Glass, iron, and Syon

KEW GARDENS CONTAINS several magnificent Victorian plant houses made mainly of glass and iron. These include: The Palm House built 1844-1848; The Waterlily House built 1852; and The Temperate House built in about 1859. Although they are early examples of massive glass and iron structures for the cultivation of plants, they are not the earliest. The conservatory in the gardens of nearby Syon House predates them, having been built in 1827, ten years before Queen Victoria came to the throne. As a work of architecture, it rivals the best of those Victorian ‘glasshouses’ that can be seen at Kew.

The Grand Conservatory at Syon

We had parked in the grounds of Syon House several times before we visited its gardens in April 2021 and each time, I noticed the large glass and iron dome towering over the high garden walls. Until we entered the gardens, I had not realised that this splendid dome is attached to one of the most attractive plant conservatories that I have ever seen.

The extensive gardens of Syon House were landscaped by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown (1716-1783) in 1760 but were replanned in the 19th century.  The architect Charles Fowler (1792-1862), who designed the market buildings in London’s Covent Garden, designed The Great Conservatory at Syon Park. It was built for Hugh Percy the Third Duke of Northumberland (1785-1847), who served as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland under the Duke of Wellington from 1829 to 1830 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hugh_Percy,_3rd_Duke_of_Northumberland).

Writing in 1876, James Thorne, author of “Handbook to The Environs of London”, noted:

“The Great Conservatory designed by Fowler is in the form of a wide crescent, with pavilions at the extremities, and a lofty central dome. The centre, 100 feet long, is a tropical house, and is said to contain the finest collection of tropical plants in any private establishment in England. It is noteworthy that here only in this country has the cocoanut palm fully ripened …”

Thorne also noted that the vases on pedestals on the terrace in front of the conservatory were carved by Grinling Gibbons (1648-1721). The circular pool in front of the conservatory has a statue of Hermes (Mercury), which is a copy of one by the Italian sculptor Giambologna (1529-1608).

Although we were unable to enter The Great Conservatory, we could see most of it through its clean windows. The central dome is supported by a ring of perforated semi-circular arches held aloft by slender iron pillars. Even without entering it, the central area of the building can be seen to be a beautifully designed, airy space. Though not as crowded with plants as the conservatories at Kew Gardens, the one at Syon contains a collection of palms, cactuses, and other warm weather plants, mostly large and well-established. Unlike the glasshouses at Kew, much of the rear wall of The Great Conservatory is constructed with brickwork instead of glass and iron.

Much time can be spent enjoyably exploring the lovely gardens at Syon House, but despite their beauty, the pièce-de-rèsistance is without doubt The Great Conservatory, an impressive and beautiful example of construction in glass and iron. It is well worth purchasing an admission ticket even if only to see and admire this great work of Regency architecture.

Glass in the garden

 

Once again, London’s Kew Gardens is hosting an exhibition of glass sculptures by Dale Chihuly (born 1941). The amazingly crafted glass artworks of often quite complex design have been placed both in the open-air and inside some of Kew’s lovely old glass-houses. 

The curvy tubes with pointed ends shown in my photograph have been tastefully planted in a grassy field dotted with tulips. In the Temperate House, a large glass mobile has been suspended from the ceiling and smaller objects mingle with the plants. Wherever you look, you will find glass artefacts in  intimate contact with the plants growing around them. In the Water-Lily House, large glass sulptures evoking the flowers of water-lillies mingle with the real plants whose fronds float on the water.

As time passes and the plants grow more, some of Chihuly’s colourful glass objects will become harder to find.  The plant-like forms of many of the artworks mix with the plants to provide in some cases a stark contrast or in others they almost blend with the plants around them.

It is well worth visiting Kew whilst these sculptures are on display. However much I like the glass artworks, the stars of the show are for me the plants themselves (rather than the sculptures). This highlights how difficult it is for man to compete with nature on the aesthetic playing field.

 

The Chihuly works are on display at Kew Gardens until the 27th October 2019