“The Agreeable Occupation of Imitating Nature”

Today’s post is quite long but needs just a very short introduction…

What do the thousands of  white roses at Queen Victoria’s wedding have in common with mediaeval nuns, the philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s head,  what your great-aunt Agatha probably had on her mantelpiece…

…and this small metal box in the V&A?

Read on to find out!

from Under Glass                                              [full ref at the end]

I didn’t want to give the game away by calling this post Waxing Lyrical but the short answer is wax…and yes there is a connection with plants and gardens.

One of the problems with researching what to most people must seem a bit of a bizarre subject in the first place is that of course anything wax is fragile so, not being considered “high art” in any sense,   very little has survived.  However, nowadays even wax has its historians and an interesting bit of social  history is beginning to emerge, and it’s virtually all female.

If I’d asked what do you know about wax modelling the first answer from most people would probably be Madame Tussaud  but wax figures predate her by several hundred years.  Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Artists mentions them and the use of wax as medium for sculpture. There were waxworks on show in London before the Civil War, and the  Tradescants had examples in their Ark.  By the end of the 17thc there were several permanent waxwork shows around the capital as well as  a whole series of royal and aristocratic funeral effigies in Westminster Abbey dating from the later 17thc where the lifelike heads are modelled in wax. [A good introduction if you want to know more about early waxworks is Richard Altick’s The Shows of London, 1978]

As far as gardens are concerned waxwork figures appeared in Kew in 1735, when,  as I reported in an earlier post, Caroline of Ansbach, George II’s wife  commissioned  a series of life-sized allegorical figures with faces and hands in wax for her bizarre garden building Merlin’ s Cave.

But the story begins  earlier still but because it was an art form practiced largely by women,  it’s far less well-known or even researched. [Follow this link for more info] Medieval nuns are known to have made wax figures of saints and flowers to decorate altars, and this continued widely through to the 17thc and even today there are are several continental convents who continue the tradition.  The earliest documented example is from  around 1500 when Charlot Gaby was recorded making wax flowers and shrubs for the festivities around the visit of Anne of Brittany, Queen of France to Tours.  [Later examples have been researched and listed  by Marjorie Parrott Adams of Cornell University]

Somehow, perhaps of its religious connotations, modelling in wax later became an acceptable art form for elite Italian women and in the late 17thc, one of them, Mary of Modena bought a collection of  wax models and pictures with her  from Italy when she married James II. [Interestingly she is almost always pictured with flowers] It wasn’t long before  the idea of wax modelling of small, delicate objects, often of botanical subjects, was seen as a suitable occupation for elite women in Britain too.

By the early 18thc  sheets of coloured wax could be bought in London, and instructors found to teach the art of modelling with it.

Wax portraits, pictures, fruit and flowers and even landscapes were soon nothing unusual. Martha Gazeley, “a mistress of the craft”, worked in London and even travelled to New York several times in the 1730s and 1740s to offer the colonials  instruction in “the following curious works, viz Artificial Fruit and Flowers, and other Wax Work, Nuns Work for young Gentlewomen.”

It was doctors who took the next  short step by commissioning parts of human figures  as anatomical models, so that the various organs and muscles could seen seen and identified.

Examples are known from the late 17thc and a Paris surgeon bought a travelling show of examples to London in 1727. By the later 18thc a school of modelling was established in Bologna and then another in Florence at  “La Specola”, a laboratory now a museum, which soon became famous all through Europe. Touring exhibitions of such anatomical models travelled round Europe.  That’s where Jeremy Bentham’s head comes in to the story. He left his body to be anatomised and then preserved. It was thought his mummified head was too scary to put on display so instead  a wax version was commissioned in 1833, and can be still seen in the main entrance to University College, London.

Such figures and anatomical models seem to have led to a parallel development in the use of wax for the identification of other kinds of specimens such as fungi, fruits and vegetable. There was a famous collection of 500 models of fungi by Andre Pinson in Paris in the late 18thc, while in Florence at the same time there were equally famous botanic collections of plants, fruit and flowers [which are still on dispaly there].

So now, having followed many red herrings on the way to discovering the story of wax flowers and plants I decided to try and assess  its  popularity  through a search of British Newspaper Archives. Another enjoyable afternoon when it was too hot outside to be in the garden.

