Palace of Palms – the story of the Palm House at Kew

Image above: the Palm House at Kew; photograph Kate Teltscher

The story of the Palm House at Kew Gardens is a story of intrigue and high politics. We’re so used to the magnificent, iconic symbol of the Royal Botanic Gardens that it’s hard to imagine now that it might never have been, but in the early nineteenth century it was touch and go whether the botanic garden would be saved as a national asset, never mind developed with such ambitious plans.

Kew was a royal palace, a summer getaway for the royal family. The Prince of Wales and his wife Augusta enjoyed the estate in the eighteenth century. Augusta had a passion for gardening; it was she who founded a small physic garden and commissioned the architect William Chambers to build fashionable follies throughout the Pleasure Grounds.

For George III, ‘Kew was a domestic haven away from court; a pastoral idyll where he could spend time with his family, adopt the life of a gentleman farmer and build his collection of exotic plants’.

But by the opening of Queen Victoria’s reign it was looking a bit neglected. As a young queen she wasn’t terribly interested in it; her interest came later as a side product of her husband’s passion for science.

In Palace of Palms, cultural historian Kate Teltscher examines the human history of how the palm house and Kew Gardens came to be, and it’s a story of intrigue and politicking.

Kate opens her book with an account of an inspection in the winter of 1838, a particularly cold year in which the Thames had frozen over. The purpose of the inspection was to decide the future of the gardens – should they break up the rather sorry looking collection of plants brought to Kew by adventurers in the colonies, or should they develop the gardens and hand them over to public ownership? They were deciding Kew’s fate and at that point it didn’t look promising.

Images above: Kate Teltscher; Palace of Palms

Palace of Palms, now out in paperback, was a Times and New Statesman Book of the Year and has been described by Claire Tomalin as:

“The most enthralling historical book I’ve read this year – a superbly researched account of how architects working in glass and iron brought the tropics to England in the great Palm House in 1848, and the horticulturalists who travelled the world to collect the plants that filled it’.

Palms were – an still are – a symbol of the most exotic luxury. Paris had spectacular botanic gardens, Berlin did and so, the argument went, should we. Lobbying for the job of running the place, the foremost botanists and horticulturalists of the age argued that Britain needed to showcase its imperial conquests. The development of such exotic plants for commercial uses also interested the young Prince Albert. Petitioning his support proved a good move.

The book brings to life the personalities involved in the makings of Kew Gardens and tensions between them. Sir William Hooker, Professor of Botany at Glasgow University, was granted the position, much to the disgruntlement of John Smith, a self-taught botanist of humble origins who was the horticulturalist in situ, actually looking after the plants in the royal collection.

In the words of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography,

‘he had long resented being overruled on gardening matters by his directors and following retirement gave vent to his frustration in a history of the Royal Botanic Gardens so candid that it has never been published (but remains in the archives at Kew)’.

Kate makes full use of it. She pored over his ‘grumpy, critical journals’ among the ‘Kewensia’ section of the research library at Kew, sifting through boxes of papers – journals and the directors’ correspondence over several years.

Her favourite character, she tells The Chiswick Calendar, is Richard Turner, the engineer and designer who worked with architect Decimus Burton to create the palm house.

“I loved his multiple underlinings and exclamation marks. It showed he was passionate about building a masterpiece”.

Images above: Kew Palm House; Kate Teltscher

It took over six years for the palm house to be built, a feat of Victorian engineering, which Kate says still looks surprisingly modern. She grew up with the palm house, visiting it as a child and finding it awe-inspiring and later taking her own children there. Her passion has been rewarded.

‘Never since Anna Pavord’s The Tulip has a book so brilliantly captured the spirit of its subject” writes Amanda Foreman.

‘Kate Teltscher’s Palace of Palms is a glorious headrush into Victorian history via one of the most iconic and beautiful glasshouses in the world. This is a bright, shining jewel of a book, a hedonist’s delight and an escapist’s antidote to the humdrum’.

Kate Teltscher will be talking to David Shreeve about her book at 12.00pm on Saturday 4 September in the Boston Room of George IV as part of the Chiswick Flower Market’s special weekend of talks and plant workshops to celebrate the market’s first birthday. The event is a collaboration with the Chiswick Book Festival, which takes place the following weekend.

Book tickets for this session here – ticketsource.co.uk/chiswickbookfestival

Book tickets for plant workshops here – eventbrite.co.uk/o/chiswick-flower-market

READ ALSO: Specialist workshops to celebrate Chiswick Flower Market’s one year anniversary

Kate Teltscher is an Emeritus Fellow of the School of Humanities at the University of Roehampton, Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, and Honorary Research Associate at the Royal Botanic Gardens.

David Shreeve is the Director of The Conservation Foundation which he co-founded in 1982.  He is also the Environmental Advisor to the Archbishops’ Council of the Church of England and has recently been appointed to an advisory board which is encouraging the development of therapeutic gardening to help with mental health issues.

Image above: The Palm House at Kew when it first opened

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