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Pteridomania - the Victorian passion for ferns

Peter D.A. Boyd

Web version of

BOYD, P.D.A. 1993(a). Pteridomania - the Victorian passion for ferns. Antique Collecting 28, 6, 9-12.

Detail from Coalbrookdale cast-iron garden seat c.1875 (courtesy Shrewsbury Museums Service)


The Victorians had a great passion for ferns and this passion was expressed, among other ways, through the production of a wide range of 'ferny' decorative objects made in pottery, glass, metals, textiles, wood, printed paper, stone and other materials. An attempt is made here to place the production of ferny objects within a social context and provide an indication of the timescale within which the objects were produced. However, it is only possible to touch upon a small variety of the objects in the space available here and the subject will be treated in greater detail in a forthcoming book.

Although the main period of popularity of ferns as a decorative motif extended from the 1850s until the 1890s, the interest in ferns had really begun in the late 1830s when the British countryside attracted increasing numbers of amateur and professional botanists (male and female). New discoveries were published in periodicals, particularly '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. Also, they 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 development of a railway network.

People of many different social backgrounds sought out the species and varieties described in the fern identification books to press the fronds in albums or to collect fern plants to grow in their gardens or homes. Although there are only about seventy native British species and natural hybrids of ferns, the Victorians selected hundreds of varieties. Certain species (e.g. Soft Shield Fern Polystichum setiferum, Lady Fern Athyrium filix-femina and Hartstongue Fern Asplenium scolopendrium) each yielded about three hundred varieties. For many people, fern hunting was just a pleasant pastime but for others it became a serious scientific pursuit and, for some, fern collecting became a commercial matter. Specialist dealers and fern nurseries developed who supplied not only native species and varieties but also exotic species from the West Indies and other parts of the world.

British and exotic fern species, their varieties and, sometimes, Selaginella and other clubmosses (which are related to ferns) were represented on decorative objects.

Most species of ferns favour damp, shaded woodland conditions in which to grow. 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 high humidity which was essential for many species. A wide variety of these Wardian Cases was made during the 1850s and later, some of which were very ornate, but very few have survived. Various types of outdoor ferneries and conservatory ferneries were also popular and many of the structures have survived in old gardens even though, in most cases, the ferns themselves have not. However, the author has discovered old Victorian fern varieties which were thought extinct surviving in some old gardens.

By 1855, Charles Kingsley had recognised the prevalent passion for ferns as a phenomenon and in the course of encouraging the study of natural history in his book 'Glaucus', coined the term 'Pteridomania', meaning 'Fern Madness' or 'Fern Craze':-

"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 woollen caricatures which they had superseded."

His comments about 'fancy work' turned out to be rather ironic because Pteridomania did, within a few years of 1855, give rise to an ever expanding range of home-made and factory- or workshop-manufactured 'fancy work' and other decorative items - with the fern motif appearing on everything from christening presents to gravestones and memorials.

No other single craze affected so many Victorians or such a cross-section of Society. Even the farm labourer or miner could have a collection of British ferns which he had collected in the wild and a common interest sometimes brought people of very different social backgrounds together. It is likely that some of the artisans who produced utilitarian or purely decorative objects with fern decoration had an interest in ferns themselves and were not just using the fern motif to satisfy the desires of their customers.

Ferns could be used for decoration in ways that most other plants could not. Many species have fronds that adapt particularly well to representation on flat or curved surfaces in a variety of materials. Indeed, the fronds themselves could be pressed and dried to be used as 'stencils' for 'spatter-work', inked for 'nature-printing, applied directly to paper as a specimen in an album or glued to two and three-dimensional objects to create a decorative effect. Even when the representation was stylised such as was common on engraved glass and metal, the effect was still recognisably 'ferny'.

Some of the decorative objects that were made are undated so it is difficult to fully document the development of the use of the fern motif. The initiation of quantity production of manufactured ferny objects in the late 1850s commenced only after the botanical and fern cultivation aspect of the craze had already been active for some years. 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, and the fern motif was to remain popular, as a fond symbol of pleasurable pursuits, for the following forty years or so.

