April: The Language of Flowers at Shakespeare’s Painted Room

April: The Language of Flowers at Shakespeare’s Painted Room

First the nodding daffodils climbing the sides of the Castle Mound, Oxford’s green lookout watching over the city, next the snakeshead fritillaries, fragile and intricate, abundant, but each showing as a separate flower, in the water meadows at Iffley and the grounds of Magdalen College, and followed by english native bluebells in our local woodlands our in flower now.  OPT look after the Mound, and carefully manage our water meadows in Meadow Lane and North Hinksey so that each year we head out in the expectation that our annual flower count will yield higher numbers, as it did again this year,  whilst still remembering to tend our trees and copses at Boars Hill so that everyone can enjoy the carpet of bluebells spreading out across the forest floor – do take a walk and enjoy them, they are there for all to share.   

The language of flowers is on my mind as OPT prepares for our annual Shakespeare’s birthday celebrations in the week after Easter.   This all centres around 3 Cornmarket and the Painted Rooms which are the remaining part of the earlier Crown Tavern which occupied this place, and where Shakespeare is known to have stayed on his way between London and Stratford, John Davenant, the innkeeper, a close friend.  Now in OPT ownership, at this time each year we drink a toast to the immortal bard and open the Painted Rooms to share this amazing story with its links to the Bard. The programme of events for this year begins on Friday 26 April with the annual Shakespeare Parade led by our Shakespeare Crier with music by the Oxfords Waits, and Shakespeare performed by Oxford Spires School.  On Saturday there is a Day School with Oxford University at Rewley House when experts will come together to unlock more of the secrets behind the place, ending on Sunday with the Painted Rooms opening with lute and Shakespeare players to entertain. 

So what of the talk of flowers? In the upper floors of 3 Cornmarket between Vodafone and Pret a Manger it is hard to believe there is anything old, yet alone the Painted Room where spreading across the wall from floor to ceiling are rare surviving Elizabethan decorations dating back over 300 years ago.   Painted directly onto the timbers and the plaster walls, the design is that of ancient strapwork where the pattern winds and intertwines across the wall, creating separate little areas into which a single stylised flower has been painted.  Using natural pigments in black, white, orange, and yellow and red ochres the work is that of local craftsmen rather than artist or painter.  You won’t find here the subtle tones of nature, for this is something vivid and decoration, almost too striking for the modern eye.  Do these highly decorative flowers have hidden meaning? We know that at that time the Elizabethans were very fond of creating complex ways of communicating, using symbols and we know that flowers, in particular, were given special attributes, a language of flowers then widely understood.  Indeed, Shakespeare is well known for using this language of flowers in his own writings, so might we at least wonder at a link between the extraordinary painted walls and what inspiration they might have been? 

Over the past year we have linked up with Oxford University and Plant Sciences who occupy their own special building and look after their own extraordinary piece of history in their care of some of the earliest botanical collections in existence.  Do look out for them opening at Oxford Open Doors this year 14/15 September.   Through them we hope to discover more about the plants and flowers depicted and to uncover more of their meaning.  Indeed, Professor Stephen Harris will be joining us on the Saturday to share something of what he has learnt from his recent visit to 3 Cornmarket.  For information on any of the events go to the OPT website www.oxfordpreservation.org.uk