The Flower of Empire is a rip-roaring tale of a discovery of a giant water lily which fired the imagination of Victorian society in Britain. It includes a number of familiar key figures and institutions of the time, such as Paxton, Lindley, Kew, the Horticultural Society (yet to obtain its 'Royal' prefix) and the Royal Geographical Society.
Little did a German-born explorer working in the
toughest conditions in South America know his discovery would create the
sensation it did. What follows is political 'spin' at its very best as the
task of naming the new plant in honour of the new Queen Victoria without giving
offence proves difficult. Having got agreement to the name (Victoria regia) and therefore effectively securing royal patronage, the political waters are muddied still further when claims from abroad that
the discovery isn't new are made.
Then follows the race to bring home viable specimens and to get the lily to flower with much horticultural pride at stake. This was eventually won by Paxton, a man with humble beginnings, who rose to be one of
the most inventive and admired men of the Victorian age. The lily's structure also inspired him to solve a problem in the design of his new enormous glass buildings by using a 'ridge
and furrow' design. Not only did this lead to the amazing Crystal Palace which
housed the Great Exhibition of 1851 (via the amazing glasshouses he designed to house plant specimens), but it also lay one of the main foundation
stones (excuse the pun) of modern architecture today.
Holway's book is
meticulously researched and finely observed. Whilst her style reads a little
novelish rather than reference at times, that's not a bad thing. This is no dry
historical account and it's good to find an independent American view of an
essentially British tale.
With London 2012 fresh in our minds, there are
many parallels to be drawn between the events of the 19th Century and those
leading up to the building of both the Millennium Dome and our hosting of the Olympics. Viewers
of the recent BBC4 series 'Unbuilt Britain' (particularly the first episode)
will find the detailed background to the inspiration for Paxton's proposed
Victorian Way shown in the series fascinating.
A recommended read now the autumnal nights are drawing in.