Most of the ferny items that might be suspected to have been made much earlier than the 1862 Exhibition are unmarked. Among the earliest Victorian pieces with fern decoration, known to the author, are a pair of 1840s papier-mâché chairs with ferns represented in gold leaf and inlaid mother-of-pearl. A pair of face-fans with painted ferns also probably date from the 1840s. Some home-made items including some 'spatter-work' textiles may have been made before commercially produced items were available.

There are unmarked relief-moulded and transfer-decorated pottery jugs with fern decoration that, because of their shape, are suspected to be 1850s in origin but one of the exhibitors at the 1862 Exhibition provides one of the first well-dated patterns. This was the potter William Brownfield of Cobridge, Staffordshire who included a relief-moulded jug with 'Fern' design that had been registered in November 1859. This was a popular design with erect fern fronds, below dangling ears of wheat and acanthus leaves.

James Dudson of Hanley, Staffordshire registered a very similar fern design in February 1862 although the erect leaves were less obviously ferns. The Dudson factory produced a wide range of ferny relief moulded stoneware and jasperware with ferny sprigs. The relief moulded jug 'Fern' registered in 1862 continued in production until 1902. 'New Fern' was also made from the 1860s to about 1900 and 'Fern Fronds' from 1865 to about 1880. Fern sprigs were included on many jasperware designs for jugs, cheese dishes and other items from about 1860 including 'Ferns', 'Fern Wreath' and 'Bluebell and Fern'. The 'Fern Wreath' design was still offered in 1891 and 'Ferns' remained in production until about 1901 on cheese dishes and large flower pots. The sprigged designs are very pleasing with some British and exotic fern species being depicted with considerable accuracy. These Dudson pieces, many of which were cheap enough to be used by a wide cross-section of the population, give a fairly good indication of the popularity of the fern as a design motif and its decline towards the turn of the century, shadowing the reign of Queen Victoria herself.

Most of the major potteries and many smaller ones included fern designs in their output although most seem to have introduced them later than Brownfield and Dudson. Most of the patterns from Wedgwood, Minton, Royal Worcester, Ridgeway, George Jones and others seem to have originated in the 1870s, 1880s and early 1890s using various types of clay body and style of decoration including majolica. Some unmarked majolica pieces with a particularly attractive Hartstongue Fern design may have been made by George Jones or Wedgwood.

Josiah Wedgwood and Sons were commissioned to make a spectacular memorial to Sir William Jackson Hooker (1785-1865), Director of the Royal Gardens at Kew which included jasperware panels with applied sprigs representing exotic ferns. This was erected in Kew Church in 1867 and a copy was presented to what is now the Victoria and Albert Museum where it may still be seen.

The Watcombe Terra-cotta Company, Torquay (1867-1903) produced terra-cotta items with enamelled fern designs and ferns in relief-moulded terra-cotta but the precise dates of production of these designs are uncertain. The Salopian Art Pottery Company (1882-c.1912), which produced a wide range of earthenwares with incised fern decoration was quite late on the scene.

Glass engravers embraced fern decoration at an early stage and a wide selection of glass made at the John Ford Holyrood Glassworks, Edinburgh engraved at the workshop of John Millar, was displayed at the 1862 International Exhibition by the Edinburgh retailer Miller. John Millar was one of a number of glass-engravers who had emigrated to Edinburgh from Bohemia during the 1850s. Although his workshop was initially 'manned' by fellow Bohemian immigrants, he soon trained Scots in the techniques. The relationship between the John Ford Glassworks and Millar (and possibly other Edinburgh engravers) was extremely fruitful with an undated John Ford Catalogue (post 1868) containing page upon page of fern-decorated glass-ware. Although it is difficult to date all the products of the factory accurately, some of the finest ferny glass was engraved during the 1880s. Another famous Bohemian engraver of ferns who moved from Edinburgh to Glasgow in 1873 and worked for W. & J. A. Bailey of Alloa was Emanuel Lerche. Glassworks in other parts of the British Isles also produced fern designs thorough engraving, acid-etching, sand-blasting or other techniques but the quality of most was not as fine as the 'Scottish' engravers and some depictions of ferns, especially those produced towards the end of the century were very stylised. The applied 'wavy leaf' on some coloured glass from the 1880s seems to depict the 'crispum' form of Hartstongue Fern whose fronds resemble an Elizabethan ruff. The fern motif is still a conspicuous feature of glass (and metalwares) in the 1883 Silber and Flemming Catalogue of Household Goods.

