Wandering in Kew Gardens: Illustrations from a Victorian Guidebook

August 05, 2019

Do you recognise any of these scenes at Kew Gardens in 1857? The illustrations are from a charming book, Wanderings Through the Conservatories at Kew, published less than two decades after Kew's incorporation as a national botanical garden.  The book is organised as a conversational guide that leads the reader on a tour of the gardens, describing the plants and their settings, and providing ecological information, including numerous quotations from scientific authorities and explorers. 
Much of the Victorian garden will be recognisable to modern visitors, including the Orangery, glasshouses, Kew Palace, and pagoda.
Of particular interest are the India Rubber and Breadfruit trees, which were economically important to the British Empire - Kew was founded partly to study plants that could feed and supply colonists and the Army and Navy.

The engravings in Wanderings Through the Conservatories at Kew were made from daguerreotypes taken at Kew, probably by the book's author, Philip Henry Gosse (1810-1888), an English naturalist, Christian evangelist, and one of the leading science writers of the Victorian era.
He first came to prominence in the late 1840s for his scientifically significant books on the ecology of Canada and Jamaica. A series of successful volumes for the general public followed, and in 1853 he published A Naturalist's Rambles on the Devonshire Coast, "which brought before the public the science of marine biology, and was partly responsible for the sea-shore craze of the mid-Victorian period... In May 1853 he helped establish the first public aquarium in Regent's Park and later that year constructed one of the first domestic glass aquariums. The following year he published The Aquarium which triggered a second craze to sweep through Victorian society. Much of Gosse's success was due to the fact that he was essentially a field naturalist who was able to impart to his readers something of the thrill of studying living animals at first hand" (ODNB).