Scents and sensuality: stories of roses in our collections
Roses, more than any other flower, are steeped in symbolism, history and meaning which can be found in abundance in our houses, gardens and collections.
As Head Curator Sally-Anne Huxtable explores, these delicate and fragrant blooms have been employed to represent love, war, beauty, and purity, as well as used in cuisine, medicine and perfume.
The cultivated rose
Although many species of wild roses grow across the Northern hemisphere, one of the earliest roses to be cultivated was the Apothecary’s rose (Rosa gallica var. officinalis). This deep pink, scented rose is believed to have originated in Persia, where it was used for perfume and for medicinal and culinary purposes.
The rose was also cultivated by crossing it with other roses such as the Musk rose (Rosa moschata) which is believed to have originated in the Western Himalayas, to create new hybrid varieties such as the Damask rose (Rosa x damascene).
The rose was an important motif of spiritual and secular love in Persian literature and in Greek and Roman mythology, something which was to become central to many Western cultures.
In the 13th century, Crusaders brought various species roses, such as the Apothecary’s and the Damask roses, back from the Middle East to Western Europe. It is thought that almost all cultivated roses in Europe have some DNA element of the Apothecary’s rose.
These useful and beautiful flowers soon became a feature of monastery gardens, but also increasingly found their way into both religious and secular culture, where the rose came to symbolise both sacred and profane aspects of love.
Know your (old) roses
Gallicas are thought be the oldest cultivated rose in Europe, grown by the ancient Greeks and Romans. 'Rosa gallica var. officinalis' (Apothecary's rose) grows in the borders at Mottisfont, Hampshire.
Said to have been brought from the Middle East by Crusaders, Damasks are renowned for their scent and are commercially harvested for rose oil. Here, Rosa 'Ispahan' grows at Sissinghurst, Kent.
Dating to the Middle Ages, Alba roses can be white, pink or blush ('alba' means 'white' in Latin). Pictured here is Rosa 'Félicité Parmentier' at Llanerchaeron, Ceredigion, Wales.
Centifolia, or the 'hundred petal' rose, is a late 16th-century Dutch variety. Rosa 'Muscosa' at Mottisfont, Hampshire is a sport from which most 'moss' roses are derived, so named because of the resinous hairs that cover the buds.
The mythological rose
In ancient Greek and Roman cultures, pink roses symbolised their respective goddesses of love, Aphrodite and Venus. As in this miniature copy of Titian’s 'The Venus of Urbino' at Ham House, Surrey, the Roman goddess is often depicted holding these blooms, the petals of which she would scatter over the earth on her travels through the sky in her chariot flown by doves.
The mystical rose
One of the ways in which the early Church supplanted pagan religions, such as that of the Romans, was by adapting and repurposing their symbols. In a religion which originally had no female deity, it was not long before the Virgin Mary’s role was elevated to the status of a goddess figure, like Venus and Aphrodite.
One way of doing this was to adopt pagan symbols as part of Marian symbolism and myth. The erotic roses of Venus were transubstantiated into a symbol of Mary’s eternal purity as ‘the rose without thorns’ and of her divine nature as the ‘Rosa Mystica’ (Mystical Rose) with the thorns representing her suffering and grief at Christ’s crucifixion.
From the Middle Ages onwards, roses symbolised the love, purity and grief of the Virgin in religious art and literature. This theme was revived by the Pre-Raphaelite, Aesthetic and Symbolist painters in the second half of the 19th and early 20th centuries. In a 1901 painting by John Melhuish Strudwick of the Virgin and Child at Lanhydrock in Cornwall, Mary and the Christ Child are surrounded, and apparently untouched by a profusion of wild roses.
The romantic rose
The symbol of the rose was also central to one of the most influential and important secular poems of the Middle Ages. The 'Roman de la Rose' is a 13th-century allegorical French poem of courtly love, started by Guillaume de Lorris and finished by another author, Jean de Meun. The poem was also adapted by Geoffrey Chaucer (and probably two other anonymous authors) as the 'Romaunt of the Rose', c.1360-70.
The poem takes the form of an allegorical dream vision, a pilgrim’s quest for perfect love which he eventually achieves in the form of plucking a rose from a bush inside the ‘Garden of Pleasure’. In order to enter this walled garden, he must overcome all manner of obstacles. As well as having obvious sexual connotations, the poem is also a manual on the medieval art of romantic love.
The Tudor rose
In the 15th century, roses took on very different connotations during the series of English civil wars for the English throne between the Royal Houses of York and Lancaster, known as the Wars of the Roses (1455-1487).
