Saturday 12 December 2020

Shakespeare's Flowers

Yesterday, after an excellent lunch at Locanda Locatelli (I wasn't paying), I strolled, Jeffrey Archer-like, down to Piccadilly and penetrated the Royal Academy shop. This was no easy undertaking: they point the temperature gun at you and send you to queue for an entry pass, which is only issued after you have given your name, address and email. Masks mandatory, of course. There was another queue (mercifully quite short) at the shop, but once in, I had the usual enjoyable browse. One of the cards I bought was this one. It's by Philip Sutton, an artist who is still working at the age of 92 (down at West Bay in Dorset). With its vivid coloration and dashing draughtsmanship, it could almost be a Dufy, but its subject is very English – 'Shakespeare's Flowers'. 
  Shakespeare's works include mentions of 175 varieties of plants (and not a single butterfly), and many 'Shakespeare gardens', containing some or all of these plants, have been created on both sides of the Atlantic. Most are quite approximate in their approach, aiming more at a vaguely Elizabethan and Shakespearean feel, perhaps concentrating on but one aspect of Shakespeare's flora. One such garden turns up in E.F. Benson's Mapp and Lucia, in which we find Lucia sitting in her 'Perdita's Garden'. Benson describes it thus:

'It was a charming little square plot in front of the timbered fa├žade of the Hurst, surrounded by yew-hedges and intersected with paths of crazy pavement, carefully smothered in stone-crop, which led to the Elizabethan sundial from Wardour Street in the centre. It was gay in spring with those flowers (and no others) on which Perdita doted. There were 'violets dim', and primroses and daffodils, which came before the swallow dared and took the winds (usually of April) with beauty.

But now in June the swallow had dared long ago, and when spring and the daffodils were over, Lucia always allowed Perdita's garden a wider, though still strictly Shakespearian scope. There was eglantine (Penzance briar) in full flower now, and honeysuckle and gillyflowers and plenty of pansies for thoughts, and yards of rue (more than usual this year), and so Perdita's garden was gay all the summer.

Here then, this morning, Lucia seated herself by the sundial, all in black, on a stone bench on which was carved the motto 'Come thou north wind, and blow thou south, that my garden spices may flow forth.' Sitting there with Pepino's poems and The Times she obscured about one-third of this text, and fat little Daisy would obscure the rest...'


  1. Almost said "But wait!" ; but then again, you're right: Old Lear's "gilded butterflies" are another creature entirely.

  2. Yes, they're purely generic – and probably symbolic. Nobody seems to have seen butterflies as individual species till well into the C17.