centuries, varying from culture to country. The multitude of floral dictionaries published meant that each flower accrued something slightly different. One bouquet of flowers could be joy, vivacity and love for some, or passive aggressive jealousy, revenge and hatred for others. 

For instance, mimosa flowers in the Victorian era represented purity as they closed at night and when touched. Yet another flower that inspired purity was the lily, and was often chosen to adorn the altars of the Virgin Mary. Likewise the red rose, one of the most emblematic flowers in history, was interpreted as pure love and romance, yet also seen as a symbol of the blood of Christ. 

The Crucifixion, Master of the Dresden Prayer Book Workshop,c.1480-1485, Source - The J.Paul Getty Museum

So, without further ado, we have collated together a comprehensive flower language list which was potent during the Victorian era. With so many flowers and different meanings, we have specially chosen flowers that we have seen in jewellery. Have fun with these flower meanings whilst looking through our antique jewellery: 

  • Acorn - the Nordic symbol of life and immortality 
  • Bluebell - Humility
  • Pink Camellia - longing
  • Red Camellia - ‘you’re a flame in my heart’
  • Pink Carnation - I’ll never forget you
  • Yellow Carnation - rejection
  • Daffodil - The sun is always shining when I am with you 
  • Daisy - Innocence, purity and ‘I’ll never tell’
  • Dandelion - faithfulness and happiness
  • Fern - magic, fascination, confidence and shelter
  • Forget me not - true love and memories
  • Holly - defense and domestic happiness
  • Ivy - wedded love, fidelity, friendship and affection
  • Calla Lily - beauty
  • Orange lily - hatred
  • White lily - its heavenly to be with you 
  • Lily of the Valley - sweetness, tears of the virgin mary, humility. 
  • Mistletoe - kiss me, affection
  • Orange blossom - innocence, eternal love, marriage and fruitfulness
  • Peony - shame and happy marriage
  • Red poppy - pleasure
  • Pink rose - grace and joy
  • Single rose - I love you
  • Thornless rose - love at first sight
  • Red rose - love and respect
  • Yellow rose - joy and friendship
  • Red tulip - believe me, declaration of love
  • Yellow tulip - there’s sunshine in your smile 

Origins of Birth Flowers

A new trend in floriography is birth flowers. Much like birthstones, birth flowers originated during the Roman times, where pagan beliefs and values were still intrinsically important within society. These birth flowers are attributed to a person’s month of birth, each chosen for their sweet and positive floriography meanings. 

  • January - Carnation
  • February - Violet/Iris
  • March - Daffodil
  • April - Sweet Pea 
  • May - Lily of the Valley
  • June - Honeysuckle 
  • July - Larkspur
  • August - Gladiolus 
  • September - Aster/Morning Glory 
  • October - Marigold
  • November - Chrysanthemum
  • December - Poinsettia 

Floral Antique Jewellery 

Simply looking at Victorian jewellery allows you to see just how much the Victorian’s treasured this code of messaging and speaking, no matter how implicit. We love to think that some pieces were commissioned to not only show just how beautiful flowers are, but also perhaps the choice of flowers were symbolic in itself. 

In Georgian jewellery, flowers were immortalised through jewels in a variety of ways. One of the styles that is quintessentially Georgian is “Giardinetti” rings. Translating to little garden, these beauties were a commonplace gift between loved ones, bringing the outside in. 

Georgian Emerald Ruby Diamond Topaz Giardinetti Ring, Source - The Antique Jewellery Company

Victorian jewellery creators designed floral Garnet clusters mounted in low carat Garnet Gold, Victorian aesthetic took inspiration from the far east, with Japanese-style engravings on silver lockets and bangles. Art Nouveau embraced the feminine and magical connotations with flowers, creating curvaceous romanticised fae-like pieces. 

Art Nouveau Amethyst Garnet Enamel Neck Plate, Henri Dubret, c.1905, Source - Christie's 

Here at Lillicoco, we pride ourselves on selecting the very best pieces, becoming one of the leading antique jewellery online businesses nationally. Not only do we offer affordable antique jewellery, but we also offer pieces that are rich in history. 

To see our latest antique flower jewellery, click here!

Molly Chatterton

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