The Story of the Rose
Ward Lock Ltd, London, 1970
One of my earliest obsessions related to gardening was with roses. Particularly old fashioned shrub roses; they formed, which it seems to me I remember as a child, a picture consisting of large blowsy roses climbing on a fence or wall and arching from large bushes, so lasting, if misty, as an impression that I must have seen it early in my life; and it has coloured my garden design preferences ever since. It seemed to be a sort of cottage garden that I had in my mind’s eye, a good enough starting point from which to make a garden.
My investigations of these old roses became an educational experience as I read through the descriptions of varieties that caught my eye or wrestled with the various classes and their natures and requirements. Tracing the origins of roses was a journey through history, back to the eighteenth century and the reunion, after a period of separation of some 35 million years, of the once-blooming roses of Europe and the reblooming roses of Asia that sparked an uproar in European horticultural circles that is still being felt today as one rose after another is introduced to the market.
Rose history is filled with stories, complete with love, betrayal, hope and despair – and triumph; over wars and revolutions, jealousies and seductions and over time. One of the more interesting stories is that of Josephine Bonaparte who was an early lover of roses and who, at one time, had the largest collection of roses in the world at Malmaison, outside Paris. Her interest in the species led to increased French hybridising and raising of roses that developed so many of these 18th and 19th century masterpieces, some since vanished, but many others still available through specialty nurseries in our area (see below for a few links to nurseries in British Columbia that specialize in older roses growing on their own roots, which I recommend).
To acquaint you with the story of Josephine, and her great contribution to the raising and growing of roses, here is an excerpt from The Story of the Rose, an interesting book by James McIntyre (1970) that I recently added to my collection, that deals with the role of Queens in the story of the rose. It is followed by contiguous pieces on Pierre-Joseph Redoute, who painted the roses in Josephine’s garden, and other rose artists.
Local Specialty Nurseries (own root)
Brentwood Bay Nurseries
1395 Benvenuto Avenue
Brentwood Bay, British Columbia, V8M 1J5
Old Rose Nursery
1020 Central Road
Hornby Island BC
Phone: (250) 335-2602
The Story of the Rose
Why pu’ ye the rose, Janet,
Amang the groves sae green,
And a’ to kill the bonnie babe,
That we gat us between?
From the ballad of Young Tam Lin
Many of the rose’s connections with royalty, both in Britain and throughout the rest of the world, have been through women. The Royal National Rose Society, for example, has enjoyed royal patronage since 1888, when Queen Alexandra accepted the position of patron. Upon her death, in 1925, Queen Mary became the society’s patron and she, in turn, was succeeded by H.R.H. the Princess Royal and the present Patron, H.R.H. Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother.
Before delving back into the pages of history it is interesting to note a fairly modern event in which a queen and a rose played a significant part. On June 26th, 1912, Queen Alexandra inaugurated the first rose day, which was the first of all flag days. When the queen was a young princess in her native Denmark, she heard of a poor priest who never had enough money for the sickly and poor children who needed his help. One day the priest, whose hobby was growing roses, decided that the only way to give more aid to the unfortunate children was to sell his roses. Years later, when the queen was trying to formulate a charity scheme, she remembered the poor priest and so the idea for a rose flag day was born.
The queen contacted a well-known charity worker, Miss Christine May Beeman, and together they worked out a plan. They decided that, rather than depict on the flags the fashionable roses of the day, they would use the simple wild roses of the poor priest.
The first rose day took London by storm. About 1,500 women descended on the streets of London, and by the end of the day they had collected a total of £20,000. The climax of that first rose day came when the queen, by then a very old woman, rode through the streets in a rose-decked carriage. Later the rose days grew even more popular and sometimes over £100,000 was raised by them in aid of charity in a single day.
Another queen who put the rose to good use was Cleopatra. When Mark Antony came to Alexandria, grimly determined not to fall under her fatal charms as Caesar had done several years before, she set out to seduce him by entertaining him in a room in which the floor was covered with roses to a depth of 18 inches. The roses were covered by a huge net in order to protect the feet.
But the calculating queen did not stop there. She had mattresses and cushions filled with roses, had them strewn over a lake and also gave her other guests crowns of roses to wear. As history records, Cleopatra was fatally successful in her mission.
But Antony was not the only historical character whose downfall was aided by a rose. An English legend which dates from the Middle Ages tells of a young beauty named Fair Rosamund, the daughter of Walter de Clifford. She became the mistress of Henry II and, in order to keep her from the clutches of his jealous queen, the king installed her in a house at Woodstock, Oxfordshire, the only entrance to which was through a maze.
