Arts Week 2018: Gigantic Children of the Sun – Kew’s Palm House

Keith Alcorn reports on the talk by Kate Teltscher, Gigantic Children of the Sun: Kew’s Palm House.

The re-opened Temperate House at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, has been much in the news recently, but as Kate Teltscher, Reader in English Literature at University of Roehampton, told her Birkbeck Arts Week audience last Thursday: “For my money, the Palm House is the greatest!”

She was introducing her research on the Palm House and the meaning of palms in the Victorian era, the theme of her forthcoming book The Palace of Palms, at her talk `Gigantic Children of the Sun: Kew’s Palm House`.

The Palm House opened at Kew in 1848, three years before the Crystal Palace at the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park. It was a wonder of the age, `an erection unmatched in the world` according to The Florist’s Miscellany. Its vast curving structure, using the latest construction methods in iron and glass, asserted Kew’s new role as a national botanic garden, open to all and free of charge. Visitor numbers doubled in the year after it opened: over 130,000 people made the journey to Kew Gardens in 1849 to admire the enormous palms, luxuriate in the tropical heat and perhaps to imagine themselves looking down on a jungle from the viewing gallery.

Commentators at the time welcomed `this wonderful age when the gigantic children of the sun can live amongst us`.

The Palm House `evoked the wide reach of British imperial power and technological triumph over distance and climate`, as well as ostentatious Victorian wealth, Kate Teltscher argued. But why were palms given pride of place at Kew? What did they mean to the Victorians?

Palms had religious, scientific and economic significance for Victorian audiences, she said. Palms in the Bible represented triumph and abundance and were associated with the landscapes of the Holy Land. They also stood for numerous other geographical locations in the tropics.

As plants, palms were considered `the very perfection of organisation`, representing a union of beauty and utility that distinguished them from other trees. They were viewed as the summit of the plant world due to their beauty and utility, just as humans were considered the most evolved of the animals.

Palms were also considered an economic boon, for they had so many uses. Date palms and coconut palms provided food, the enormous leaves provided material for weaving and shelter, and the enormous trunks provided building material.

Palm oil was used as a lubricant on the railways, in soap and in candles. Price’s brought out a coconut oil candle for the royal wedding of 1840 – at the time it was customary to have a candle burning in the front window at the time of a wedding.

Palm oil, seen today as a problematic product because of the impact of its production on deforestation, was seen by the Victorians as an ethical product. The trade in palm oil was seen as an effective way of combatting the slave trade, by providing an economic alternative to the trade in West Africa. (Suppressing the slave trade was a central objective of British foreign policy after the abolition of slavery in British colonies in 1833).

Kate Teltscher’s analysis illustrates the wide range of meanings and social processes embedded in gardens and plants, especially their relationship to Britain’s empire during the nineteenth century. Palms were objects of scientific and commercial fascination, located within global networks of exploration and trade. `Gigantic Children of the Sun` was a tremendous overview of a rich topic.

Keith Alcorn is a PhD student in the departments of History and Geography at Royal Holloway, University of London. His research investigates the relationships between Britain’s empire and the transformation of British gardens through the introduction of exotic plants in the first half of the nineteenth century.

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