Say it With Flowers

Flowers - beautiful, cheering (hello 1st snowdrops!)…. and fascinating. Yes, blooms too have tales to tell! Last year, we heard how they can be considered ‘Astounding Inventions’. This year we’re exploring the history of creativity and, well, flowers have been used for display since humans first found them! As it is LGBTQ+ History month, we’ve invited Ian Giles to tell us about some of their queer connections. He ran a fantastic flower arranging workshop for the festival last year with Celebrating Hidden Middlesbrough. Take 5 with us to smell the roses and make a statement, which petals would you pick for a posy?

Single green flower in glass vaseGreen carnations are unusual and have special meaning © WikiCommons.Rebecca

Written by… Ian Giles, artist and lecturer

In September I hosted a flower arranging workshop in Middlesbrough using blooms that had LGBTQ+ significance. Pansies, lavender, violets and green carnations all have LGBTQ+ connections and histories. I sourced the flowers and foliage from my garden, local markets and used lavender grown by my parents. It was a social evening during which I shared the meanings behind the flowers and attendees were encouraged to make their own jam-jar arrangements to take home. It was brilliant to welcome members of Blooming Youth (a peer-led young people’s group based in Redcar), staff from Teeside Archives and writers from Queerbase (a Middlesbrough based creative writing group) alongside local friends, artists and those with inquisitive minds.

Victorian man in suit with a flower in the lapel

Oscar Wilde wearing the carnation he gave special meaning to / © Canva

Green carnations & the love that dare not speak its name

The green carnation became a queer symbol in 1892 when Oscar Wilde asked a handful of his friends to wear them on their lapels to the opening night of his comedy Lady Windermere’s Fan. From then on, wearing a green carnation on your lapel was a secret, subtle hint that you were a man who loved other men.

Wilde’s lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, also wrote a poem called ‘Two Loves’ which is filled with lots of tender floral references. It includes the description of a young man, whose “wind-tossed hair was twined with flowers” and who was wearing “three chains of roses” around his neck. He comes toward the poet and kisses him. “His cheeks were wan and white / Like pallid lilies, and his lips were red / Like poppies,” Douglas continues. The boy reveals that his name is “Love” and ends with saying, “I am the love that dare not speak its name.” This phrase, “the love that dare not speak its name,” was later brought to prominence as reference to homosexuality in Wilde’s trial in 1895.

Vintage poster of a person dressed in a woman's Victorian bathing suit

Julian Eltinge, a celebrated 'female impersonator' on Broadway during the 'Panzy Craze' / © New York Public Library

The pansy craze

‘Daisy’, ‘buttercup’ and ‘pansy’, as well as ‘horticultural lad’ were early twentieth century terms for ‘flamboyant gay men.’ In 1920s and 1930s New York; the drag balls starring ‘female impersonators’ were extravagant and enormous. They were known as the ‘pansy craze’, a term coined by the historian George Chauncey. The police eventually shut them all down, including a 1939 one in Harlem that ended a 70-year tradition.

Four people sat round a table arranging flowers in glass vases

Flowers and friends - the queer flower arranging workshop run over Heritage Open Days / © Ian Giles

More than flowers

As an artist who likes to record and celebrate LGBTQI+ histories I was invited by ‘Celebrating Hidden Middlesbrough’ to uncover the hidden histories, people and places of the town and find creative ways to celebrate them. Hosting the flower arranging workshop, with Navigator North at The Masham was part of the wider activities that I am working on in Middlesbrough. Over the last 18 months, I have been supported by MIMA to respond to artworks within their collection and to research the town centre and surrounding area. I have looked into the LGBTQ+ people who have influenced the buildings, industries, and communities of Middlesbrough. Including world famous composer, Michael Tippett, and his boyfriend Wilfred Franks who created operas in Boosbeck in the 1930s with the support of Ruth Pennyman, the owner of nearby Ormesby Hall. Inspired by their story I have written a short radio play that will be broadcast on BBC Radio Tees in February 2023.

*‘Celebrating Hidden Middlesbrough' is the High Street Heritage Action Zone cultural programme for Historic England and Middlesbrough Council delivered by Middlesbrough Cultural Partnership.

Find out more

Read more LGBTQ+ History stories on our previous posts:

Ian Giles

About Ian Giles

Ian is a visiting lecturer at Chelsea and Camberwell, UAL and currently Artist in Residence at Cambridge School of Art. His research and work are regularly supported by Arts Council England. As an artist his social practice fosters new networks to record and celebrate LGBTQI+ histories and contemporary experiences.  His exhibitions, performances and screenings include: The London Open at the Whitechapel Gallery, London (2022); Outhouse at Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge & Firstsite, Colchester (2019); Studio Four at OUTPOST, Norwich (2019); Trojan Horse / Rainbow Flag presented by Gasworks at Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club, London (2019); After BUTT, NY Art Book Fair at MoMA PS1, New York (2018); Video Club: Sex Talks at Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam (2018) and After BUTT at Chelsea Space, London (2018).