Edith O’Gorman and the Language of Flowers

Illustration of Edith O'Gorman

Edith O’Gorman • 10.5″ x 12.5″

I’ve been browsing the Library of Congress archives for interesting things to draw. This 19th century photo by Matthew Brady stood out to me because it was a woman (not too many in the set) with an interesting expression and an even more interesting description: “Edith O’Gorman. Escaped nun from Canada?”

She has a bit of infamy around her story. After serving in a nunnery in Canada, she published a book in 1913 called “The Trials and Persecutions of Miss Edith O’Gorman” detailing stories of terrible treatment. It looks like she spent the rest of her life traveling as a lecturer (adding to an anti-Catholic sentiment stirred up by the press at the time) and avoiding death threats. She appears to have changed her name a couple of times and embellished her Irish heritage a bit along the way. In my cursory research there’s quite the mix of true accounts vs sensationalism, but she clearly riled up people and made herself a prominent figure.

Rather than celebrate or demonize her, I opted to use a period-appropriate technique of representing what I imagine motivated her. The language of flowers was popular in the late 19th century/Victorian era as a discreet way to express feelings. I took a loose interpretation of this with the following:

  • Easter lilies, to represent the influence of her time at the convent
  • Chestnuts, with the meaning “do me justice”
  • Aloe vera, to represent grieving

I’ll definitely do more portraits in this style as I find interesting people in that era.

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