Nature-Printed British Ferns
by Allegra Baggio Corradi
Your daughters, perhaps, have been seized with the prevailing 'Pteridomania', and are collecting and buying ferns, with Ward's cases wherein to keep them (for which you have to pay), and wrangling over unpronounceable names of species (which seem different in each new Fern-book that they buy), till the Pteridomania seems to be somewhat of a bore: and yet you cannot deny that they find enjoyment in it, and are more active, more cheerful, more self-forgetful over it, than they would have been over novels and gossip, crochet and Berlin-wool. At least you will confess that the abomination of "Fancy-work" - that standing cloak for dreamy idleness (not to mention the injury which it does to poor starving needlewomen) - has all but vanished from your drawing-room since the "Lady-ferns" and "Venus's hair" appeared; and that you could not help yourself looking now and then at the said "Venus's hair" and agreeing that Nature's real beauties were somewhat superior to the ghastly woolen caricatures which they had superseded.
By 1855, Charles Kingsley had recognised the prevalent Victorian passion for ferns as a phenomenon. In his book Glaucus, he coined the term 'Pteridomania', to indicate the 'fern madness' or 'fern craze' that enthused newly discovered female, male and child botanists across Britain.
Victorians located science in many places. The walls of the laboratory crumbled and the space for exploration opened up to the seaside, the countryside and the exotic lands across the globe. Prodded by revolutionary discoveries such as Darwin’s, Victorians questioned the ways in which they saw and made sense of nature. The issue whether what we now call Anthropocene, i.e., the proposed geological epoch dating from the commencement of significant human impact on Earth's geology and ecosystems, was the recipient or the trigger of man’s actions, became critical. The boundaries between professionals and amateur scientists shrunk at the same speed with which the quicksands of scepticism engorged man’s iron feet of oppression. The eye progressively re-educated itself to world imbalance. Sight adjusted to the fluid porosity holding together hard and soft sciences. The senses paved the way for a heightened sensibility towards all things exotic, which in the context of Victorian Britain meant prevalently non-industrial.
Among the by-products of the Victorians’ tendency to rethink their sight onto the world was Pteridomania. At the height of the fashion in the 1870s, Britons imported ferns from Tasmania, the Philippines, Borneo and Brazil, among other places. The interest in ferns had really begun in the late 1830s when the British countryside attracted increasing numbers of amateur and professional botanists, who spent their weekends collecting and observing the species they came across in the increasingly high number of publications devoted to ferns. New discoveries were published in periodicals, particularly on 'The Phytologist', which first appeared in 1841. Ferns proved to be a particularly fruitful group of plants for new records because they had been relatively little studied compared with flowering plants. Among the most accomplished examples of fern literature was E. J. Lowe’s Nature-Printed British Ferns (1859), illustrating every variation (even if many of them turned out to be inconstant or never existed as more than one plant) and many attractive and graceful forms that were discovered before 1860. Ferns, as Lowe showed, were most diverse and abundant in the wilder, wetter, western and northern parts of Britain which were becoming more accessible through the development of better roads and, subsequently in the late 1840s and 1850s, through the construction of a capillary railway network. Acquiring specimens could be hazardous for city dwellers unused to the wilderness of the countryside; in 1867 a young woman fell off a Scottish cliff and died after reaching too far for a fern. Casualties aside, as an article published in the 1850s claimed, the Victorian fern craze “enriched colonial economies, amused the masses and soothed the insane”.
Most species of ferns favour damp shaded woodland conditions. This made ferns particularly suited to grow in poorly-lit Victorian homes so long as they received adequate moisture. Special 'fern pots' were made in which to grow them. However, many people in large towns and cities could not succeed in growing ferns in their gardens or houses because of the dreadful air-pollution from coal fires and gas fumes until the introduction of the glazed case (Wardian Case) in the late 1840s which not only excluded poisonous fumes, but also maintained the high humidity so essential for many species. Wardian cases unleashed a revolution in the mobility of commercially relevant plants. For instance, in 1849 Robert Fortune shipped to British India 20,000 tea plants smuggled out of Shanghai to begin the tea plantations of Assam in England. Wardian Cases have thus been credited for helping break geographic monopolies in the production of important agricultural goods.
