Say It With Flowers — but mind your language!

The concept of flower symbolism goes back many centuries, and examples of it can be found in many countries. One theory for its origin is that in some countries where women were not taught to write they used flowers instead to convey their messages.

A famous example from English literature is the madness and death of Ophelia in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Having handed out some meaningful herbs and flowers to various characters during her mad scene (rosemary, pansy, fennel, columbine, rue, daisy, violet), she drowns in a stream with weeds and flowers in her hands (crow flowers, nettles, daisies, long purples). In his painting Ophelia (1852), the Pre-Raphaelite artist John Everett Millais combines flowers from both scenes, and adds a few more of his own (roses, forget-me-nots and poppies).

Ophelia, 1851-52. Millais, Sir John Everett (1829-1896), oil on canvas, 76 x 112 cm, Date: 1851-52.

In the 19th century there was a huge surge of interest in the language of flowers or ‘floriography’. By the end of the century many ‘floral dictionaries’ had emerged, both in the UK and in America, some including poetry and illustrations. A book entitled Flower Lore: The Teachings of Flowers, Historical, Legendary, Poetical and Symbolic (1879) by a Miss Carruthers of Inverness became a standard source, and one of the best known examples, thanks to its illustrations, is Kate Greenaway’s The Language of Flowers (1884), still in print today.

Illustration by Kate Greenaway in 'The Language of Flowers'

All of this came at a time when flowers were part of a coded language of courtship—a man giving a woman snowdrops, for example, could be an expression of hope, while violets would signify faithfulness. The nosegay (a small bouquet) was very popular with the Victorians, either as a gift or as a wedding bouquet. Flower symbolism also appeared on greetings cards (especially Valentine’s cards), postcards, in embroidered form, as well as in accessories such as fans and ephemera such as soap wrappers.

Floral decorative fan with frilly edging showing pictures of flowers -- each section explains the symbolism of flowers, eg Pansy for Thoughts, Snowdrop for Hope. Date: c. 1910s
Roses to most people’s minds signify love, but the different colours, and whether in bud or full flower, have different shades of meaning: single rose (simplicity), deep red (bashful shame), damask (brilliant complexion admired), cabbage (ambassador of love), white (I am worthy of you), white and red together (unity), white bud (girlhood), red bud (pure and lovely).

Chocolate box design, featuring three red roses. Date: 20th century

But some flowers have negative connotations. Here are a few which are perhaps best avoided: aconite (misanthropy), columbine (folly), lavender (distrust), morning glory (affectation), narcissus (egotism), oleander (beware) or yellow carnations (rejection).

With all this floral activity going on there was bound to be a cynical backlash sooner or later. The scientist and novelist H.G. Wells wrote a humorous essay (circa 1897) ridiculing romantic flower symbolism: There was no downright “No!” in the language of flowers, nothing equivalent to “Go away, please,” no flower for “Idiot!” The only possible defence was something in this way: “Your cruelty causes me sorrow,” “Your absence is a pleasure.” For this … you would have to get a sweet-pea blossom for Pleasure, wormwood for Absence, and indicate Sorrow by the yew, and Cruelty by the stinging-nettle. There is always a little risk of mixing your predicates in this kind of communication, and he might, for instance, read that his Absence caused you Sorrow, but he could scarcely miss the point of the stinging-nettle.’

Whether we agree or not with H.G., the flower industry seems to be still flourishing nicely!

Wedding Lore

Married in month of roses – June- Life will be one long honeymoon”.

The month of June, and the mind meanders towards thoughts of summer; to exotic holidays, to chaotic family day trips, and frequently to weddings, and all that they entail.

I recently had the pleasure of perusing the pages of ‘Every Woman’s Encyclopedia’, c. 1912, a magazine very much of its time, when many considered that a woman’s place was in the home and her abiding concerns and interests were all things domestic. The articles within this volume are overflowing with information on, amongst other things, home furnishings, table decorations, cookery, embroidery, fashion, children, and last but certainly not least, marriage. The magazine contemplates all aspects of the lead up to matrimony, but principally focuses on wedding tradition and lore, which seemed an interesting subject for a blog.

