Thursday, 10 March 2011

PTERIDOMANIA: THE VICTORIAN FERN CRAZE ...



The Great Exhibition of 1851 may have produced the iconic 'Crystal Palace' but all over the country glass houses were becoming increasingly popular – whether the opulent orangeries built onto prestigious houses, or simply in the form of the 'Wardian Case' – an ornamental miniature glass house that adorned many fashionable homes. And what would the fashionable Victorian display in such a box? Well, there really would be little delay in purchasing a collection of ferns and joining the craze of ‘Pteridomania’ - which the VV has been reading about in Sarah Whittingham's fascinating book, The Victorian Fern Craze


The name of Pteridomania was coined by Charles Kingsley, who wrote: ‘Your daughters, perhaps, have been seized with the prevailing ‘Pteridomania’ and are collecting and buying ferns…and wrangling over inpronouncable names of species, (which seem to be different with every new fern that they buy), till the Pteridomania seems to you something of a bore.’



One imagines that Mr Kingsley was speaking from personal experience, and may well have been bored by obsessions with ferns when he penned those words in 1855. But ‘Pteridomania’ or Fern Mania remained quite a craze for decades to come, during which time it spread throughout the British Isles, The Empire and even America – and was popular not only with women, but also men and children, and of every social class.



Until the nineteenth century ferns had been rare in England, imported back home by botanists who travelled to places such as Jamaica or Australia. But those tender ferns were never successfully mass reproduced in the more hostile British climate until the amateur naturalist Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward devised a method of raising the plants in ‘closely glazed cases.’ This development of Wardian Cases, along with the 1840 publication of A History of British Ferns by Edward Newman were what led to the genesis of the craze – after which such books were in constant demand, along with those specialist periodicals which encouraged collectors to join fern societies and visit botanical gardens, or to spend their leisure time in the merry pursuit of ‘fern hunting’, a pastime considered as healthy, educational and moral – and which also gave the opportunity of fraternising with the opposite sex in the idyll of the countryside. 


Ferns and flirting? Surely not!
'Gathering Ferns' by H Paterson, printed in the Illustrated London News on July1 1871.

Of course, there were those such as Charles Kingsley who turned up their noses at such sport, and others were determined to end it all, accusing ‘thoughtless trippers’ of filling their baskets with ferns, only to let them die at home. However, far more serious crimes were committed by the fern vendors or touts who plundered the countryside of plants and then sold them on the city streets, or even door to door.


More respectable outlets were the nurseries which specialised in fern cultivation, producing lavishly illustrated catalogues. And, with more knowledge and expertise at hand some amateur gardeners became quite ambitious, planting outdoor gardens with the hardier specimens, or creating more ‘natural’, romantic grottos out of rock and stone.



Brighton Aquarium was a great lure with its conservatory and fernery, with towering cliffs of Pulhamite rockwork, and cascading waterfalls and pools. It was described by the Art Journal as, ‘one of the most impressive, most effective, and most refreshing sights to be seen anywhere’, and when the fashionable Cremorne Gardens re-opened to the public in 1860 one of its main attractions was the picturesque fernery. Musical and dramatic productions were also incorporating ferns and when in 1869 alterations were made to the London Prince of Wales theatre there was –

‘an opening by the footlights allowing the sound of the music to be as distinctly heard as heretofore…The space formally occupied by the band is now converted into a grotto and fernery, intended, with fountains and jets of water, to cool the atmosphere between the acts, and by an ingenious looking glass arrangement to exhibit an interminably multiplied reflection of tiny crystal rills, which will leap and sparkle in the light through a multitude of leafy labyrinths constructed out of tangles masses of choice ferns most artistically disposed.’

What a sight that must have been - though the orchestra players may not have agreed, going home bleary eyed and little damp and no doubt then to meet with yet more ferns - for the plants influenced the decor of many a private home, being used in architectural design, in carpets and papers and textiles, umbrella stands, china and glass ware, fire surrounds – even grave stones – not to mention the design of greetings cards to send to fellow fern admirers. 

Why not take a look around your own home or when you're walking out and about, and see how many examples of Victorian fern design you see? 

5 comments:

  1. What a great post, I'll link to this if you don't mind. I have the Shire book on the craze and would loved to have taken part.

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  2. Thanks so much for posting the image of the Birkenhead brothers' catalogue. I work in the building that belonged to their father, George Birkenhead, who was the postmaster at the time. John and William had their shop next door to him, and the fern nursery was down the road!

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  3. I like this article very much.
    For years fernfreak, collecting most hardy fern species in my woodlandgarden, I started collecting real victorian fern craze items.
    take a look if you are interested and thanks for bringing the fern craze in to a new attention for people. http://varenbos.blogspot.com/search/label/Victoriaanse%20tijd

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  4. I had no idea about this craze until I purchased an old scrapbook filled with 13 pressed ferns at a garage sale last weekend. It's titled New Zealand Ferns, and apparently New Zealand is a country it really took off in. The book is Victorian, and I've listed it on Australian Ebay, as it's not really my bag and I'd like to pass it on to someone truly interested. I can see the fascination though!

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