The Victorian Fern Craze

The final lecture in the Cultural Landscapes series of talks at the University of Cumbria took place last week. I think it might be my favourite talk, although almost all of the speakers have been passionate about their subject and fascinating to listen to.

The subject of the final talk was the fern craze of the Nineteenth Century, and the speaker Dr Sarah Whittingham. I've always had a soft spot for ferns. My Mum introduced me to them when I was a young child and we used to delight in them. There is a wonderful place close to the west shore of Coniston, where there are ferns in profusion. I used to get lost in them. They were so tall, they would swallow me up! 

In the 1980s I first visited Brantwood, on Coniston, and learned about W J Linton. Linton lived at Brantwood in the years before John Ruskin and was a lover of ferns. He wrote a splendid little book: The Ferns of the English Lake Country which we have in our collection. I'm not sure if he planted the garden, or just augmented and enjoyed it. We're planning a visit very soon, so will find out more then.

The Fern Garden is a maze of over 250 different types of British native ferns which thrive in the woodland climate of Brantwood. The garden surrounds the ice house which was built in a cave excavated by local miners.

Unexpected Benefits of Fern Collecting!

However, I must confess that I had no idea how long the Victorian fern craze lasted, or the grip it had on the British imagination.

Fern Fever (or Pteridomania, to give it its official name), was popular in Britain between 1837 and 1914. Although in previous centuries ferns played an important role in customs and folklore, it was only in this period that they were coveted for aesthetic reasons. The fern craze started to gather momentum in the 1840s; books and magazines maintained that fern growing was a hobby that anyone could enjoy, as ferns would grow in the glazed fernery, garden, shady yard, window box or even indoors in Wardian Cases. The mania also spread from the living plant to depicting it in architecture and the decorative arts. Even roads, villas and terraced houses were named after the fern.

I learned such a lot from the talk and we will be buying more ferns for our very modest collection soon. I think we might also acquire a few more books about ferns from the Victorian era. Any excuse for book buying!