However, Queen Eleanor, with the aid of a piece of silk, found her way into the house and succeeded in poisoning her husband’s mistress in 1176. On the unfortunate victim’s tomb at Oxford were inscribed the words:
Here rose the graced, not rose the chaste, reposes,
The scent that rises is not the scent of roses.
‘Rosa Mundi’, the red and white striped old shrub rose, which was a bud-sport from the ancient ‘Rose of Provins’, is said to be named after Fair Rosamund. The late authority on the origin of these old roses, Dr. C. C. Hurst, seems to accept this theory and gives a possible explanation of its introduction to this country at such an early date by suggesting that an early Crusader may have found it in a Syrian garden and, on his return, presented it to her after giving it her name.
The mistresses of the French kings were keen rose enthusiasts and Madame de Pompadour, mistress of Louis XV, was often painted holding a rose. A portrait of her by Boucher, which hangs in the National Gallery of Scotland, shows her with ornamental roses on her dress and also on the cushion on which she is reclining.
One of her favourites was a gallica a called ‘Belle de Crecy’, after the chateau in which she once lived. This violet variety was rediscovered by Graham Stuart Thomas at the outbreak of the Second World War and, thanks to his diligence, it can still be acquired today.
Madame de Pompadour’s successor as the king’s mistress was Madame Du Barry, who loved roses even more than her predecessor. Her bedroom at Versailles was lavishly decorated with them. The four slender pillars of her bed held up a canopy of roses from which hung silk curtains also embroidered with roses. The window curtains and chairs of the bedroom were decorated with roses and, when she married the Comte d’ Artois, even her wedding dress had roses on it.
About 20 years after leaving the fashionable life at Versailles, and long after the death of Louis XV, Madame du Barry found herself in the turmoil of the French Revolution. She was arrested, denounced as the late king’s mistress, imprisoned and ultimately guillotined.
Also imprisoned during the revolution was a young woman who escaped the death sentence and lived on to become by far the greatest female benefactor in the history of the rose. Her name was Josephine de Beauharnais.
Josephine, daughter of Joseph Tascher de la Pagerie, was born in June, 1763, at Martinique and she was appropriately christened Rose. When she was 16, a marriage was arranged for her to the Vicomte de Beauharnais and she was sent to France to be married. Josephine and her husband were both arrested during the French Revolution, but whereas he was put to death, she was able to convince her captors that she held republican principles and was eventually released, to find herself the owner of her late husband’s confiscated property and an income of 24,000 livres a year.
The young widow, who had two small children Hortense and Eugene, by her wit and charm became a conspicuous figure in Parisian society and soon she attracted the attentions of a young commander called Napoleon Bonaparte. At first Josephine resisted the advances of the young officer who was passionately in love with her, but influenced by her friends who foretold a great future for him, she finally accepted his proposal of marriage and they were wed in 1796. Josephine did not love her husband but the match gave her a security which she relished. It was not until years later, when it was too late, that she came to appreciate Napoleon’s deep feelings for her.
Two years later her husband bought her Malmaison, a house six miles west of Paris which has since become linked firmly to the name of Josephine Bonaparte in the annals of rose history. The purchase cost 160,000 francs but Josephine is said to have spent twice as much again on renovating the house and estate. At one point in this operation, so many of the structural interior walls were being altered that the outside had to be supported in case it collapsed.
Napoleon was often away fighting in various war theatres of Europe, and Malmaison became Josephine’s retreat where she could get away from the cares of the world and the fast pace of fashionable Paris society. And it was there that she managed to settle down to gratify her long dormant passion for gardening. She engaged several gardeners, including Monsieur Dupont, creator of the rose gardens of Luxembourg, and he helped her to amass a collection of roses that was to make Malmaison the greatest rose garden of all time.
In 1804, when she became Napoleon’s empress, Josephine’s horticultural expenses soared. She financed lavish expeditions to South Africa and the Far East to collect new specimens and she was interested not only in roses. She had a liking for ericas and she introduced the first dahlias into France. During the Napoleonic Wars Dr. Delile, the director of the Botanical Gardens, accompanied her husband to Egypt and brought back specimens of R. alba and R. centifolia. During her marriage to Napoleon, France was at war with England but, even so, plants and seeds destined for her which were intercepted on the high seas were immediately sent on, by order of the Prince Regent himself.
