Palace of Palms

Daringly innovative when it opened in 1848, the Palm House in Kew Gardens remains one of the most beautiful glass buildings in the world today. Seemingly weightless, vast and yet light, the Palm House floats free from architectural convention, at once monumental and ethereal. From a distance, the crowns of the palms within are silhouetted in the central dome; close to, banana leaves thrust themselves against the glass. To enter it is to enter a tropical fantasy. The body is assaulted by heat, light, and the smell of damp vegetation.

In Palace of Palms, Kate Teltscher tells the extraordinary story of its creation and of the Victorians’ obsession with the palms that filled it. It is a story of breathtaking ambition, of scientific discovery and, crucially, of the remarkable men whose vision it was. The Palm House was commissioned by the charismatic first Director of Kew, Sir William Hooker, designed by the audacious Irish engineer, Richard Turner, and managed by Kew’s forthright curator, John Smith, who battled with boilers and floods to ensure the survival of the rare and wondrous plants it housed.

Teltscher is a remarkable new historian...wholly original. William Dalrymple

In this fascinating book, Kate Teltscher introduces us not just to the Palm House at Kew, but to the world of the palm. In so doing, she roams from botany and horticulture, through plant hunting expeditions and literary traditions, to engineering and architecture. Some of the people met on this journey are the privileged members of society, some technical geniuses, others working men who toiled in gruelling conditions to transport a tropical world to Victorian London. Margaret Willes - The Gardens of the British Working Class

Not since Anna Pavord's The Tulip has a book so brilliantly captured the spirit of its subject. Kate Teltscher's Palace of Palms is a glorious headrush into Victorian history via one of the most iconic and beautiful glasshouses in the world. This is a bright, shining jewel of a book, a hedonists' delight and an escapists' antidote to the humdrum. Amanda Foreman

The Palm House at Kew has been a world attraction since it was opened in 1848 - and Kate Teltscher's brilliantly researched account of the botanists and architects responsible is as thrilling as a novel. Claire Tomalin

The establishment of Kew Gardens and the building of the great Palm House is a most remarkable story, that touches on every aspect of 19th century life. Kate Teltscher knows it all – the politics, the science, the engineering – and writes about it with effortless elegance to weave the most wonderfully compelling narrative. Michael Frayn


Kate Teltscher is a Reader in English Literature at the University of Roehampton and Visiting Researcher at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. As a cultural historian, her research has focused on colonial contact between Britain and Asia and she is the author of two acclaimed books, India Inscribed: European and British Writing on India, 1600-1800 and The High Road to China: George Bogle, the Panchen Lama and the First British Expedition to Tibet, which was shortlisted for the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Biography. She lives in south-west London with her family

Palace of Palms by Kate Teltscher, 400 pages, hardback, ISBN 978-1529004854, Picador in association with the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew 

Type: Books