CANDIDA LYCETT GREEN contributed to Vogue for over 20 years. Following her death this week, read her final feature for the magazine – which featured in the June 2014 issue – here.
“There is simply the rose;” wrote the American poet Ralph Waldo Emerson, “it is perfect in every moment of its existence.” The single bud of a moss rose, the perfect unfolding form of a tea rose or the blowsy voluptuousness of a full-blown cabbage rose, define the meaning of beauty. The rose could not be more sovereign in the hierarchy of flowers, nor its connotation more lovely. Its scent can be bewitching and elusive: no perfumier has quite managed to reproduce it. It is the national flower of England and wars have been fought in its name – the red rose of Lancaster versus the white rose of York. Roses are woven into our culture, from the rose windows of our great gothic cathedrals to the faded rose chintzes, such as Colefax & Fowler’s “Old Rose”, in old-fashioned country-house bedrooms. No image of the country is complete without a rambling rose around a cottage doorway, and few households in the land, however minimally they are furnished, do not contain the image of a rose somewhere, whether it be on a teacup or as a tiny detail on a piece of underwear.
Its scent can be bewitching and elusive: no perfumier has quite managed to reproduce it
Picture credit: Venetia Scott
There is something deeply comforting about roses. Stephen Jones’s hats made from clutches of pale pink silk rose heads epitomise an English summer’s day, and when I see a dress in a rose print some inner part of me is drawn towards it. My wedding dress had a sprinkling of white organza roses falling down from the waistline at the back and on to the train. It was probably my mum’s idea – I don’t remember, all I know is that I was imbued with a love of roses from the beginning (Rose is my second name, and the second name of all our daughters, too).
My mum loved a rose called Rosa mundi the best. At the back of our house, in a remote village 700ft up in the Downs, there was a high-walled garden where I was let loose as a small child, unable to escape. All I remember was the profusion of Rosa mundi and their smell, nothing else. The rose bushes were at exactly my height and I could look straight into the frills of white petals – striped, veined or splashed with shocking pink, as though they’d been hand-coloured by a child. Those far-off Junes are a fixed part of me, and although we left the house when I was eight and the subsequent owners filled in the whole garden with a huge neo-Georgian ballroom the size of which didn’t suit the modest rectory, I often try and return to the garden in my mind. Only TS Eliot’s haunting lines from the Four Quartets remind me that I can never quite get back:
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden.
Much later I learned that the pink and white rose of my childhood was named after “Fair” Rosamund Clifford, the ravishing mistress of Henry II. “Rose of all roses, rose of all the world,/ Who dreamed that beauty passes like a dream?”
The rose was sacred to Aphrodite and has symbolised love and beauty ever since. It is woven into the language of love poetry and the art of courtship and seduction. Perhaps because red is the colour of passion or because Robbie Burns likened his love to “a red, red rose”, a gift of red roses remains the ultimate romantic gesture. Cleopatra carpeted her bedroom with red roses when she received Mark Antony, and Gunther Sachs showered 4,000 red roses from a helicopter on to Brigitte Bardot’s house in the South of France in an effort to win her heart. Probably a single rose would have done it. Even the wisecracking Dorothy Parker melted on receiving one. “A single flow’r he sent me, since we met./ All tenderly his messenger he chose;/ Deep-hearted, pure, with scented dew still wet -/ One perfect rose.” So often I’ve seen young men hurrying home to their partners after work clutching a bunch of red roses, perhaps in an effort to patch up a row, perhaps to mark their love. Peter Beales, the celebrated rosarian, insisted that the red rose had saved more marriages than all the guidance counsellors of the world put together.