A bride getting ready for her wedding day

The magazine is a wealth of information on how one can actively enhance one’s chances of a successful marriage, divulging all manner of scenarios which should either be sincerely welcomed or avoided at all costs by the bride-to be. Who knew that if the bride came across a spider in the folds of her wedding gown she would never lack for money, or that if she was awoken by a robin on the morning of her wedding, or saw swallows come to the eaves for the first time on the big day, she would be eternally blessed?

kitsch / souvenir, swallow with loveletter, Germany,

It was considered good practice for the bride to step over the Church threshold with her right foot to safeguard her future happiness.  Any jewellery could be worn except for pearls- which symbolise tears- and the wedding ring must not have been tried on prior to the ceremony. Orange blossom was a popular flower at weddings and had, since the time of the Crusades, been regarded as an emblem of prosperity (owing to the fact that in the East, the orange tree bears ripe fruit and blossoms simultaneously); the flower being white was also regarded as symbolic of innocence and chastity.

Citrus sinensis, orange tree
Bride Enters Church Followed by Bridesmaids

With regards to when to marry, June has always been considered the month for weddings, and Roman maidens preferred it to any other, because it was the name month of Juno, the goddess who took love matters, and all feminine interests especially, under her protection.

Front cover from Britannia and Eve.
Mother-of-Pearl Fan Blessing of Juno

There is a paragraph on when not to marry too, which marks out May as the worst month of all: “So ancient is the dislike to May marriages that Ovid refers to it as the evil month of May”. The church forbade weddings between Rogation and Whit Sunday, pious and nervous folk originating the familiar adage, “Marry in May, and you’ll rue the day”. It was also considered indecorous to marry on a Sunday, the day of worship, and in England the prejudice against a Friday marriage may be traced to Good Friday, a most sorrowful and unfortunate day. And finally, spare a thought for those intending to marry in April, who would have had to live with the following ‘poetic’ line haunting them forever more: “An April bride will be inconstant, not very intelligent, but fairly good-looking”. Charming.

A few other bizarre rituals explored include the drawing of a piece of wedding cake through a ring (preferably a wedding ring) and placing it under the pillow three nights in succession, and the inquirer would then be rewarded by a vision of their future spouse. If no one appeared in their dream, they would need to resign themselves to life as a singleton. There was also an unusual custom in connection with the youngest daughter, which decreed that all her elder sisters must dance at her wedding without shoes in order to counteract the bad luck which would otherwise befall them if they married in “wrong order” of age. Another custom recounted was the throwing of a plate (full of bride-cake crumbs) down from an upper window as the bride alights from her carriage. If the plate reaches the ground unbroken, it was an unfavourable omen, but if it shattered in pieces (the more the better) good luck was sure to attend her.

DANCE IN A MEADOW
GIRL DREAMS OF WEDDING
The colour of one’s wedding attire was also under considerable scrutiny. Wearing red was frowned upon at this time, “Married in red, you will wish yourself dead”, whilst the traditional colour of white was very much the favourite, “Married in white, you’ll be alright”, though in fact, frugality meant that many brides would simply marry in their Sunday best frock.  It was Queen Victoria’s unusual choice of a white lace gown for her marriage to Prince Albert in 1839 that was to set a trend among Western brides that continues to this day.

VICTORIA MARRIES ALBERT
QUEEN VICTORIA
WEDDING DRESS 1926

The familiar saying, “Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue” is also mentioned and an explanation is given for each line: something old in order to retain the love and affection that was the bride’s in her old life; something new, for success in her new life; something borrowed so that friends may ever be helpful and faithful, and something blue, an emblem of loyalty and constancy.

It was considered unlucky for the bride to break anything on her wedding day; such an unfortunate act would almost certainly lead to a lifetime of discord with her in-laws. The magazine also underlines the importance of feeding one’s cat on the wedding day (should the bride have one of course); in addition, one must not read the marriage service prior to the wedding taking place, and if the bridal party should encounter a pig (or several) en route to the Church, they must turn back with immediate effect and begin their journey again.

kitsch / souvenir, balloon ride of a love couple,

On marriage etiquette and protocol, the magazine is also a rich source of information. When relating details of the man’s proposal, it suggests that for some, writing a note may be the best option, “When courage to speak is utterly lacking, a proposal by letter is a good way out of the difficulty. Even though much note-paper and brainwork may be wasted on the document, at least it may be counted on to do the business; and after several failures to manage it by speech, there is consolation in this reflection.” The female recipient of the proposal is given the following words of wisdom, “A girl does not wish to appear too ready with her “Yes”. She thinks that this may cheapen her in the eyes of the person whom she would like to value her more highly than anyone else in the world”.

