The Victoria regia was discovered in British Guiana in 1837, and for over ten years explorers and scientists tried different methods to transport viable seeds back to England. When the seeds were finally on British soil, no one could grow them successfully except Joseph Paxton, the head gardener for the Duke of Devonshire. Paxton built a special glass house at Chatsworth estate to mimic the tropical climate the Amazonian lily required, and created an innovative tank that was heated with coal and fitted with an apparatus to gently keep the water moving, replicating freshwater rivers. The <&hyphen>œvegetable wonder,<&hyphen> as it came to be known, had floating leaves measuring up to 6 feet in diameter and was considered truly magnificent. To reveal the successful growth of the <&hyphen>œqueen of aquatics<&hyphen> to the public, Paxton dressed his seven-year-old daughter Annie in a fairy costume, dimmed the lights, and set her on the largest of the floating leaves. She stood there and created a theatrical tableau that transfixed all who saw it. This performance, which I am calling a <&hyphen>œbotanical-theatrical event,<&hyphen> is the site of my examination. Drawing on ecocritical perspectives and performance studies, I argue that this presentation was coded with social and political messaging that reinforced English national identity and imperial intentions. The lily was a signifier of the exotic, while the child was a signifier of the domestic. This botanical-theatrical event was deeply significant because it embodied the social and political views of the time, acting out the British Empire being <&hyphen>œon top<&hyphen> of, and supported by, the <&hyphen>œuncivilized<&hyphen> world. The water lily had been taken from its natural habitat, transported across the ocean and grown in a manipulated environment. It became a specimen/spectacle. The little girl had been taken out of her natural habitat, dressed as another creature and displayed on the floating leaf. She also became a specimen/spectacle. The interaction between these two organisms in this theatrical exhibition synthesized a physical representation of Imperialism that was powerful to the people of the time because of the social and political system in which they lived.
College and Department
Fine Arts and Communications; Theatre and Media Arts
BYU ScholarsArchive Citation
Jarvis, Katie Maurine, "The Queen of Aquatics:The 1849 Display of the Victoria regia Water Lily as Imperial Theatre" (2018). Theses and Dissertations. 7321.
Victoria regia, Joseph Paxton, ecocriticism, Chatsworth, plant performance, green theater, eco-theater, botanical-theatrical event