But the florists’ unseasonal, scentless sentinels, grown abroad for Valentine’s day, are a different thing altogether to the rich, voluptuous roses of our summer gardens. If you were given a bunch of the deepest crimson “Charles de Mills” roses, for instance (perhaps the most magnificent of old-fashioned roses, with its closely packed petals pleated into wonderful patterns), you might easily accept a proposal. The creation of such glamorous roses through cross-breeding began in the geometric rose gardens of Persia, Turkey, India and China 2,000 years ago. Over centuries the rose’s original simplicity became ever more exotic, with increasingly intricate arrangements of petals and headier scents and in countless shades, from the darkest ruby to the palest apricot. Their splendour inspired the Dutch and Flemish flower painters, but it was Pierre-Joseph Redouté, Marie-Antoinette’s official court artist, who became the most famous painter of roses: reproductions of his work are as popular with the English today as they ever were. There is a feeling of reassurance about them. The Empress Joséphine later became Redouté’s patron and was so passionate about roses that she collected 200 different varieties from all over the world to plant in her garden at Malmaison. French society followed her lead and a wealth of new roses were created with names such as “Mme Alfred Carrière” and “Duchesse de Berry”.
Today the rose reference database includes 6,500 different names of rose, from “Darcey Bussell” and “The Lady of Shalott” to “Alan Titchmarsh” and my dad, “John Betjeman” (who comes in a shade of shocking pink). We are spoilt for choice. The trouble is that because roses have such an ephemeral flowering time, are prone to disease and can look like used Kleenex tissues after rain, many modern garden designers omit them from their schemes, following in the footsteps of the legendary gardener Christopher Lloyd, who publicly decried roses in the Seventies. There seems to be no place for the rose in the clean-lined, architectural block planting of today.
Apart from in spectacular municipal plantings, especially in Scotland where they seem to thrive, roses look best in romantic gardens. Dan Pearson, the designer of the garden on Thomas Heatherwick’s bridge across the Thames, will never forsake them. He loves the most simple, naturalistic five-petalled forms the best, like the ones that grow in the wild – the pure white “Cooperi” rose or the incense-smelling Rosa primula. “No wild garden is complete without one,” he says. And the wild rose was where it all began. “Unkempt about the hedges blows/ An English unofficial rose”. For me, these common hedgerow climbers of Rupert Brooke’s poem are the most moving and familiar of all, wreathed in among hawthorn and blackthorn and shooting out bowers of simple flowers in June – the dog rose, field rose, downy rose and sweet briar (or eglantine, as it was referred to by Shakespeare).
They were the roses I stared at on my bedroom curtains as a child. The fabric “Rose Briar” was designed by William Morris and had been given to my Pre-Raphaelite-mad parents by his daughter May, who lived at nearby Kelmscott. When I was 11 I was taken to Buscot Park to look at a series of paintings by Edward Burne-Jones called The Legend of the Briar Rose. It was a defining moment. The first depicted the discovery of the sleeping soldiers completely entwined in thorny tendrils of briar rose – “The fateful slumber floats and flows/ About the tangle of the rose” – and the last, The Rose Bower, showed the sleeping beauty and her attendants surrounded by the palest pink roses. I had never seen anything more romantic in my life.
When I asked Tim Walker why he used roses in so many of his fashion photographs, he told me that he, too, had been captivated by the Burne-Jones paintings. “You never tire of roses. They are perfection. I think I was also influenced by Beauty and the Beast, which I read as a kid; the image of the Beast giving Beauty a rose has stayed with me.”
The image of the rose persists. “And the roses – the roses! Rising out of the grass, tangled round the sun-dial, wreathing the tree trunks and hanging from their branches, climbing up the walls and spreading over them with long garlands falling in cascades – they came alive day by day, hour by hour. Fair, fresh leaves, and buds – and buds – tiny at first but swelling and working Magic until they burst and uncurled into cups of scent delicately spilling themselves over their brims and filling the garden air.” For me, this description of Mary Lennox opening the door into the Secret Garden at Misselthwaite Manor, which had been locked for years, brings home a picture of romantic perfection where the rose was, and always will be, a garden’s crowning glory.