Focus then turns to the wedding itself. The bridal bouquet should be small and elegant as “the huge bouquet with which brides in the end of last and the beginning of the present century were burdened was not at all a graceful adjunct, for several reasons. Its bulk obscured the outline of the figure. It interfered with the pretty folds of the wedding veil. It hid the front of the gown, often very charmingly trimmed with lace or embroidery, and its weight tired the arm of the bride, already quite tired enough with the arduous work of the previous weeks in connection with the trousseau, the correspondence with regards to presents, and other preparations”.

CRANE, A FLOWER WEDDING

The bride-to-be is offered advice on the cutting of the wedding cake, which at this time, was the sole duty of the woman: “There is occasionally a little difficulty in cutting through the sugar icing, but the bride should not let anyone help in her task. A straight, downward thrust, the knife held perpendicularly, will manage the business and the rest is easy”.

CUTTING WEDDING CAKE

The tossing of the bouquet, very familiar to us all, was already firmly entrenched in bridal ritual at this time: “The bride must not forget to distribute sprays of her bouquet among her bridesmaids and other girl friends. There is an idea that this may lead to other weddings”. It goes on to describe how the bride must toss the bouquet high above the heads of wedding guests and the one who caught hold of it was destined to marry within the year.

FATHER OF THE BRIDE

Amusingly, the best man’s prime duty is as follows: “If his friend should be nervous in anticipation of the coming ordeal, it is the business of the best man to inspire him with courage and to infuse into him that spirit of resignation which is his best armour against tribulation”.

GROOM & BEST MAN

In summary, if you had been hoping to get married in 1912, you would be wise to avoid marrying on a Friday or Sunday, especially in May; best not to wear red, and a good idea to keep one’s head down on the journey to Church so as not to chance upon a pig! The final paragraph on wedding lore in this volume concludes very eloquently indeed and  is a fitting end to this blog: “Let the cynics and pessimists sneer and declare what they will, they will never convince the world that Love is not the light of life, its crown and completion, and God’s highest gift to man”.

A vivid and eclectic lightbox of wedding imagery from our archive can be viewed here.

Looking back to the future – robots in the archive

Earlier this month The Science Museum in London opened their much-anticipated blockbuster exhibition ‘Robots’, the first of its kind in the world which charts a comprehensive history of robotics, from their early days right through to the robots of the future.

I wanted to pick out some visual highlights from our archive, which show the diverse nature of how robots have been celebrated in visual media throughout the late 19th and 20th centuries.

Visions of the future

Robots, or ‘automated and mechanical machinery’ were often discussed in 19th century engineering and scientific periodicals, in speculation of how the future may look.  An early example in the archive appears in the ‘La Science Illustrée’, 1896 which shows unusual-looking ‘futuristic’, metallic, almost anthropomorphic machines working on a farm.  In La Nature, 1893 Canadian inventor George Moore’s ‘Steam Man’, a fully mobile robot automaton powered by an internal steam engine is featured.

Early robotics are also featured in an 1886 edition of the British comic ‘Funny Folks’ with a slightly humorous illustration showing a railway commuter in an an automatic shaving and boot polishing chair. ‘The Very Latest Development of the Automatic Mania’, ‘Drop a penny in the hole and take your seat’.

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Rise of the Robot

Robots were first introduced into popular culture by Karel Capek’s science fiction play of 1921, ‘R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots)’. Capek was a Czech writer who, through theatrics, made the Czech word ‘robot’ popular in the English language and synonymous within the realms of science fiction. A much-loved highlight of the Mary Evans archive is the extensive collection of Pulp Science Fiction magazines, published between the 1920s and 1950s and acquired for the library by Hilary Evans. Whilst the stories inside were published in monochrome, the illustrated front covers were reproduced in vivid colour with imagined, utterly bizarre scenarios and many of the stories were based on, or featured robots. Sometimes they were friendly, sometimes not, some from other planets and some closer to home, but nevertheless certainly ‘amazing’ and ‘startling’ as the titles would suggest.

 

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Karel Capek and a programme for the first English production of the play, also known as R.U.R. and written by Karel Capek, when it was performed at St. Martin’s Theatre in London.

 

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Unusual news

Robots were also the focus of many non-fiction stories. Throughout the early half of 20th century, the Italian Sunday supplement, Illustrazione del Popolo (supplement of the Gazetta del Popolo), was well known for its vibrant, candid and overtly dramatic covers based on unusual events-of-the-week throughout the world. As well as coverage on subjects such as the paranormal, bizarre crimes and freak weather, robots were also a hugely popular feature of the news. The Illustrazione del Popolo flourished during the early advances of robotics at a time when they were still objects of wonder and fantasy and the newspaper played on this aspect, presenting robots in all sorts of curious situations and interactions with people.

