Friday, 20 June 2014

British Flowers Week: Gallantry in Postman's Park

When I thought about the British flowers that would be available for British Flowers Week, a few leapt out for me: peonies and Sweet Williams.

British peonies are only available for a short time in the early summer, but they are so popular all year round, particularly for weddings. I once worked for a florist who would buy imported (from New Zealand) red peonies for Christmas bouquets, just because she liked them so much. They were beautiful and understandably expensive, but I thought it was madness to order them, especially as it would teach customers that it was reasonable to expect peonies in December in London.

It's interesting that they are so popular for weddings as their symbolic meaning is bashful shame. I guess, like lavender, they are too beautiful and sweetly scented for people to mind what they have represented in the past.

Sweet Williams are beautiful flowers, with a sweet, clove scent. They are from the dianthus family, like carnations and pinks. Sweet Williams and pinks were both the subject of special photoshoots organised by the market and some very talented florists.

Sweet Williams symbolise gallantry, but also finesse and dexterity. It's gallantry that I thought of as I planned to create a floral spray (like a funeral sheaf) to photograph in Postman's Park. I ordered the Sweet Williams from Tregothnan and bought the peonies from the market.

Postman's Park is in the City, close to St Paul's Cathedral and not far from Cannon Street and Blackfriars train stations. My friend Francesca took me there years ago when we had one of those casual, walk-around-town days. It's a lovely green space, usually filled with people sitting on one of the many benches. It got its name from the postal workers who worked nearby, and who would take their breaks there.

Once we got to the artist G. F. Watts's Memorial to Heroic Self-Sacrifice, I realised I had seen the park before (on screen, at least) in the film Closer. Closer is one of my favourite London-set films. It's quite vicious and miserable at times, but tender and funny at others, as you'd expect from Mike Nichols, the director of The Graduate and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Watts's Memorial was based on the artist's suggestion for a gallery to commemorate people who had sacrificed their own lives trying to save someone else. The idea wasn't taken up, so he made the gallery himself, using ceramic tablets inscribed with the name of each person and details of the heroic act that killed them. Each tablet is so beautiful and there is something touching and haunting about the language used. For example, Henry James Bristow, an eight-year-old boy, "Saved his little sister's life by tearing off her flaming clothes but caught fire himself and died of burns and shock". There are a few sisters and brothers who tried to save their siblings, but also people who tried to save strangers, neighbours and colleagues. If you ever need a reminder of the potential kindness and selflessness of people, visit this memorial.

So for British Flowers Week, I made a floral spray using Sweet Williams for gallantry, Sarah Bernhardt peonies (just because they were in season and would add impact), alchemilla mollis and eucalyptus which both symbolise protection, cornflowers which stand for delicacy, rosemary for remembrance, poppy seed heads (the flowers represent consolation) and hazel for reconciliation. When I took the photos, I saw that someone had left a red rose there.

I also made a lonely bouquet with William Shakespeare 2000 roses, a peony, Sweet Williams, poppy seed heads and alchemilla. I left it under Alice Ayres.

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