My grandmother, Victoria, spent most of her childhood in the Kew Gardens hothouse. It all started when, as a baby, she was taken on a family outing there. My great-grandfather Reg was a true educationalist, and even though Victoria was only six months old, he talked to her continuously about the wonderful plants on show. When he arrived at the giant water lily he made what turned out to be a tragic mistake. He pointed at the enormous leaves of the Victoria Regia and said: “That’s Victoria Regia, you see, and they say that its leaves can hold the weight of a child!” Some minutes later, as they returned to the perambulator in which they had thought their baby daughter to be sleeping, they were horrified to find that she had crawled out of the conveyance and made her way onto one of the further leaves of the lily. Try as they might, they could not coax her from there, and she stayed afloat for the following twelve years. They had to feed her with a long pole. Many photographers, over the years, came to take pictures of my grandmother on her watery home, and these were commonly published in the Wonder Books and Children’s Encyclopaedias – it is likely that you will remember having seen one of these at some time.
In this earliest known picture of my grandmother we can see that the temporary removal of her leaf from the pond for a photograph caused her considerable distress – the exercise was never repeated.
The picture above was actually taken in Kew Gardens, not on the Amazon as the caption suggests, and the wildfowl shown are in reality two stuffed coots borrowed from the Natural History Museum. My grandmother was sitting in her usual place on that day, but the publishers have used photographic trickery to remove her image so as to reinforce the impression that the picture was taken in Brazil – we can also see that the background of Kew Gardens and its stream of visitors has also been entirely removed in this early example of airbrushing.
This illustration from Alred Russell Wallace’s Travels on the Amazon shows how the pioneer explorers discovered the wonderful weight-bearing qualities of Victoria Regia. The same investigators later used these very weights in the Dead Sea to demonstrate its buoyancy (see note 1). If only my great-grandfather Reg had not seen this picture, in his infancy, the course of my grandmother’s life might have been very different.
My granny’s memoirs refer to a number of occasions when other children were encouraged to try their luck on the leaves of her adopted home, and sometimes these were photographed. She remembers this lad as a particularly unwelcome interloper as he spent most of the time splashing water onto her.
We find my grandmother not only in items about the wonderful Lily itself; this shot, for instance, was taken by the compiler of an illustrated dictionary stuck for an idea on how to illustrate the word hold.
From time to time, as people grew perhaps too accustomed to seeing pictures of Victoria, editors tried to introduce a note of variety. The most extravagant example of this was certainly the importation of this Amazonian peasant boy solely for the purpose of being photographed on a leaf adjacent to that occupied by my grandmother.
However, normally she was photographed alone, as here:
This particular picture illustrates the extraordinary skill with which the coiffeurs arranged my grandmother’s curls, swinging, as they did, from ropes suspended from the wrought iron grids of the ceiling. Later, they showed perhaps even more dexterity when they dyed her hair and cut it short for this photograph:
For over a decade she lived contentedly on the lily pond, and we are fortunate in having so many pictures of her scattered through the old books to convey the sense of belonging that pervaded her childhood.
No tratment of this subject would be complete without mention of the following disgraceful piece of fakery uttered in an early Encyclopaedia. The picture purports to show my grandmother in her usual postition on the lily leaf, but the simplest scrutiny of the picture reveals the imposture. Two children, not one, are pictured, and no attempt has been made to conceal that this picture was taken in an open-air environment, not in Kew. Neither child can disguise their unease, indicating that they are unaccustomed to sitting on lily leaves. Worst of all, the photographer has placed them onto wooden rafts (as if that were necessary!), thereby undermining the very intention of the picture. On such rafts, these strangely-hatted children could have floated, Victoria Regia or no Victoria Regia.
My grandmother was finally enticed from the leaf by a promise to take her to South America to see the Regia in its natural home. She stayed in the Amazon for several years, and we do have one picture of her in the Rainforest (see note 2). Later she married and settled down in Surrey. Her son, my father, was given every encouragement to follow in his mother’s footsteps, but his naturally cautious disposition prevented this.
1. See picture “dead sea” by following the Flickr link to the right at the top. Examine the set of pictures called Amusing Collages.
2. See picture “jungle girl” at same location. Look in the set Surrealistic Collages.