The Art of the Rose

Discover beautiful roses from the collections of the RHS Lindley Library

Of the rose [leaf 116v] (1568)RHS Lindley Library

Early illustrations

Rose illustrations were included in some of the earliest books on plants, as ingredients for medicines as well as for food. Sixteenth-century herbals featured generic drawings that demonstrated the idea of a rose, rather than an identifiable specimen. 

Rosa Canina 'inodora' (1633)RHS Lindley Library

This woodcut of the wild rose, Rosa canina, or the dog rose, appears in Gerard’s Herball, published in 1597.

The name stems from a belief that the root was a cure for rabies. Regional English names for these roses include Hedgy-pedgies, Dog-jobs and Nippernails.

Rosa centifolia Batavica. Rose versicolor (1614) by Crispijn de Passe, the YoungerRHS Lindley Library

Metal plate engraving allowed for more detailed depictions of roses than was possible with woodcuts.

Rosa spinosissima (1809) by George CookeRHS Lindley Library

Art and Science

The scientific enlightenment of the 1700s saw a need for more accurate drawings of specific plants.  Artists and scientists began working together to create realistic representations that would allow botanists to understand the detailed characteristics of specific species and varieties. Although the primary purpose of this art was as an identification tool, the end results are still beautiful.

Rosa Pimpinellifolia flore variegato | La Pimprenelle aux Cent-Ecus (1819/1824) by Eustache-Hyacinthe LangloisRHS Lindley Library

Redouté ‘The Raphael
of Flower Painting’

Perhaps the most celebrated botanical artist to paint roses was Pierre-Joseph Redouté (1759-1840). He was an official court artist of Queen Marie Antoinette, and he continued painting through the French Revolution and Reign of Terror.

The Empress Joséphine became his patron, and he illustrated two books about the plants in her garden at Malmaison, a garden famous for its rose collection. 

Rosa Gallica Pontiana | Rosier du Pont (1819/1824) by BessinRHS Lindley Library

Between 1817 and 1824 Redouté published the three-volume work Les Roses. It contained 169 plates depicting species and varieties of Rosa grown at Malmaison. Les Roses was immensely successful and was republished in a smaller format in 1828-29.

Rosa Eglanteria | Rosier Eglantier (1819/1824) by Eustache-Hyacinthe LangloisRHS Lindley Library

All 169 plates were coloured stipple engravings of roses that were originally painted by Redouté.

By this point he was so successful that his name appeared as the author of Les Roses, while the botanist Claude-Antoine Theory, who wrote the text, got lesser billing.

'Rosa Luciae' [wichuriana] (1895) by J.N. FitchRHS Lindley Library

Modern rose

Modern botanical illustrations of roses typically include the plant’s life cycle, scientific cross-sections and magnified details. The artist will also aim to capture the plant’s growing habit, such as whether the rose climbs in a dense tangle or single delicate bloom appears at the end of a woody stem.

Plate 59. Mundi Rose (1770/1771) by Thomas ParkinsonRHS Lindley Library

Myths and Legends

Aside from its beauty, one of the reasons the rose appears so frequently in art is the iconic role the flower plays in legend and literature. Sometimes the stories associated with the rose do not stand up to scrutiny. ‘Rosa Mundi’ was romantically associated with “Fair Rosamund” Clifford, mistress of Henry II, even though the rose is not recorded until four centuries after her death in 1195.  

Rosa arvensis Huds. (1914) by Alfred William ParsonsRHS Lindley Library

Rosa arvensis, the field rose that colonises woodland edges, is probably the ‘musk rose’ mentioned in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer-Night’s Dream.

Rosa damascena (1640) by William MarshallRHS Lindley Library

Early authors claimed that the Damask rose and the Provence rose were brought to Europe by crusaders returning from campaigns in the Middle East, but no actual contemporary evidence supports these stories.

Rosier Ayrschire (1873) by DebrayRHS Lindley Library

Scotch Roses

Although the stories associated with the rose may not always be true, they add to the appeal of the plant. In the early 19th century the demand for Scotch roses was fuelled by the international popularity of ‘Scottishness’ made fashionable by the works of Sir Walter Scott. By the 1830s Scottish breeders had developed hundreds of new roses from the local wild Scotch ‘Burnet Rose’.

La Rose semi-double de la Chine (1776)RHS Lindley Library

Chinese Roses

The introduction of Chinese roses to Europe can be traced back to the late 18th century. As the East India Company opened trade routes between Europe and China, images of flowers on exported artwork developed an appetite for interesting new Chinese varieties. Yellow roses, in particular, caught the attention of gardeners and were avidly sought after. The cultivars developed from Rosa chinensis have been important in the breeding of many modern garden roses by providing the ability to repeat-bloom, even though this is not a feature of the wild species.

Mme. Jules Grolez. (Theehybride). Guillot 1896. (1905) by Lena Schmidt-MichelRHS Lindley Library

Selling Roses

During the 1800s, commercial growers began breeding new hardy and repeat flowering roses. To sell these new hybrids, nurseries produced beautifully illustrated catalogues, taking advantage of new colour printing technology.

Mlle Jeanne Phillipe (TheeGodard, 1898.) und Alister Setlla Graii (A.H.Gray 1893.) (Noissette.) (1903) by Lena Schmidt-MichelRHS Lindley Library

Noisettes originated in America, where nurserymen aimed to create plants that would thrive in the northern hemisphere.

‘Alister Stella Gray’ was one of the most successful Noisette hybrids.

Peace (1948)RHS Lindley Library

Hybrid Teas

In the early part of the 20th century Hybrid Tea roses were the most popular type of rose to grow. Their appeal lay in the elegant sculpted form of the blooms and their bright colour palette, captured in glorious technicolor photographs. At the end of the Second World War, a Hybrid Tea rose called ‘Peace’ was introduced and became the best-selling rose ever.

Graham Stuart Thomas (1960/1970) by Valerie FinnisRHS Lindley Library

Back to the Future

By around the middle of the 20th century, a new trend emerged: the Old Rose Revival.

Enthusiasts searched the world for early varieties that had vanished from commerce. The movement’s major figure was Graham Stuart Thomas, with his books and his rose growing programme at Sunningdale Nurseries, culminating in his creating the rose garden at Mottisfont Abbey. 

Rosa 'Violette', Rosa 'Veilchenblau', Rosa 'Rose-Marie Viaud', Rosa 'Bleu Magenta', Rosa 'Goldfinch' (1980/1987) by Graham Stuart ThomasRHS Lindley Library

Graham Stuart Thomas was also a keen botanical artist and his enthusiasm for roses is captured in paintings like this one.

Roses continue to fascinate and charm. As a result, the range of roses grown today is wider than at any previous point in history.

Credits: Story

Follow us on Twitter and Facebook.

The RHS Lindley Library holds the finest collection of horticultural literature in the world and important collections of botanical art, archival papers, photographs and artefacts. Together they cover more than 500 years of garden history, art and science.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
Explore more
Google apps