Inside the winter garden

21 December 2016

Carpet bedding, rockeries, a national obsession with lawns. When it comes to our landscapes we have a lot to blame the Victorians for. That long era of industrial growth and questionable aesthetics has left its mark.

The Victorians also created the ‘winter garden’, and with that there comes redemption.

These winter gardens are housed in cavernous glasshouses built using the newest technology of the age, in whimsical follies or grand extensions.   They were designed to house exotic plants brought back by rogueish plantsmen off plundering the Empire, categorised in to regions and climates, with some areas devoted to just one species.  Nobody loved a palm house more than the estate-makers of the 19th Century.

On a recent studio trip to the glasshouse at Kew - the winter garden to end all - we were struck by its crouching vastness and yet how light it seemed, shielding the delicate foliage inside with mere millimetres of transparent. At the other end of the scale are gems like the Camellia House at Yorkshire Sculpture park, designed for just that delicate flowering shrub and as a place of refuge away from the storms sweeping off the Peaks.

Once inside these oases it is as if in another world.   It could be snowing, hailing, gale-ing but the winter garden stands fast and tall for it’s arboreal inhabitants.

This Victorian legacy of fooling nature, ignoring the local elements, has found new life in recent years.  We can still be seduced by this simple idea. The Sheffield Winter Garden, opened in 2003, is one of the largest temperate glasshouses to be built since the 19th century.  Its repeating, unfurling arches protect a range of plants and provide a (free) green space for all to enjoy.  In Liverpool a smaller project, run by Assemble – an architects collective - will see the shell of a derelict building transformed in to a winter garden with towering palms and tree ferns.

In what’s been a stormy year for many, perhaps we should embrace this singular piece of Victorian wisdom, and revisit the refuge of our winter gardens.

- Elizabeth Tyler