In the same spirit John Kennedy, a rose grower from Vineyard Nurseries, Hammersmith, was given a special pass which enabled him to travel between London and Paris throughout the Napoleonic Wars in order to buy roses for Josephine’s garden at Malmaison. Other gardeners who helped Josephine were Vibert, Aime Bonpland, a Scotsman named Hewartson and another Scot Thomas Blaikie (1750-1838).
But the relationship between Napoleon and Josephine had taken a dramatic reversal. With his eye on an heir and a lucrative alliance he was determined to divorce her and marry Marie Louise, the 18-year-old daughter of the Austrian king. Meanwhile, the empress had formed a strong affection for her husband. She pleaded with him to change his mind but eventually, in 1809, she had to agree to a divorce.
As the ex-empress, Josephine spent more and more of her time at Malmaison amongst the beautiful roses and other plants that reminded her of happier days. She ordered a search to be made for every known variety of rose and soon there were 250 of them – every known variety of the day – in her famous garden. These included damasks, musk roses, hybrids of gallicas and noisettes. Soon, thanks to hybridization and the efforts of Josephine in introducing new species in Europe, many new kinds of rose would soon appear.
In the introduction to a 1959 publication entitled The Best of Redoute’s Roses, Eva Mannering lists the roses growing in Josephine’s garden as follows: 170 Provins (gallica), 27 centifolia, 3 moss, 9 damask, 22 Bengal, 4 spinosissima (Scotch Rose), 8 alba, 3 lutea, I musk, as well as the species alpina, arvensis, banksiae, carolina, cinnamomea, clinophylla, laevigata, rubrifolia, red rugosa, white rugosa, sempervirens and setigera.
But the health of the empress was failing. When the Tsar of Russia, Alexander I, visited her at Malmaison he could see that she had not long to live and was too overcome to speak. Without a word Josephine took a rose from a bowl which decorated the salon in which they met and presented it to her royal visitor. Nearly 30 years later, in 1842, a hybridizer named Charles Deluze from Lyons was to remember this incident and named a rose ‘Souvenir de la Malmaison’ in memory of the occasion.
‘Souvenir de la Malmaison’ is a Bourbon – a type introduced in 1817 with the aid of the Chinese Rosa chinensis and named after the French island of Bourbon (now called Reunion) in the Indian Ocean. It was here the first generation, a natural hybrid of the pink damask rose and ‘Parsons Pink China’, was found growing by Breon, a Parisian botanist.
But Josephine did not live to see the introduction of the Bourbons. Three years earlier, in May 1814, she died at Malmaison, leaving debts of over 2 ½ million francs. Most of the money had gone on financing horticultural expeditions to the four corners of the globe, projects for which modern gardeners should be eternally grateful. The garden at Malmaison was not only a quiet retreat for Josephine but also a meeting place for rose growers, botanists and artists. Malmaison, and the interest she took in it, was the inspiration for most of the new breeding experiments which took place in the first quarter of the nineteenth century.
Considering that the rose world owes so much to Josephine, it is rather ironic that the main floral bond between her and Napoleon should have been not roses but violets. She was wearing a crown of violets and carrying a bouquet of them when they first met at a ball and she threw the bouquet at him from her carriage as they parted. The emperor always sent her a bunch of violets on their wedding anniversary no matter on what far-off battlefield he was engaged. At one time, he paid a Madame Bernard 600 francs a year to send his wife a bunch of fresh violets every day.
After he escaped from the island of Elba, just three months before Josephine’s death, he wanted to see his ex-wife so he sent the 3-year-old son of his marriage to Marie Louise in advance bearing a bunch of violets. Napoleon also sent a tribute of violets when she was buried and an indication of how passionately he loved her, even after their divorce, is the fact that when he died on St. Helena he was wearing a gold locket containing two violets that had been picked from her grave.
In the year following Josephine’s death, as the British troops were approaching Paris they were given strict instructions not to damage the gardens at Malmaison. However, the French were taking no chances. A rose grower named Descemet hastily gathered in 10,000 seedlings and passed them on to Josephine’s former gardener Aimee Vibert, who was by this time a noted hybridist, so that they would not be destroyed. Vibert remained at the forefront of hybridists until about the middle of the nineteenth century although, in the later part of his life, he concentrated solely on striped and spotted varieties.