A wide variety of Wardian Cases was made during the 1850s, alas very few have survived. Various types of outdoor ferneries and conservatory ferneries became popular and many of the structures still exist in old gardens even though, in most cases, the ferns themselves have not. Examples of Wardian Cases and their use in the house were published, for instance, in Noel Humphreys’ Ocean Gardens. The History of the Marine Aquarium (1857) and in Edward Rand’s The Window Gardener (1876), both of which show how ferns were installed in domestic environments.
After the botanical and fern cultivation aspect of the craze had already been active for some years, commenced the production of manufactured ferny objects in the late 1850s. Fern designs on pottery, glass, cast-iron and other materials first became conspicuous at The London International Exhibition of 1862. However, a whole generation had already been affected by botanical and horticultural Pteridomania, which continued during the 1860s. This meant that the fern motif was to remain popular as a fond symbol of pleasurable pursuits for the following forty years.
Beside design, the other art on which ferns left an impression was that of printing. With real fern fronds or parts of them, the leaves of other plants with fern-like foliage and other leaves such as Field Maple, Sycamore, Rose and Ivy were pressed and attached in layers with tiny pins to any item that was to be decorated. Brown or coloured dye was spattered over the leaves and the wood, so that the leaves acted as 'stencils'. Some leaves were removed, and more dye spattered over the remaining leaves and object. This process was carried out several times so that a somewhat three-dimensional effect was produced with different densities of dye. The last leaf removed left the palest colour and an effect of layering of leaves that is the opposite of what was actually carried out. It may be noted that although it is said that the fern fronds were collected on the Isle of Arran for use on fernware, many of the ferns used were not native British species but exotic ones from the West Indies and elsewhere which may have been provided by fern nurseries. Some crested varieties of British ferns were used with the natural species on certain larger items. Nature printing rose to popularity and was employed to produce a wide number of books, among which Thomas Moore’s The Ferns of Great Britain and Ireland (1857) in which the author claimed regarding the technique he employed to produce his book: “To express such facts with the necessary accuracy, the art of a Talbot or a Daguerre was insufficient, nor could they be represented pictorially until nature-printing was brought to its present state of perfection.”
All in all, Pteridomania contributed a significant chapter in environmental, artistic and scientific world histories. Environmentally, the movement of plants between the polar opposites of the globe that took place roughly between 1830 and 1910, positions the importance of the fern case in the Anthropocene, framing the Victorian era as an important watershed in the industrial boost of the West in the long 19th century. Artistically, the aesthetic appeal of ferns testifies to the material turn that Victorians took with the production of industrial art, mass manufacture and design; all supported by an increased leisure time. Scientifically, Pteridomania points to the democratisation of knowledge that was triggered in the early 1800s by the divulgation of discoveries and theories such as Darwin’s. The ever-persisting scissor effect affecting society was bludgeoned by fern shears.
In her 1865 In Hardy Ferns: How I Collected and Cultivated Them, Nona Maria Stephenson Bellairs claimed:
The Book of Nature is the Book of God. (…) One of nature’s simplest pages is that which I have made the subject of this small volume. The common hedge-row, the old wall, the rock by the sea-coast, and the wild moor, provide for us the little kingdom of Ferns, whose peculiar habits of life and growth form a pleasant study for our hours of recreation. We should begin our collection from those which grow near our own homes, bringing first one root, then another, finding out to what family they belong, what soil suits them, and their distinctive characters and habits. The cottage garden may always have room for its Fernery; a few plants by the old well, by the wicket-gate, will supply subjects for thought and study. (…) With these few words I send forth my little book to the public, hoping it may induce others to explore, as successfully as I have done, the pleasant haunts of my favourites, the natives of beautiful Fern-land.
"It seems cruelty so entire to destroy the habitat of any fern: yet, if the present rage continue I see no hope of any known species being allowed to remain in its old haunts. The poor Ferns, like the wolves in olden time, have a price set upon their heads, and they in like manner will soon altogether disappear. We must have 'Fern Laws' and preserve them like game." (Bellairs, 1865)