Victoria amazonica, otherwise known as the giant Victoria waterlily, is only partly visible. Their leaves float. Quilt-like and waxy, round and flat but crenelated underwater, with cantilevered ribs radiating from a central stem, nearly two inches deep. Unlike the white waterlilies native to Europe, Victoria amazonica was like nothing seen before. A “vegetable wonder”. A mysterious plant with eight foot leaves and twelve inch flowers that seemed to defy Victorian horticultural knowledge.
The story of the Great Exhibition of the summer of 1851 spans many fields. From its exhibits and objects of technological wonder to Prince Albert’s role in its inception and its longstanding legacy. Yet it is also the story of an architectural feat. A feat that was, in part, achieved by mirroring of Victoria amazonica’s structural properties. In this article, we will be exploring the phenomena of the giant Victoria water lily and its fascinating history. From its home in South America, to the race to cultivate the plant, to the Crystal Palace.
The Great Exhibition
In the summer of 1851, a vision of wonder glittered amongst the trees along London’s Knightsbridge. A palace made of glass and cast iron. A ‘Crystal Palace’ of machines, curiosities, thrones and diamonds, of sumptuous silks, folding pianos and flowers fit for a Queen. A reliquary holding the Works of Industry of All Nations, and nothing like London had ever seen.
Today it remains a symbol of the Victorian age, conceived by Henry Cole and Prince Albert at a time when the sun never sat on the vast British Empire. England was experiencing a manufacturing boom and a period of peace. It was the perfect environment to show off on the international stage, making clear to the world Britain’s role as industrial leader.
Inside, the exhibition spanned more than 10 miles of space. Britain, as host, occupied half of the display space for both the empire and the home country. Dickinson’s Comprehensive Pictures of the Great Exhibition illustrates scenes upon scenes of vast open spaces, occupied with ‘every conceivable invention’. Its famous fountain stood approximately in the middle of the building, made of four tons of pink glass and 27 feet high. It provided a meeting space as well as a cooling atmosphere. Elsewhere, the public came in their thousands to see the Indian section for its displays of the world’s largest known diamond Koh-i-Noor, or the machinery and medieval courts. Between May and October, six million people passed through the crystal doors, making it the most successful cultural event to define the nineteenth century and beyond. With the profit, Cole could realise the Science, Natural History and Victoria and Albert Museums.
In 1837, a year before the coronation of Queen Victoria, Sir Richard Schomburgk discovered a “vegetable wonder” on an expedition to British Guiana. In the shallow tributaries of the Amazon River, the extraordinary South-American flower would soon become a symbol of the new Queen, of her triumph and imperial acquisition. The news of the flower’s discovery quickly landed on British shores and immediately blossomed in the wake of “flower fever”. Now the race began to cultivate the giant Victoria waterlily. Over the next few years, explorers made several attempts to bring seeds back to England and several unsuccessful attempts to germinate them. This was until 1849 when Sir Joseph Paxton, the main protagonist of our story; architect of the Great Exhibition and head gardener for the sixth Duke of Devonshire, bought a small Victoria Amazonica from Kew Garden to Chatsworth House. The current Duke appointed Paxton to fulfil his horticultural passion for exotic plants by cultivating an impressive collection of flora.
But Paxton’s gift went beyond gardening. His designs for structures to house plants and his ingenious framed designs would later become the forerunner of the modern greenhouse. In preparation for the seedlings from Kew, Paxton built a heated soil tank in his greenhouse. Using water wheels and coal-fired boilers for heat to emulate the humid environment of its natural habitat, the lily pads soon grew rapidly.
From Flower to Design
As if the spectacle of Victoria Amazonica’s successful bloom wasn’t enough, Paxton went a step further in his realisation of the structural elements of the lily pads. In a famous article for The Illustrated London News, Paxton’s daughter is shown standing on one of the leaves to demonstrate its strength, becoming somewhat of a sensation. The leaves are a natural feat of engineering. With its radiating ribs and flexible cross ribs nature had, as Joseph Paxton remarked, “provided the leaf with longitudinal and transverse girders”, and with this, it does more than float. Trapped air enables enormous buoyancy. Enough to support the weight of a human. But it was during Paxton’s appointment as the architect of the Crystal Palace that these floral engineering elements came of practical use.
Three times larger than St. Pauls Cathedral, with a length of 1,851 ft, and height of 128 ft, the Crystal Palace was the largest building in the world and a masterpiece of architecture and engineering. The concept of the Crystal Palace started as a rough sketch, revealing Paxton’s interest in modular systems of repetition. Cross-ribbed units of cast iron beams and pillars between glass drew upon his knowledge of greenhouses but more importantly; biomimicry. Paxton was by no means the first man to use the medium of glass and iron in larger buildings, nor was the design for the Crystal Palace the product of a sudden brilliant brainwave. His experimentations at Chatsworth house and years of gardening would shape what came to be Crystal Palace. At a meeting of the Royal Society of Arts in November 1850, Paxton proclaimed that “Nature was the engineer”, using one of his lily leaves to explain its natural support “that I, borrowing from it, have adopted in this building”.
The legacy of Victoria amazonica lives on through art, architecture, and botany. Since its first appearance in British horticulture, it has continued to amaze and inspire. The work of Victorian “flower fever” illustrators such as Walter Hood Fitch’s 1851 illustrations at Kew captured its biological beauty, and today botanists continue to research its strange pollination method and flowers that open at night.
Yet the legacy of Victoria Amazonica’s glimmers most brightly in the collective memory of Crystal Palace. With its clean bold lines, conformed of simplicity and truth, Paxton created a perfect functionalism that influences science and architecture today. Crystal Palace was the “birth of modern architecture” according to British architect Norman Foster, who’s high-tech style speaks to the modular iron buildings of the past.
I think we can all confidently agree with Foster when he says, “if there’s one building from the past that [I] could visit… it would be the Crystal Palace of Paxton”.
For further reading, check out Violet Markham’s Joesph Paxton and His Building from the Journal of Royal Science of Arts and the V&A, Kew, and Chatsworth House archives.
Images from the British Library, V&A, and Wellcome Collection.
Written by Daisy Watson