For a few tragic days between the crushing defeat of Waterloo and his banishment to St. Helena, Napoleon spent his time at Malmaison with his step-daughter, Hortense, who was also the wife of his brother Louis, King of Holland, and subsequently the mother of Napoleon III. (Eugene, Josephine’s other child by her earlier marriage to Vicomte Beauharnais, became one of Napoleon’s most noted generals and for a time he was Viceroy of Italy.)
Hortense has recorded for posterity some of her step-father’s melancholy utterings during his brief stay. “How charming it is at Malmaison,” he said. “What a pity it is, Hortense, that we cannot stay.” And on another occasion he said, “How the spirit of Josephine pervades this place. How graceful she was. I can almost see her walking among the flowers.”
After Josephine’s death the gardens at Malmaison began to be neglected and eventually they, along with the chateau, were sold by auction in 1828. In 1842, the Queen of Spain bought the estate and made a valiant attempt to return it to its old splendour; then, in 1861 it was taken over by the Chef de l’Etat. During the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71), when Josephine’s grandson Napoleon III was overthrown and the Second French Empire crumbled in a humiliating defeat, they were completely ruined. Daniel Osiris bought the remains in 1896 and, after restoring them, he presented them to the French Government in 1904.
Today, although the renovated chateau and gardens can still be seen, there is nothing on the site to even suggest their former glory. Gone are all the roses of Josephine’s era and all that remains is a few plants of ‘Souvenir de la Malmaison’ growing in several beds and some rambling roses creeping along the garden walls.
Redoute and the Rose
One of the Empress Josephine’s most extravagant expenses in the interests of the rose came when she commissioned the artist Pierre-Joseph Redoute at a salary of 18,000 francs a year to record accurately all the plants in her garden. She also gave him a fine flat in Paris.
Although Redoute is now best known for his paintings of roses, copies of which occupy prominent places in many present-day homes, and not only in the homes of rose lovers, he began his mammoth task at Malmaison by recording the likenesses of the lilies. This great work occupied his time from 1802 until 1816 and ran into several volumes. When they appeared they were dedicated to his patron, the former empress.
It was not until 1817, three years after her death, that Redoute finally published the first of his three volumes on Les Roses. There were 160 illustrations in the first edition and the publication of additional material continued over seven years until the collection of illustrations totalled 170. Two further editions followed between 1824 and 1830, containing 160 and 181 plates respectively. The text was by C. A. Thory, a well-known botanist. Ironically, the political tempo of the times had so changed from the time Redoute started the work until the time he finished it, that instead of dedicating it to the late Josephine, as had been the original intention, it appeared with a dedication to a member of the newly restored royal family.
Many of the roses Redoute painted have now disappeared. However, the ones that can still be compared with growing varieties are so accurate that the remainder give the botanist and rose scholar an invaluable insight into the past.
Redoute, who was both an artist and a botanist, was born at St. Hubert in the Ardennes, in 1759. He came from a family of painters and, while he was still a youth, he journeyed through the Low Countries studying the work of the famous Dutch masters.
When he was 23 he arrived in Paris and obtained employment working on stage designs. However, horticultural art was his first love and he could often be seen drawing the plants in the Jardins du Roi. Perhaps it was while he was sketching in the royal gardens that he first met the well-known botanist Charles L. L’Heritier de Brutelle. Anyway, when the two did meet, de Brutelle encouraged the young lad to give up stage designing and concentrate on becoming a flower painter. Redoute was already fascinated by the subject and so did not need much urging. De Brutelle took the young Redoute under his wing and sent him to England to study plants at Kew Gardens.
It was while he was at Kew that he met Bartolozzi, the famous engraver, and he had the opportunity to study the art of stipple engraving, a process which was to play a major part in printing the flower portraits which he was destined to make famous.
Once he returned to Paris, Redoute became an assistant to Gerard van Spaendonck, who in turn had been influenced by another great flower painter Jan van Huysum (1682-1749). Van Spaendonck recognized his pupil’s genius and helped to get him an appointment in connection with the royal collections of paintings.
The next step up in Redoute’s career came when he was appointed court artist, but the first tremors of the French Revolution were already being felt and before long most of his clients were in prison waiting to be guillotined. Redoute remained loyal to his royal patrons and, at great danger to himself – for who knew where the anger of the mob was going to strike next? – he visited Queen Marie Antoinette in prison to show her paintings he had done of plants. Sometimes he would even bring the plants as well.
