By Brendan Sayers
Photography by Amelia Stein
Amelia and the Moments
Passing on the stories of individual or collective plant species occurs daily for me. It may be for a semi-permanent interpretative sign for a plant in the glasshouse collections of the National Botanic Gardens, Glasnevin in Dublin, where I work, a page of a book on native Irish orchids, a speciality of mine, or in a chat with a neighbour. The selection of an appropriate image can make or break the efficacy of the words.
When I met Amelia Stein in the Gardens an autumn day in 1999, a joint project was conceived. Neither of us knew it at the time.
There was method to Amelia’s arrival in Glasnevin that first day. It was to document, for generations to come, an extinction event. It was a necessary extinction, one that would avoid an untimely and more unsightly one.
The necessity was the dismantling of a glass, iron and wooden structure that protected a semi-tangible creation. This structure had a name and that name became the title of the project – The Palm House.
The physical were the plants, pots, tubs, soil and even the birds that flew through cracked panes to nest in crevices in the warm blackstone wall that supported the lattice of ironwork.
Less tangible was the atmosphere created by heat, moisture and modest decay. It was something I loved.
Amelia’s arrival coincided with the declaration of the imminent restoration of this great, graceful, grande dame of Irish glasshouses.
The collections within were to be removed, transported to temporary accommodation, to be returned sometime later. The temporary accommodation was tight; necessitating cramped quarters, narrow maintenance aisles and the banishment of public visitors.
This huge task required great planning and careful execution, it was an exile. The return from this exile would gauge the success of the planned procedures. Unforeseen complications fortunately stalled the restoration date giving Amelia more time to engage with the house, the plants and me.
It was both a challenge and a joy to be involved with Amelia and The Palm House project. Part of the joy was that there were few written words and the challenge, exactly the same.
The Palm House
For The Palm House, my task was to tell tales. They were tales of characters in a play that was on show every day for public viewing. The play was in its final run. The cast came from far and wide yet lived in harmony, their shared heritage was one of warmth.
The photographic process at the hands of Amelia and her Hasselblad camera would capture the leading men and their ladies. These would include the lonely man cycad from the Ongoye forest of KwaZulu-Natal, the long and lanky Asian giant bamboo that towered over everyone else and the graceful, arching North African date palm delivering sweet treats to those who cared for them. But I digress, these are tales for another time!
Amelia’s portraits of moments in time in the Palm House at Glasnevin would accumulate and then be sorted, discussed, discarded and reprieved, as the selection for final line up proceeded.
Through Amelia’s art, her patience, listening, watching and waiting, moments from that magical world appear in duotone.
The images are evocative and informative.
To some they awaken buried memories, to others create unique scenes.
For me she has captured the impossible! The warmed atmosphere, infused with the heady scents from the flowers of spathe and swamp lilies, decaying leaves and wet soil, carried to your face on moisture laden air.
And there are the sounds from the house. Foliage rustling as the cool outdoor air rushed through on a door opening or the cries of exclamation from a young visitor. The tactile and olfactory palpably evoked in print.
It is a glimpse into the creation and working of a century old collection of foreign tropical plants in a foreign temperate country. Generations of gardeners took charge to grow these plants, most which were single specimens, cosseting them as seedlings, increasing their pot size as they grew from year to year and finally planting them in wooden barrels, recycled whiskey casks, when their rootballs exceeded the size of the largest clay pot.
The behemoths were suspended on large steel tripods as their containers were replaced, roots freshly encased in rich soils until size or exhaustion necessitated another change.
Some plants escaped their containers and sunk their roots into the gravel and clinker floor, an achievement, impossible to reverse. They had customised concrete forms, cast around them.
The magic of light was captured too.
The low winter trajectory absorbed and partitioned by the variety of forms created a leafy kaleidoscope. It is these images that I cherish most, remembrances of frosty, winter mornings standing alone in the warm air, watching the play from the sidelines as the characters prepared for another performance.
The Show Goes On
One day, following the final exits, Amelia and I recollected our thoughts, now that the time had come to hand over the burdensome task of restoration to the contractors. There is an image from that day that I frequently revisit. It shows me sitting on the steps of the main entrance to the Palm House, the benches empty, pots and tubs removed. Pushing its way through the gravel is a shoot of a banana, a remnant of the clump that had been removed, defying the events of the past month while the house was cleared. In revisiting, I see captured, fleeting moments. The shoot, the defiance of plants in the face of man’s destructive qualities, the miracle of rebirth, that most things do not end, they continue in some form or other.
And it is in that vein that I end this lament and transform it to a celebration. For the grande dame has returned clothed in new silks of modern design. She has not changed much, her warm embrace as strong as ever, her protective stance warding off danger, her comforting world coaxing new fronds from aged stems. Her corridors are as luxuriant as ever, the exiles finding firm root in the new, deep beds of fertile soil.
They have returned, we exclaim success!!
Visit Amelia Stein Gallery: The Palm House in ecoArts. a companion piece to this article, to see beautiful selections from Amelia Stein’s ”The Palm House” photographic exhibition in Ireland, and exquisite hardcover book of the same title.
The Palm House: Photography by Amelia Stein; foreword by John Banville, text by Brendan Sayers; published by The Lilliput Press Ltd., printed on Garda Pat Klassica and bound by Editoriale Bortolazzi Stei, Verona, Italy.
This fine monograph of duotone photographs taken in the great Palm House at the National Botanical Gardens in Glasnevin, Dublin, beautifully illustrates the house prior to its restoration, and its unique patina acquired over a period of time that spans three centuries. Amelia captures the relationships between the luxuriant tropical plantings and the time-worn fabric of the building, the seasonal changes in light. Brendan’s narrative text brings a light touch and a deep knowledge to Amelia’s lush visual exploration of The Palm House, and all its living charges.
Brendan Sayers is Glasshouse Foreman in The National Botanic Gardens in Glasnevin, Ireland. Brendan specializes in Belizean and Irish orchids. His previous published collaborations include the much-coveted and awarded duo of Ireland’s Wild Orchids and Ireland’s Wild Orchids – A Field Guide.
In 2011 he received the H.H. Bloomer Medal from the Linnean Society of London for raising the profile of Irish orchids. He is currently writing his next wild and wonderful publishing project, Transformations.
Born in New York City to Irish parents, Brendan was raised in County Kerry, which he considers one of the most beautiful places in Ireland. Brendan was educated in horticulture at The National Botanic Gardens, Glasnevin. He worked in professional horticulture in New York and New Jersey, before returning permanently to Ireland in 1993. Brendan is one of Planting for the Planet’s earliest contributors, starting with Our Step Forward: Botanical Pursuits of the Human Kind.