Sunday afternoon at the Horticultural Gardens

It’s 1863. While my friend James Hedderly is taking photographs of riverside life in Chelsea featuring subjects at the lower end of the Victorian social scale, a short distance away a professional photographer is taking pictures of visitors to the Royal Horticultural Society Gardens in Exhibition Road who come from an entirely different class. It looks quiet out there. The visitors look prosperous and well dressed. The water of the ornamental pond is still. The images are crisp. The poses are casual but even allowing for the unknown professional’s equipment I think the people in the pictures are still carefully placed in the composition and are holding their positions as the picture is taken.

In this view we’re looking north. The Albert Hall would have been right behind the glasshouse – at the time of this picture there were still four years before the foundation stone of the building was laid. At the left of the picture you can see the tower of a house at 1 Hyde Park Gate. The chimney I’m not too sure about. I can’t see a likely candidate on the 1862 Ordnance Survey map. Suggestions are welcome.

From a modern point of view the two women are amazingly overdressed. The one on the right looks daunted at the slope. How did her friend even get up there? In fact the crinoline skirt which would be held in ridicule by later Victorians and everyone after that was something of a step forward in terms of mobility and was much lighter than the previous fashion for masses of petticoats.

The man is probably just as restricted in his formal daywear despite his casual pose. Look again at the still water and the reflections in it of the balustrade and the two women.

This view shows the glasshouse from another angle. It’s another composition in which the people seem as still as the plants.

Another close-up shows that the only man in the picture is also reading instead of looking at the tranquil scene around him. Or perhaps it’s the same man moving around for the benefit of the photographer.

The gardens were not a huge success. They were one of the early ideas for populating Albertopolis as the area is sometimes called, and were always uneasy partners with other features of the growing museum district such as the 1862 Exhibition building to the south, which would itself give way to the Natural History Museum. Smoke and noise around the site increased and the Society had a limited lease on the land. Eventually Prince Consort Road would go through the site, right where those two women are standing in the picture, and later the Science Museum and the Imperial Institute would replace the Gardens.

This image from 1901 shows part of the Science Museum and the slightly sinister looking Imperial Institute building. The Institute is also gone now although the tower on the right remains on the Kensington skyline. Here is a view from the 1960s showing the tower in its modern setting.

But although the Royal Horticultural Gardens have left no visible trace they are not entirely forgotten. I know I’ve made this point before but in the photographs these two women are still there on that quiet afternoon still feigning an interest in the plants for the benefit of the photographer and ourselves.

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