The House of York was represented by the white rose, and the House of Lancaster by the ‘red’ Apothecary’s rose (in the early modern world, the colour pink was classed as ‘red'). At the conclusion of the wars, with the formation of the House of Tudor uniting both factions, the famous Tudor Rose – with white petals at the centre and red around the outside – was created as a symbol of the new regime.
In a posthumous 1575 portrait of Henry VII’s consort, Elizabeth of York, at Lacock Abbey, Wiltshire, the Queen is depicted wearing both the red and white roses together as a symbol of the union of Lancaster and York, rather than the Tudor rose symbol her husband created.
Possibly following the example of the Tudors, the formidable Bess of Hardwick (1527–1608) chose the wild, Sweet Briar, or Eglantine, rose (Rosa rubiginosa) as part of her Hardwick coat of arms. This can be seen in the incredible 1568 inlaid 'Aeglentyne' (Eglantine) table at Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire, probably commissioned by Bess to commemorate her marriage to George Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury in 1567.
" I know a bank where the wild thyme blows, Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows, Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine, With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine"
The perfume rose
In spite of (or maybe because of) only reportedly bathing once a month, ‘whether she needed it or no’, Elizabeth I was fascinated by perfumes. The Queen brought Venetian perfumiers to Britain to create perfumes to scent her clothing, hair and skin, and to fill the pomanders (a round container filled with aromatic substances) to perfume the air and – it was believed – ward off the plague.
Most scents contained extracts of the Damask rose. This recipe for a fragrance is believed to have been used by Elizabeth herself:
‘Take a quarter of a pound of Damask rose-buds cut clean from the Whites, stamp them very small, put to them a good spoonful of Damask Rosewater, so let them stand close stopped all night….’ Mix in benjamin (resin), civit and musk, ‘then make it up into little cakes between rose leaves, and dry them between sheets of paper’.
The medicinal rose
For many Elizabethans, roses were instrumental in herbal remedies. Roses, prepared in different ways (rosewater, rose syrup, powdered rose stamens), were used to treat a range of ailments from dysentary to melancholy.
In John Gerard's hugely influential 'Herball, or Generall Historie of Plantes', first published in 1597, roses are a panacea for all manner of afflictions, from bloody flux, painful eyes and insomnia. Indeed, rosewater promised to bring sleep, 'which also the fresh Roses themselves provoke through their sweete and pleasant smell'.
The culinary rose
Gerard’s 'Herball' also discusses the myriad culinary uses that wealthier Tudors made of roses, such as sugared rose petals.
Perhaps less appetising to a modern palette, Gerard also advised a morning meal of Musk rose petals, prepared 'in maner of a sallade, with oile, vinegar & pepper' so as to purge 'waterish and cholericke humours' from the body.
The symbolic rose
In the 19th century an intricate ‘Language of Flowers’ was created and used in the arts and in popular culture. In this symbolic language, roses could take on multiple meanings, with colour further complicating the matter, so that, for instance, yellow roses came to represent jealousy.
The rose as a symbol of love in all of its forms has endured to the present, not least because our contemporary culture prizes the ideal of the quest for romantic love devised by medieval literature such as 'Roman de la Rose', more than almost anything.
Central to that idea is also the notion of unrequited love, as in this beautiful but melancholy 1935 portrait by Rex Whistler of Lady Caroline Paget, also known as 'The Girl with a Red Rose', the focus of his unreciprocated affections.
The rose revived
By the early 20th century many old rose varieties had become neglected and were in danger of dying out. The revival of interest in saving and celebrating the astounding variety of roses got under way in the 1930s, with a plantsman and rosarian called Graham Stuart Thomas (1909–2003) as one of the main driving forces behind the resurgence.
Thomas had learned his craft from a number of experts, including the garden designer Gertrude Jekyll who instilled in him the idea that gardening was an art form. When, the National Trust acquired the important garden at Hidcote Manor in 1948, Thomas assisted with the garden. In 1955 he joined the Trust as Gardens Advisor.
Thomas’s masterpiece is the rose garden at Mottisfont Abbey, which he designed in the 1970s. He planted it with his collection of old-fashioned roses, assembled over many years, and herbaceous perennials to create a glorious display of colour and perfume that is, today, one of the jewels of the National Trust. Thomas’s legacy is not only the gardens he created, but the renewal of interest in historic roses and the multisensory delights they can bring.
Art & collections
We care for one of the world's largest and most significant collections of art and heritage objects. Explore the highlights, our latest major exhibitions, curatorial research and more.