Robots as a feature of disguise were often reported, one cover of the Illustrazione del Popolo, 18 August 1935 edition; shows Zorinna, president of a naturist club in San Diego, California, carried off by a humanoid robot – much to the horror of her fellow club members. The paper reports that this robot is actually a man in disguise, who thought it would be a crafty way to enter the camp, for what we can imagine would certainly be lewd activities (men were barred from entering)!

Another ‘deception by robot’, in the 6 January edition of the same year, we see a robot or a ‘Man from the year 2000’ has been the subject of an arrest in the Italian city of Pavia on the suspicion that it is actually not a robot, but an imposter – merely a man in disguise. The paper reports that the imposter had been disguised as a ‘Mechanical Marvel’  which had been touring around several Italian cities on an extended tour of Europe.

A few more examples include an anthropomorphic robot, which appears in a 1929 edition of the ‘Illustrazione del Popolo’ – in the form of a robotic guard dog, which had been invented by a French engineer. The illustration seems to show the robot in action, having deterred a gang of burglars – very innovative! Another quirky illustrated scene sees a New York impresario replace his chorus girls with electrically powered robots, however his ingenuity is not well received by the audience (!) in the Illustrazione del Popolo, 16 December 1928.

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Eric the robot

Eric the Robot was Britain’s first robot, designed by Captain William Richards and engineer and inventor Alan Reffell (pictured below) Eric was originally built to inaugurate the Model Engineering Exhibition at the Royal Horticultural Hall in London, 1928, in place of the Duke of York who could not attend, but Eric proved so popular he subsequently toured the world and drew in the thousands. They would flock to see this new mechanical man rise, bow, make a ‘speech’ and stare in wonder at his flashing eyes and teeth!

Shortly after his world tour however and with the continued advance of technology, Eric sadly disappeared from the world stage and was long forgotten about, until recently. As of last year the Science Museum had successfully funded via Kickstarter a campaign to rebuild an exact replica of the famous Eric, (what happened to the original Eric remains a mystery) and is now one of the stars of the Science Museum’s ‘Robots’ exhibition.

A notable example of Eric’s news coverage appeared in the Illustrated London News,15th September edition 1928, in the form of a diagrammatic illustration by artist George Horace David (G.H. Davis) who worked for the Illustrated London News for 40 years up until his death in 1963. The illustration gives a unique cross section showing how, concealed in his body there is an electric motor and a system of pulleys and cables. Eric also featured on the cover of French periodical ‘Le Petit Inventeur’, a wonderful illustration with Eric giving a shoe polish, a caption accompanies the illustration. ‘This scene is not a fantasy, the future will bring us even more surprises’.

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Pictured above right – Mr. Refell, inventor and engineer from Surrey with Eric the robot.

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The servant of the future -- a robotic servant polishes a man's shoes while he sits reading in his armchair. Date: 1929

A greater selection of archive imagery on robots can be viewed here.

The Brothers Robinson

The William Heath Robinson Museum opened in Pinner in October last year, the culmination of many years’ fundraising by the West House and Heath Robinson Trust.  Regardless of how familiar you are with the work of the so-called, ‘Gadget King’, this lovely museum is well worth the trip to the further reaches of the Metropolitan line.  Located just five minutes or so from Pinner station, the museum’s graceful modern building sits within the picturesque Pinner Memorial Park. Divided into three main spaces, one room is devoted to its rolling programme of exhibitions,  another tells the story of Heath Robinson’s career as an illustrator with a third dedicated to workshops and education.

WILLIAM HEATH ROBINSON Artist and illustrator, shown working in his studio. Heath Robinson's prolific career spanned five decades. During this time, he produced countless illustrations for The Sketch and The Bystander as well as other ILN magazines. He is quoted as saying, 'I was fairly launched on my career' of Bruce Ingram's decision to publish his illustrations in The Sketch in March 1906. He is best-known for his ingenious contraptions but his work extended to the themes of golf, cricket, war, gardening and more. Date: 1872 - 1944

WILLIAM HEATH ROBINSON Artist and illustrator, shown working in his studio. Heath Robinson’s prolific career spanned five decades. During this time, he produced countless illustrations for The Sketch and The Bystander as well as other ILN magazines. He is quoted as saying, ‘I was fairly launched on my career’ of Bruce Ingram’s decision to publish his illustrations in The Sketch in March 1906. He is best-known for his ingenious contraptions but his work extended to the themes of golf, cricket, war, gardening and more. Date: 1872 – 1944

