Friday, September 7, 2012


Future scholars of the better florists of Edwardian London may well be indebted to Violet W. Stevenson, whose Successful Flower Marketing and The Encyclopaedia of Floristry, though published respectively in 1952 and 1954 by W. H. Collingridge Limited and Transatlantic Arts Incorporated, appear to codify many practices that must have been firmly established fifty years earlier. Miss Stevenson’s style is brisk, sensible, and businesslike. Aesthetic judgments are cautious but firm, her emphases generally technical: for instance, one is struck by the elaborateness and sheer number of fiddly processes of wiring, indeed the enormous quantity of wire that went into every arrangement and bouquet—nine different gauges in various lengths, on reels, and in coils used for many different purposes such as strengthening stems, straightening leaves, and preventing blooms from disintegrating prematurely. All of this is reminiscent of the ostrich-feather industry, which was similarly wire dependent. Miss Stevenson’s business was obviously geared towards furnishing “shower bouquets” for weddings as opposed to presentations at Court, though the finished articles themselves must have been pretty much identical, a froth of blooms and wispy ferns that could easily descend as far as the hem, if not farther. By the 1950s tuberoses had gone out of fashion, presumably absorbed by the booming postwar fragrance industry, though wartime austerities must surely have played their part. The article on gladioli is somewhat surprising, commending as it does their usefulness in creating enormous corsage ornaments, as well as structuring bouquets and sheaves around them. Imagine the size of a corsage ornament consisting of a couple of thrusting glads. No doubt this fashion was the target of Barry Humphries’s 1955 creation of Mrs. Everage. “It should not be assumed,” writes Miss Stevenson, “that grasses are only permissible in Victorian floristry. Modern designs lend themselves quite well to certain varieties of grass, not the quaking grass of our grandmothers but the bolder, water-grass, eryanthus, wheat and barley. Most of these are obtainable from the [horticultural] sundriesman in their natural colours, bleached or dyed.” According to the OED, quaking grass, n., is “any of various grasses of the genus Briza, having broad, flattened spikelets dangling on slender stalks which tremble in the breeze; esp. (more fully common quaking grass) B. media, which is widely distributed in Eurasia,” and was therefore, of course, ideal for the sort of tremulous shower bouquets that we have seen in considerable abundance at the glittering evening Courts of King Edward and Queen Alexandra at Buckingham Palace.

As one might expect, Miss Stevenson’s mini-dissertation on color rewards close inspection. “The development of colour consciousness,” she writes, “and the true appreciation of colour harmony is an essential qualification for the would-be successful florist,” and their under-development, by implication, almost a guarantee of failure. “There is often so little regard to the suitability of certain colour combinations that far too many floral designs appear to have been assembled with little or no thought of colour harmony...It is not enough to say that the hue of one flower never clashes with another unless you embrace the whole subject and go on to add, when sufficient green is present in stem and foliage to act as a buffer between each colour and the next. No florist can afford to disregard the value of green. It is an important ingredient in floral colour harmonies.” Miss Stevenson does tend to state identical points twice in neighboring sentences, for emphasis. She goes on to recite the standard line on primaries, secondaries, and complimentaries in the color spectrum; the distinctions between hue and tone, shade and tint, pure and “broken” colors, and between contrasting and analogous two- and three-color harmonies. She warns against unfortunate stridency or the jarring effect of ill-conceived adjacencies, and suggests ingenious methods of re-introducing softness and/or pallor. Here, I think, we may identify the point at which Miss Stevenson diverges from her Edwardian predecessors, for not long ago we observed that for them no color combination was too riotous, no effect of texture too assertive or forceful, and no shape or assemblage disproportionate in scale, on the contrary. Wisely, however, Miss Stevenson advises against coronet and veil ornaments composed of lilies, daisies, or daffodils (!), recommending instead “waxy, white flowers, such as stephanotis, gardenias, or camellias, that have about them a slight air of luxury.” And it is back to luxury that this curiously neglected branch of London commerce invariably leads us.

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