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Wax wonders

Mark Nesbitt
5 November 2012
Blog team: 
In the Victorian period, creating wax models of flowers was both a ladylike craft, and an important tool for botanical communication.

Working in wax

Kew's Economic Botany Collection recently hosted two visitors from the Victoria & Albert Museum – Amy Mechowski, assistant curator of sculpture, and Fiona Jordan, ceramics and glass conservator. Their visit was a reminder of the breadth of the Collection, which contains much to interest the art historian.

Like many natural history museums, Kew has many botanical models. Unlike the famous glass Blaschka models at Harvard University, ours are made of wax or plaster. They were made for display in the Kew Museum of Economic Botany, as visual aids in the days before colour photography or interactive displays. They must have introduced a welcome note of colour to the sooty gloom of a Victorian winter.

Among the collections are 25 wax models of orchids, which were moved to the Herbarium following the closure of the old museum building. They have recently been conserved by Annette Townsend and Vicky Purewal at the National Museum of Wales, an exceptionally delicate task, and are looking superb. They were commissioned by Kew in 1905 from Mrs Edith Delta Blackman (1866-1941), at a cost of around four pounds and four shillings each. 

Wax model of Vanda coerulea, blue vanda, recently conserved at the National Museum of Wales. Note the subtlety of the detailed colours and markings.
Objets d'Art 2006/37.2 (Photo: Amy Mechowski)

We have many models in the Economic Botany Collection, including wax models of plant embryos, made by the Ziegler studio in the 1860s, 200 plaster apples and pears from New Zealand, and a splendid set of six models of fruits and flowers, commissioned from Mrs Mintorn in 1899 at a cost of £17.


Mintorn wax model of peaches, made by Mrs Mintorn in 1899.
EBC 69752 (Photo: Andrew McRobb)

 The Mintorn models are strikingly realistic, even down to the fuzz on the peaches, and surface marks on the apples.


Mintorn wax model of apples, made by Mrs Mintorn in 1899.
EBC 69754 (Photo: Amy Mechowski) 

Rafflesia arnoldii – the 'corpse flower'

After examining these models, we walked over to the Plants+People exhibition in Museum No. 1. Here two models are on display, a Mintorn model of hops, and this magnificent life-size model of Rafflesia arnoldii, a rare plant of the rainforests of Sumatra. This is the largest individual flower of any plant, and is known for emitting the smell of tainted beef, which attracts its pollinators.


Wax model of Rafflesia, on public display in the Plants+People exhibition at Kew.
(Photo: Amy Mechowski)

The plant was introduced to western botanists by Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles and Joseph Arnold, whose Malay servant found it growing near the Manna River on 19 May, 1818. Named by Robert Brown after Raffles and Arnold, the plant caused a sensation in the botanical salons of Europe. Three life-size wax models, each about 3 feet across, were made in 1825 for Raffles, the Linnean Society, and the Royal Horticultural Society. The model shown above was acquired from the Royal Horticultural Society by Kew in 1855, and is believed to be the only one that survives.

With the aid of a torch, we took a close look at all the models, confirming that several of the Mintorn models, and the Rafflesia, are in need of conservation. Typical symptoms are cracked or broken-off wax, and ties cutting into the wax. 

Wax on display

So why were we visited by the V&A? Amy Mechowski has just curated a small (but fascinating) display in the V&A's Sculpture Gallery (room 111), tracing the development of women sculptors in Britain. Wax plays an important part in this story, as modelling in wax was seen as a suitable occupation for ladies. 

The contents of a wax modelling kit made by Mintorn.
Part of the Victoria & Albert Museum display Waxing and Waning: 19th-century women sculptors and wax modelling. V&A W.185 to AAA-1923 (Photo: Amy Mechowski)

Wax was also an affordable material. The exhibition includes wax flowers, a complete kit for making flowers, and beautiful examples of portraits, and arts and craft work. We had hoped to lend some of the Mintorn flowers to the exhibition, but they would not have fitted within the shallow cabinets.

Wax flowers were not just an object of hobby and display; they were also an important industry. Queen Victoria loved wax flowers, and 10,000 wax roses were made for her wedding in 1840. However, I suspect that few wax flowers have survived in museums: as well as being very fragile, they would have been deeply out of fashion for much of the 20th century. One of the virtues of Kew's collections is that they have resisted some of the turns of fashion of the last century, and are therefore rich in this kind of object.

One of the great joys of curating such a diverse collection is that every visitor knows more about their specialism than I do, and thus one learns from every visitor. This well-spent morning left me with two objectives. The first, drawing on Fiona's observations of our models' condition, is to think about raising funds so they can have the same conservation treatment as the wax orchids.  The second, drawing on Amy's art historical comments, is to find a postgraduate student (or several) of the history of science, or design, or museums, to work on our models. This is still a largely untilled field, and thus a good one for aspiring scholars. 




Further reading

Noltie, H.J. (2009) Raffles' Ark Redrawn. London: British Library. (on the wax model of Rafflesia)

Lechtreck, H.-J. (2003). A history of some fruit models in wax and other materials: scientific teaching aids and courtly table decorations. Archives of Natural History 30: 299-316.

Shteir, A.B. (2007) Fac-Similes of Nature: Victorian Wax Flower Modelling. Victorian Literature and Culture 35: 649–661.


Related links

Victoria & Albert Museum display (to 9 March 2013)  Waxing and Waning: 19th-century women sculptors and wax modelling

Rafflesia arnoldii (the corpse flower) at Kew

Museo della Frutta 'Francesco Garnier Valletti'






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