Morning Post – Wednesday 01 April 1829

The first piece I found was  an advert from 1829 for Mrs Sybella Holding of Soho Square offering lessons.   Later adverts say that she was a member of the Horticultural Society  “and made Botany her study”.

Exeter and Plymouth Gazette – Saturday 01 December 1838

I became intrigued and followed  her progress around through her ads as she decided to tap potential new markets by touring the country, staying anything from a few weeks to more than a year, and offering lessons. She  was still doing so until at least 1855 when her last advert appears.

Cheltenham Chronicle – Thursday 18 October 1832

Cheltenham Chronicle – Thursday 02 August 1832

Brighton Gazette – Thursday 09 August 1832

Of course Mrs Holding had rivals. I discovered at least half a dozen who toured as well as many who taught from home.  The earliest was “a lady” offering lessons in Winchester in 1829 while the Misses Lambert were teaching Persian painting and wax flower making from their home in London in 1832.  In Cheltenham Mrs Cooper’s Academy of Music and the Arts expanded their syllabus to include wax flowers  “accurately taught after the mode of the original inventor, Monsieur Barbon.”

So by the late 1830s most large towns probably  had someone offering lessons, as well as entering their work in local horticultural shows.

These domestic productions were generally either framed or more popularly put in glass cases or domes.  We shouldn’t be surprised by that – it was a very practical way of protecting delicate items: Domes were practical, too, keeping items clean when the air outside was heavily polluted by industrial smog, and inside by open wood and coal fires.   John Whitenight author of Under Glass: A Victorian Obsession,” found evidence that these  were around from at least 1822, based on the presence of one in a painting of naturalist Charles Willson Peale from that year.


In 1837  a Mrs Mintorn appears on the scene for the first time. She produced wax fruit and flowers for a City banquet in honour of the new Queen. Immediately Victoria had left the models were rushed off to be put on display at the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly. Later that year Mrs Mintorn  won a medal at the Royal Society of Horticulture and Agriculture show for a case of wax camellias.

But about the same time a young woman named Emma Peachey took a bunch of wax flowers she had made to Buckingham Palace and left them as a gift, hoping the new Queen would see them. She did and had them placed in a vase: ” an honour I had scarcely dared to anticipate.” But more was to follow.

In 1839 Victoria somehow heard that Emma’s  circumstances had changed and she needed to work for a living. She gave  Emma a Royal Warrant and appointed her “Artist in Wax Flowers to Her Majesty.” The following year she was hired to recreate the Queen’s wedding bouquet and other flowers in wax and to make thousands of white roses in wax to be given as bridal favours.

One of things I hadn’t realised when I wrote a post on the giant waterlily Victoria amazonica recently was that after it had flowered in 1841 the Mintorn family  were commissioned to make models of it.  Because the flower was such a rarity and seen by very few people they were asked to show  it in all  its various stages of development “from the large and bristly bud to the opening petals and the full-blown flower in its beautiful variegation of form and tint”  [Daily News 17th July  1850]. Inevitably it was to lead to a book.  Handbook for modelling wax flowers  by Mrs Mintorn’s sons, John & Horatio, was published in 1844.  It proved so popular that it went through 6 editions, all sadly unillustrated, by 1853.

The frontispiece to The Royal Guide

Where the Mintorns  led others followed.  The most impressive of these rivals was by none other than Emma Peachey, who had already penned a short series of articles for the The Lady’s Newspaper in 1847.  The Royal Guide to Wax Flower Modelling, appeared in 1851, the year of the Great Exhibition.


Others included The Art of Modelling Waxen Flowers, Fruit etc  of 1849 by GW Francis,  who also wrote botanical texts and general reference books.   Rebekah Skill published a   pamphlet on the Art of Modelling Wax Flowers in 1852  and tells us that she began learning the art in Paris in 1838 . In 1855 there ws also the anonymous The Wax Bouquet, or the Art of Raising All Flowers at All Seasons.  

Wax flower and fruit making also appeared in guides and handbooks on women’s pastimes such as  Elegant Arts for Ladies of 1856.

But it was The Great Exhibition that really shows how widespread this craft had become. The Crystal Palace was full of floral facsimiles of all kinds, with 12 women named as exhibitors/modellers of wax flowers.