The area’s connection with Heath Robinson is deeply felt.  Though he was born in Stroud Green, North London, he moved to Hatch End, near the country village of Pinner with his young family in 1908, an area where his older brother Tom – also an illustrator – was already living.  In 1918, Will, as he was known, moved to a larger house in Cranleigh, Surrey, but his decade spent in Pinner saw him flourish and find permanent fame as an illustrator, and where, arguably, he produced some of his finest work.

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Pinner is no longer the rural idyll it was when Will moved there almost 110 years ago, but it retains a village-like air of tranquility and order, and despite the plethora of chain restaurants now occupying the quaint buildings, the delightfully ancient Queen’s Head pub on the high street, where Will and his friends would regularly congregate for a drink, continues to do a roaring trade.  In fact, Will and his two elder brothers Tom and Charles, would form part of a group jovially entitled the Loyal Federation of Frothfinders.  Together they would go on long walks around the Middlesex countryside with convivial breaks along the way at convenient hostelries, a sort of glorified, bucolic pub crawl.  It seems fitting therefore, that as part of the museum’s latest exhibition, ‘The Brothers Robinson’ which explores the shared and separate talents of Tom, Charles and William Heath Robinson, Paradigm Brewery of Hertfordshire have brewed and bottled a special Frothfinders beer, a move that would most certainly have pleased these ale-loving brethren.

A rather lovely illustration by Charles Robinson, showing a bride and groom arm in arm among an arcadian landscape. Date: 1933
A rather lovely illustration by Charles Robinson, showing a bride and groom arm in arm among an arcadian landscape. Date: 1933

Here at the library, we also have strong connections with William Heath Robinson and his equally talented brothers.  Mary and Hilary collected many children’s books from the so-called ‘Golden Age’ of British publishing when lavish gift books were gloriously illustrated and expensively bound.  Tom, Charles and Will worked both separately and collaboratively on numerous titles we hold here including volumes of Hans Anderson’s Fairy Tales (Will), Old-Time Stories by Charles Perrault (Will) and A Child’s Christmas (Charles).

Children crowd round the window of a Toy Shop to look at the sale bargains within. Date: circa 1908
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Beyond book illustration, it was as a cartoonist that Will found true fame, admitting in his autobiography, ‘My Line of Life’ (also owned by the library), “I was fairly launched on my career as a humorous artist” of Bruce Ingram’s decision to publish him in The Sketch.  The Sketch forms part of the Illustrated London News archive housed and managed here at the library.  His series of First World War cartoons in the magazine, as well as the Illustrated Sporting & Dramatic News, also part of the archive, were hugely popular, prompting soldiers to write to him with suggestions for further absurd contraptions with which to foil the dishonourable machinations of the Germans.  Many of Will’s Great War cartoons for The Sketch featured in the museum’s first exhibition, ‘Heath Robinson at War’, together with examples of his work from the Second World War when he was still contributing illustrations to The Sketch, underlining his long association with the title.  The ILN’s run of The Bystander is also a great source for his cartoons during the 1920s, as is The Strand while his advertising work for brands such as Hovis, Ransome’s Lawnmowers and Mackintosh Toffees, appears frequently.

Perhaps most surprising are many of the exquisite illustrations Charles Robinson contributed to the ILN magazines during the 1920s and 30s; his themes, oozing fantasy, are far more adult and sophisticated than the children’s books he is best known for, but retain his trademark romantic watercolour style.

Beautiful illustration by Charles Robinson showiong a sailor and a lady friend peering over the edge of a ship to see a bevy of beautiful mermaids in the sea below. Date: 1939

Beautiful illustration by Charles Robinson showiong a sailor and a lady friend peering over the edge of a ship to see a bevy of beautiful mermaids in the sea below. Date: 1939

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This new exhibition in Pinner promises to display more than sixty pieces of work by the brothers, many of them not previously seen.  We pulled together our own selection for you to enjoy here, with a reminder that images by William Heath Robinson and Charles Robinson are available for licensing through Mary Evans.  In the meantime, if you’re looking for something to do one weekend soon, why not make a trip to Pinner?

‘The Brothers Robinson’ runs from 21 January 2017 to 26 March 2017 www.heathrobinsonmuseum.org