Clarence Bicknell; poetry, periwinkle, presentation, perfection…

Vinca minor (common names lesser periwinkle or dwarf periwinkle) is a species of flowering plant in the dogbane family, native to central and southern Europe, from Portugal and France north to the Netherlands and the Baltic States, east to the Caucasus, and also southwestern Asia in Turkey.

Vinca minor is the more common plant of the genus Vinca (Vinca major has larger flowers). Vinca minor is called in Italian and la Petite Pervenche in French. Family Apocynacee, an evergreen trailing sub-shrubs with light blue/violet starry flowers. This plant is very much appreciated for the abundance of exquisite flowers in its principal bloom in spring and the chance of second bloom in autumn. It is possible to find this flower in the wild, but not in the Massif du Mercantour where Clarence found most of his wild flowers, nor elsewhere in the Alps; the Periwinkle is found from sea level up to 1200 m but under high deciduous trees with large leaves like oaks offering large shadow to the plant, while in Clarence’s mountains accessed from Casterino there are only conifer trees with needle-shaped leaves (like larch and fir). As Periwinkle is usually planted in parks and gardens under trees and higher shrubs for the shadow it likes, maybe Clarence brought a cutting of the flower from Bordighera or from some garden to his garden of Casa Fontabalba. He made a point of admiring and painting wild flowers above garden flowers… was this an exception because of these two wonderful poems he found?

Periwinkle goes by many names. You might know her by one of her more fabulous monikers, like sorcerer’s violet or fairy’s paintbrush. In Italy, she is not only called “Pervinca” but also “fiore di morte” (flower of death), because it was common to lay wreaths of the evergreen on the graves of dead children. The French stay with the more comfortable “la Petite Pervenche”. Other vernacular names used in cultivation include small periwinkle, common periwinkle, and sometimes in the United States, myrtle or creeping myrtle.

The flower is used in herbal medicine but can be toxic; it is sometimes associated with marriage (and may have been the “something blue” in the traditional wedding rhyme); in the Middle Ages it was associated with sex and love (because of its supposed aphrodisiac properties); and with executions, particularly by the guillotine. Read about the other aspects of the Periwinkle at this entertaining article…

Vinca comes from the latin verb vincire that means intertwine. The branches of the plant intertwine on the soil but the branches were also intertwisted and put by girls on their hair as little crowns. So Vinca can mean faithfulness, enduring friendship and retentive memory… but also melancholy.

The drawing by Clarence is from the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, one of the many gifts to them by Peter Bicknell in 1980, in one of the vellum-bound albums. “Inscription surrounded by floral border: Periwinkle. Bicknell, Clarence (British, 1842-1918). Watercolour over graphite on paper, height, leaf, 326 mm, width, leaf, 255 mm, 1908. Part of: A Posy. Vellum-bound sketchbook containing leaves with an index at the end. Cover with brown leather ornamentation and remains of vellum closure straps.”

There are two verses written out by Clarence within the floral border based on the Periwinkle. The first by Wordsworth that green bower / The periwinkle trailed its wreathes, 
 And 'tis my faith that every flower / Enjoys the air it breathes. 

…and the second ascribed by Clarence to A. de Goulaine but a poet with that name cannot be identified on the web.

Dites-moi si vous connaissez / Dans les écrins de nos princesses,
Si vous le voulez, entassez / Perles, diemants et richesses.... 
Un plus adorable joyau / Qu'au bord d'un limpide ruisseau
Sous l'azur que l'aube colore, / Après la fraîcheur de la nuit
S'éveillant parèe et sans bruit, / La perenche heureuse d'éclore? / 
            A. de Goulaine

Translation into English by Marcus Bicknell 2021…

Tell me what you find in a princess's jewellery case;
What wealth can you amass? Pearls, riches and diamonds? 
No;  find an even more adorable jewel on the bank of a still-running stream,
After the cool of the night, in the blue sky of dawn, from his dream
The smiling Periwinkle silently stirs, wakes up, stretches and blooms.

No.45 in our weekly series of images by Clarence Bicknell
Thank you to Elisabetta Massardo also for the photo of the flower and for the greater part of the notes above,