A Guest Review by Val Bott
Mike Paterson handed me a weighty package, asking me to review the contents for London Historians. Knowing my interest in horticultural history and that I was unable to attend the launch of Sarah Whittingham’s handsome new book, he knew this would be a treat!
Fern Fever is a substantial hardback book with 256 just-bigger-than-A4 pages. The richly-illustrated layout makes this a tasty book to browse but it is the contents which are really impressive in their substance. The author describes herself as an architectural historian, but in her guise as ‘Miss Frond’ she has been amassing wonderful material on ferns since at least the 1990s. Her comprehensive study is sure to have lasting value, and is full of detailed information.
This delightful account is the product of a wealth of research with a full bibliography. A wide range of disciplines underpin the story it tells – botany, horticulture, social history, medicine, the fine and decorative arts and even mythology. The book explores a mania for ferns which quickly came to hold a fascination for all kinds of people and which lasted throughout the Victorian period.
By the late 18th century hardy native ferns were being noticed and named, and exotic ferns were arriving from the colonies. At first the prospect of trying to grow these flowerless, seedless plants was daunting but two discoveries made a real difference – first, that ferns could be propagated from spores and, secondly, that protecting them under glass bottles, then purpose-made glass cases, ensured success. But this alone does not account for the public enthusiasm for ferns, which could have remained the preserve of wealthy collectors with fine greenhouses and private ferneries.
Fern Fever records how public awareness was fuelled by publications, lectures and the creation of ferneries in commercial pleasure grounds and municipal botanic gardens. As ferns were identifiable and classifiable, this made their study a respectable form of enjoyable self-improvement for individuals or groups to pursue. Cheap colour printing, the growth of railway travel and the British enthusiasm for creating societies also played their part. And the mania took hold when it was possible to visit sites to dig up samples of ferns to grow in Wardian cases in suburban homes and in their gardens– there was profit as well as pleasure in this.
The elegant, delicate and recognisable form of ferns made them a perfect motif for glass engraving, lace making, transfer-printing on wooden souvenirs and applied sprigs on earthenware. The fact that women could collect and document ferns as easily as men probably made them a receptive market for the production of such genteel wares. But ferns in glass cases were also seen as therapeutic and were installed in the windows of hospitals and asylums.
I have now begun to think that I might be suffering from incipient pteridomania. There are ferns in our conservatory which I have had since the 1970s, when I bought my copy of British Ferns & Their Allies by T Moore (1881), a pale blue Dudson earthenware pot sprigged with white ferns stands on my window ledge and Victorian tiles with ferns are used as pot stands …
Val Bott is a museum consultant and distinguished West London historian, particularly but not least in the area of historical market and nursery gardens.
Dr Sarah Whittingham is an academic and author based in Bristol.
Fern Fever is published today by Frances Lincoln, ISBN 978-0-7112-3070-5. It has a cover price of £35 but can be obtained for £22 – £24