Fern designs were also displayed in a very different material, cast-iron, at the 1862 Exhibition. The Coalbrookdale Company from Shropshire was well known for its cast-iron furniture and fern designs were included in their display. By 1875 their catalogue included not only the popular 'Fern and Blackberry' garden chair (available in two variations of the design, painted green or chocolate or with a bronzed finish and several different sizes) but also the 'Osmunda Regalis' (Royal Fern) chair also available in painted or bronzed finish and two sizes. The 'Osmunda Regalis' design is a wonderful creation but much rarer than the 'Fern and Blackberry'. These patterns were still offered in the 1891 catalogue. An attractive cast-iron umbrella-stand with resplendent ferns in relief was among the other ferny designs made by Coalbrookdale and other manufacturers. It may be noted that the 'Fern and Blackberry' seat designs were copied by other iron foundries. Also, modern copies, cast in aluminium, are made but they are much lighter in weight than the original cast-iron and will not attract a magnet.

Some of the most attractive types of ferny objects are those in which actual fern fronds have been utilised in their manufacture. In some, usually home-made, fern fronds were pressed and dried, glued to a box or screen and varnished. In others, the fronds were used as 'stencils' with ink, paint or dye spattered or sponged over the fronds onto paper, textiles or wood. Some pottery was decorated using fronds in the 'leaf resist' technique and a variety of objects could be decorated by 'inking' a frond and using it to produce 'nature prints' on paper, cloth or other materials. Many of these objects are virtually impossible to date accurately.

The Scottish wooden wares now known collectively as Mauchline Ware after Mauchline in Ayrshire where many of them were made by the firm of * John Smith includes the finish known as 'Mauchline Fernware'. Several different techniques were employed to produce it from about 1870 to the turn of the century.

One of these techniques involved using 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. The leaves, after pressing, were attached, in layers, by tiny pins to the wooden box or other item that was to be decorated and brown or coloured dye spattered over the leaves and wood, the leaves acting 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.

The second type of Mauchline Fernware used printed paper resembling the brown spatter-work technique, described above, glued to the item. It is usually possible to "see the joins" and the artists who produced the designs included the 'midrib' of the frond and venation on the leaves - features which would not show in a silhouette. The third type of decoration employed coloured transfers which depicted fern species and varieties in reduced form. It is intriguing to find crested and sagittate varieties of Hartstongue Fern included in the depictions. A fourth type of decoration which may be seen on a few items (e.g. a visiting card case) is a photograph of a group of ferns on an otherwise plain wood item.

An almost infinite variety of other items in almost every material one cares to name was made with the fern motif. These items include: coffee-pots, tea-pots, trays, fish-knives, spoons and other items in silver, silver plate and other metals; damask table-cloths and napkins; printed textiles; crochet and lace; jewellery in jet and early synthetics; printed paper and card scraps and greetings cards; fern books with their attractive illustrations and sometimes equally attractive covers; architectural details, gravestones and memorials in carved and reconstituted stone.

There is not the space here to cover these nor many other objects which are associated with Pteridomania. However, brief reference should be made to albums of pressed ferns and similar collections of botanical material. While these may have considerable aesthetic appeal, they may have even greater scientific importance and should, in many cases, be lodged with or at least shown to an appropriate museum with staff having the botanical expertise to recognise their significance and the environmental conditions to safeguard their future.

The author is writing a book on the whole phenomenon of Pteridomania including the social, botanical, horticultural and decorative arts aspects of the subject. The latter aspects will comprise a major part of the book.

Note: The colour illustrations that were included in the published article are not currently available for digitisation but an edited version of this article has been included in the large database-driven 'Darwin Country' website for which Peter Boyd is responsible. The following link will open the 'Pteridomania' page in Darwin Country which provides access to numerous images of ferny objects including ferny Coalbrookdale cast-iron furniture and Salopian Art Pottery:-




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Revised: January 2nd, 2002.