But it was through his next royal patron, Josephine, that Redoute was to gain everlasting fame. She originally approached him in 1800 and, protected and encouraged by her, he set about the gigantic task. Apart from the collections on the lily and the rose, he painted other plants, particularly camellias, but it is for his rose illustrations that he is most remembered.
However, despite the lavish patronage of the empress, he was always in financial difficulties. His paintings sold for about the equivalent of £250 each but, even so, he never seemed to have enough money. Due to a strange anomaly in French society at that time it often happened that the most “prosperous” artists were the ones who were poorest. This was because they had to live in the same high style as their clients, and Redoute was no exception. On one occasion, in 1828, when Charles X wanted to buy the original of a painting from Les Roses, the artist bargained desperately until he had boosted the price to an extortionate 30,000 francs. At other times he was forced to sell his silver and furniture in order to raise money.
Redoute, like many geniuses, attracts those who are determined to dampen his praise. Wilfrid Blunt, for example, in his book The Art of Botanical Illustration goes to great lengths to prove that Redoute learned his skill from Van Spaendonck, and that he merely popularized his master’s technique.
Others claim he was a weak character in that he gave painting lessons to the aristocrats before the revolution and to their murderers after it; also that he accepted a generous annual salary from Josephine when she was empress, yet later gave lessons to Marie Louise, her successor as Napoleon’s wife. When Napoleon fell, the critics claim, he was equally at home with the Bourbons as clients and similarly when they were deposed in 1830, he taught art to Louis Phillippe’s queen and daughters without any qualms.
The first point can be answered by pointing out that every tradesman and craftsman learns a great deal from the person who taught him his job but that hardly disqualifies the pupil from taking the credit for his own creations. As far as the second argument is concerned, I think all these examples merely show that here was a man who was dedicated to his own profession and industriously got on with it in spite of the vicissitudes of power politics. He had certainly seen many changes during his life but when he died, in 1840, the turmoil in France was still by no means over. As well as being a painter he was also a rose enthusiast himself, and he is credited with raising the first seedlings of ‘Parson’s Pink China’ when the rose reached France.
In 1958, when a copy of the first edition of Les Roses was auctioned in London, it realized more than £1,000, while a set of 24 of his original drawings fetched £1,800. He himself could certainly have used the money for he was in dire financial trouble right up until his death. Just before he died, at the age of 80, he was planning to paint his greatest masterpiece which was going to bring him in 12,000 francs, but he died before he could complete it.
Other Rose Artists
Having devoted a short chapter to the greatest rose artist of all time, let us now turn to some artists who have put the rose on canvas and also consider some of the wider aspects of the rose’s use for an art form .
Although roses, of one type or another, have existed since before the beginning of recorded history, the use of the flower in art is of comparatively recent introduction.
There is no clear proof of the Greeks having represented the rose, except perhaps in a highly stylized and nowadays unrecognizable form, while the Ancient Romans, although they did use flower emblems on the decorated arabesques of some buildings, depicted varieties that are unidentifiable by the modern rose enthusiast. Irises and the lotus can be observed on early Egyptian frescoes and wall paintings, but not the rose. There are shapes which have five petals and could be roses, but they could equally well be buttercups or any other similar flower. It was not until early in the fourteenth century that identifiable roses began to make incidental appearances in various forms of art, including weaving, carvings, paintings and, ultimately, the printed page.
The first botanically correct roses were not drawn for the pleasure either of the executor or of the beholder. They were detailed illustrations of plants intended solely for the medical and the herbal trades. However, the informative but unattractive drawings eventually began to take on some of the true beauty of the rose.
One of the first true rose artists was Jaques de la Moyne who lived in the sixteenth century. He was a Huguenot and, after going on an expedition to Florida as a cartographer, he finally settled in England, following the Massacre of St. Bartholomew in 1572. Some of his paintings of single roses are still in existence.
The first large number of rose paintings came in the Low Countries in the late sixteenth and the early seventeenth century. In the vanguard of painters were Ambrosius Bosschaert II (1612-45), who painted several still-life pictures which included roses between 1626 and 1643, Jan Brueghel (1568-1625), probably the earliest authority on botanical art, Balthazar van der Ast (1590-1656), Jan de Heem (1606-84), Jacob Marell (1614-81) and Simon Verelst (1644-1721), who became famous for his clever lighting and subdued colouring effects.