A selection of the entries from the Official Catalogue

Sadly no images exist of the wax floral exhibits but this gives an idea ...detail from Joseph Nash’s painting of the Jersey display

The Mintorn brothers entered an Octagon Case of wax orchids and tropical plants, while Peachey entered several large scale arrangements including the largest piece on display, an arrangement of hundreds of mixed flowers, both tropical and common garden flowers, which stood nearly 6ft high under a glass case. A selection of fruit that she showed was nearly 4ft high and 3ft across had the largest hand-blown glass cover ever made in Britain.

Interestingly the exhibits weren’t all in  the section on “the  domestic economy in society” – some were to illustrate exotic flowers and produce from the Caribbean colonies. Nor was  the space allocated small but, as you can see from the plan, equivalent to that for any of the larger countries.

Plan from the Official Catalogue showing the space allocated to Wax Flowers -by the blue star – on the upper level

from The Royal Guide

The prize for the best exhibit in this section went to two female members of the Mintorn clan.   There was only one problem the section was allocated space on the upper level and the temperature wasn’t conducive to stability of the wax, so Peachey removed her own pieces and displayed them at her own house where she claimed to have 50,000 visitors!

from The Royal Guide

Wax flower modelling quickly became part of mainstream Victorian culture, and played its part  in what Ann Shteir calls the culture of the copy – which also include casts of antique sculptures [eg Cast Court at the V&A], artificial garden ornaments based on classical or renaissance originals, or  tableau vivants and pose plastiques  in the theatrical/ entertainment world. It tied in too with “the language of flowers” where specific flowers represented specific feelings and emotions.

It was simple to do and became  just one of the many “accomplishments” a young lady could cultivate.   It was “marketed” as a pursuit which would improve aesthetic understanding – if , for example, someone could successfully model wax flowers they would better understand how to plant them. It would allow them ” to fill  each available place in the chamber or drawing room with the most perfect and beautiful imitations of the flower garden.” It would improve  botanical knowledge – most of the texts use correct botanical terminology – and allow them to “capture”  ephemeral flowers for posterity.  Mintorn for example claimed that “of many a gorgeous flower that had been culled in the vast region of South America, and been transported hither with anxious care, not a vestige is left but our representation in wax of its resplendent beauties.”

Modellers skills were recognized by scientists because in 1878 for example they were asked to prepare a series of models for the Natural History Museum, and then later  John Mintorn and his sister Mrs Moggridge went to the US to work for the American Museum of Natural History, where they were hailed as talented artists who “made bogus flowers and plants which deceive the eye.” Mrs Moggridges’s niece, Edith Blackman, later went on to work at Kew Gardens producing   realistic models of fruit insects and flowers some of which still survive there.

But it had another side, becoming a small-scale industry allowing women entrepreneurs to build businesses supplying materials, designing, making selling specimens and materials, as well as giving lessons. Unfortunately it didn’t necessarily make you rich. When Emma Peachey died in 1875, she left  less than £300.

On a larger scale The Mintorns had their own shop first in Soho Square and then the Pantheon Bazaar on Oxford Street and finally  as business continued to  improve in New Bond Street. They not only sold the wax, curling needles, paintbrushes, colouring materials wire and a wide range of patterns but even pre-assembled kits neatly packed in a metal box like the one in the V&A that started this post. Buyers could add to this later on with add-on packs of material .

Other companies did the same kind of thing, each extolling the virtues of their own wax “recipes”. The best were made of high quality bees wax but others were adulterated with cheaper materials.

But the fashion passed almost as quickly as it rose. By the end of the 19thc it was in decline and by the early 20thc was positively passé.  But as so often what was scorned by our parents and grandparents as Victorian tat is now eminently collectable so I hope you didn’t throw away that glass dome that once stood on Great Aunt Agathas’s mantlepiece …it could be worth a fortune.

Links have been included in the text to all the books mentioned. Apart from John Whitenight’s Under Glass  he also wrote “Capturing an Era Under Glass” in the 19th Century Magazine in 2013.  The best academic survey of the subject, certainly in its heyday  is “Fac-Similes of Nature”: Victorian Wax Flower Modelling, Ann B. Shteir, Victorian Literature and Culture, Vol. 35, No. 2 (2007), pp. 649-661.  


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1 Response to “The Agreeable Occupation of Imitating Nature”

  1. tonytomeo says:

    Oh my; it is is weird nonetheless.

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