Roehampton academic has uncovered the full history of the creation of the Palm House at Kew
- Thursday, July 9, 2020
Dr Kate Teltscher’s research reconstructs the story of both the building and its living plants, bringing together the extraordinary technical advances of the building, which was one of the earliest prefabricated structures, and the cultural, commercial and imperial significance of palms to nineteenth-century Britain.
The Palm House was designed by the Dublin-based engineer and iron-founder Richard Turner in collaboration with the more famous architect Decimus Burton. Dr Teltscher’s research highlights Turner’s contribution to the innovative design, arguing that his part in the design and construction was never fully acknowledged because of his Irish origins.
The research also demonstrates that the Victorians considered palms as the ultimate plant, surpassing European vegetation in terms of beauty and utility. The period saw the first commercial application of palm oil, as a constituent of soap and candles, and as a mechanical lubricant on the railways. Today there is much concern that palm oil production is a major cause of deforestation involving child and forced labour, but the Victorians viewed palm oil as an ethical product, promoting it as a means to combat the slave trade between West Africa and Brazil.
Dr Teltscher says ‘The Palm House has long functioned as the centrepiece and symbol of Kew and of British botanical science more widely. This research is a timely investigation into the imperial origins and significance of this astonishing landmark building.’
Her book, Palace of Palms, is now available.
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