All these artists were Dutch, but in Flanders a slightly lesser known band was making its presence felt. Among its ranks were Roelandt Savery (1576-1639), Daniel Seghers (1590-1661), Jacob Jordaens (1593- 1 678) and Nicholas Verendael ( 1640-91).
A little later in Holland came Jan van Huysum (1682-1749), the teacher of Gerard van Spaendonck who in turn taught the great Redoute. Among van Huysum’s contemporaries who were noted as plant painters were Rachel Huysch (1664-1750), and Jacob van Walscapelle, who produced pictures from 1667-1716. Later still came Jan van Os (1744-1808). Although most of these artists painted still life, it soon became fashionable for women to have their portraits painted holding a rose, and examples of this may be seen in many of the portraits of European royalty.
Painters in other countries became attracted to the rose. Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), the Flemish painter, had a passionate interest in the rose and often framed his central characters in masses of blooms.
By the eighteenth century many famous painters were turning to the rose as a subject. Francesco Guardi (1712-93) of Italy forsook painting his famous Venetian canal pictures for a while to paint a series of flower ones, including some of the rose. Pierre Renoir (1841-1919), the leading French impressionist painter, also found inspiration in the rose and painted several of those he himself grew at Cagnes. Another French impressionist, Claude Monet (1840-1926), painted a series of pictures featuring rose gardens.
Roses have played their part in the art of jewellery. The gold roses which the popes used to give to monarchs and their consorts have already been mentioned briefly in the chapter on religion. These gold roses were sent by the pope as a mark of esteem, with the following message. “Accept this rose at our hand, who, albeit unworthy, holds the place of God on earth, by which rose is typified the joy of the heavenly Jerusalem and of the Church Militant by which to all the faithful in Christ is manifested that most beauteous flower, which is the joy and crown of all saints. Receive, then, thou dearly beloved son, who art, according to the age noble, potent, and endowed with many virtues, that thou mayest be more fully enobled with every virtue in Christ our Lord, as a rose planted by the streams on many waters.”
The rose design was intended to symbolize the delicate and transient frailty of the body and the shortness of human life while the precious and unalterable gold stood for the immortality of the soul. Henry VIII was the last English monarch to receive this precious award.
In 1459, Pope Pius II decided to improve upon his predecessors’ practice and sent to worthy Roman Catholic monarchs not a gold rose but a gold standard rose tree. This papal award, which originated in the eleventh century, is still continued and the last person to receive the honour was the Queen of Italy in 1939·
Empress Eugenie (1826-1920), the wife of Napoleon III, had the gold rose honour bestowed on her by Pope Pius IX and, as she was devoutly religious, it became one of her proudest possessions. During the fall of the Second French Empire, she lost the rose in the destruction of the royal palace of Tuileries. She assumed it was lost for ever but, some years later while she was living in exile at Chislehurst, Kent, a parcel was delivered to her anonymously and inside it was the precious golden rose. The empress kept it by her from that day until she died nearly 50 years later.
During the Spanish conquest of Peru, the Conquistadors discovered that the Incas had fashioned flowers, including roses, and vegetables out of gold and stuck them into the ground alongside the real plants. When the Spanish leader Pizarro captured the Inca emperor, Atahuallpa, who was revered as a god by his people, the Incas offered to find enough gold to fill a room 22 feet long by 17 feet wide and pay this as a ransom. The Incas brought gold from all parts of their empire and eventually the room was filled with billions of pounds’ worth of solid gold objects.
Then, by one of the most despicable pieces of treachery in history, Pizarro killed Atahuallpa shortly after the ransom had been completed. The golden cups, coronets, breast plates and roses were melted down and shipped back to Spain.
Benvenuto Cellini (1500-71), the famous jeweller, was renowned for his roses made of gold, pearls and enamel. In other pieces he would often depict jewelled mermaids and sea monsters with traces made of roses.
One of Queen Elizabeth I’s suitors, the Duke of D’ Alencon, tried to win her with gifts of magnificent jewels. One of the most famous pieces was a rose in white enamel with a butterfly in rubies and sapphires. Another famous rose worn by her was an elaborate ornament in the form of the ‘White Rose of York’, made of enamel and surrounded by the ‘Red Rose of Lancaster’ made of rubies.
In the eighteenth century jewellers created diamond ornaments in the form of rose wreaths. They had hidden springs in them which made the roses nod as the wearer moved.
In the world of opera, the rose is well represented by Richard Strauss’s famous work Der Rosenkavalier, which was first performed at Dresden in 1911. In the following year the tribute was paid to the rose in the ballet Le Spectre de la Rose, in which the flower comes dramatically to life. The role was created by the most famous ballet dancer of all time, Vaslav Nijinsky. Born in 1892, the Russian dancer caused a sensation in both America and Europe when he bounded through a window in one leap as the spirit of the rose. Some people even suspected that he had springs attached to his shoes. All this talk used to annoy Nijinsky and he would retort, “I’m not a jumper. I am an artist too.”
In English literature, there are several instances of the symbolic use of the rose. Besides the scene in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland in which the card gardeners desperately try to paint the white rose red, there is a delightful scene in his Through the Looking Glass, when the roses and other flowers take on human qualities and engage Alice in conversation.
“It’s my opinion that you never think at all,” the Rose said, in a rather severe tone.
“I never saw anything that looked stupider,” a Violet said, so suddenly that Alice quite jumped, for it hadn’t spoken before.
“Hold your tongue,” cried the Tiger-lily. “As if you ever saw anybody! You keep your head under your leaves, and snore away there, till you know no more what’s going on in the world, than if you were a bud!”
“Are there many people in the garden besides me?”
Alice said, not choosing to notice the Rose’s last remark.
“There’s one other flower in the garden that can move about like you,” said the Rose, “I wonder how you do it – ” (“You’re always wondering,” said the Tiger-lily), “but she’s more bushy than you are.”
“Is she like me?” Alice asked eagerly, for the thought crossed her mind. “There’s another little girl in the garden, somewhere!”
“Well, she has the same awkward shape as you,” the Rose said, “but she’s redder and her petals are shorter I think.”
“Her petals are done up close almost like a dahlia,” said the Tiger-lily: “not tumbled about anyhow like yours.”
“But that’s not your fault,” the Rose added kindly.
“You’re beginning to fade you know and then one can’t help one’s petals getting a little untidy.”
Another children’s story in which the rose plays a prominent part is the nursery tale Beauty and the Beast. One version of the tale, which first appeared in 1744, concerns a merchant who has lost all his money and decides to leave his daughters to go and seek a new. fortune. He asks each of his children what they want him to bring back for them and they all ask for expensive presents – except Beauty. She only asks for a rose. The merchant departs and his search is in vain. But, as he is returning home he remembers Beauty’s request and cuts a rose from the garden of an apparently deserted castle. However, the castle is inhabited by a hideous monster, who takes the merchant captive and says he is going to kill him unless he gives the monster his daughter Beauty in marriage. Beauty saves her father’s life by going to the monster’s castle where she takes pity on the Beast and finally grows to love him. When she consents to marry him, her love and courage release him from an evil curse and he turns into a handsome prince.
Oscar Wilde wrote a very sad tale of a nightingale and a rose.
The nightingale overhears a wayward young girl tell her student sweetheart that she will not love him unless he brings her a red rose. However, there are no red roses in his garden, so the nightingale offers to help him. The bird flies off to find a red rose but only encounters white and yellow ones. Finally, a rose tree tells the nightingale that, if he will sing all night with his breast pressed against one of the rose’s thorns, the rose will turn red with the bird’s blood by the following morning. The nightingale is so anxious to help the young student and sings all night as the rose instructs and in the morning the rose has turned red. But when the young student offers it to his sweetheart she tells him that she is going out with another boy who has given her jewels. The brave little nightingale had given its life in vain.
In the world of drama, Alun Owen wrote a modern version of the theme of beauty and the beast for his play The Rose Affair which was well received a few years ago as a television play.
Tennessee Williams in his play The Rose Tattoo takes rose symbolism to almost impossible lengths. As well as the rose tattoos of the title appearing on several people’s breasts, the leading woman’s surname is Delle Rose, her dead husband’s name was Rosario, their daughter is called Rosa. Rose symbolism also appears in the form of a rose-coloured gown, rose wallpaper, rose hair oil, and a fan with a rose painted on it. The critic John Mason Brown said of the play, “Not since the houses of York and Lancaster feuded long and publicly have roses been used more lavishly than by Mr. Williams. To Gertrude Stein, ‘a rose is a rose is a rose is a rose .. .’ She had the phrase printed in the form of a circle to express its tautology. But to Mr. Williams roses are mystical signs, proof of passion, symbols of devotion and buds no less than thorns in the flesh.”
Perhaps some day someone will write a stage play worthy of our national flower.