These two short treatises, both published in 1864, detail the art of producing “phantom flowers”: snow-white bouquets of leaves and seeds reduced to their very veins. Part of a legacy of attempts to preserve fragile plants long beyond their lifespans — from Anna Atkins’ iconic cyanotypes to the tradition of drying herbarium specimens — scientists and artists have worked for centuries to capture floral ephemerality. Stemming from much older East Asian techniques for “skeletonizing” plants, first fully described in Europe by Dutch anatomist Frederick Ruysch, the “phantom” process of putrefaction, flesh removal, and chemical bleaching rivaled early modern anatomical practices in its complexity. Skeletonization crossed the Atlantic in the 1860s, quickly taking hold of a primarily American female public intent on combining the arts and sciences into displays of taste driven by a growing fervor for natural history.
Making phantom flowers took an enormous amount of intricate skill — an art which, to some, “seemed designed for female hands exclusively”. After collection, leaves would be covered in hot water and stored in sunlight for roughly a month, until the rotted tissue could be carefully removed with fingers or a soft artist’s brush. These skeletonized leaves were then bleached using a sensitive chemical solution of chloride or lime, dried, and mounted either upright under a glass cloche or flat in a frame. Rarely exhibited on their own, the finest phantom flowers were grouped together into nearly translucent bouquets, where any imperfections could be artfully hidden away.
Edward Parrish, The Phantom Bouquet: A Popular Treatise on the Art of Skeletonizing Leaves and Seed-Vessels (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co., 1864).
The finished objects resembled “perfectly bleached artificial lace-work or exquisite carvings in ivory”, and were described as revelatory, even religious. Observing the full process from decay to ever-lasting beauty was to “lift the soul from groveling things up to the regions of poetry and of love”, thought Edward Parrish, author of The Phantom Bouquet (1864). Calling skeleton leaves an “emblem of Resurrection”, the anonymous author of Phantom Flowers (1864) exemplifies the broader religious undercurrents driving nature for so many nineteenth-century readers. Creating these arrangements was to watch leaves transform, Christlike, from “corruption” to their “final and perfect beauty”.
Designed primarily by and for women, phantom flowers fit into a growing trend of arranging natural specimens for display in the upper- or middle-class home, as Victorian parlors filled with taxidermied insects, delicate seaweed albums, and even miniature aquaria. Unlike scientific societies or public lecture halls, private parlors offered one of the few spaces where women could gather to discuss the newest discoveries in natural history. Reflective of their owner’s taste, education, worldliness, and observational skills, the parlor was an ideal environment for rare phantom flora to hold centerstage. The commercial value of these mounted bouquets is carefully buried in the depths of the treatises. Despite introducing the art as a process that would contribute directly to a woman’s botanical expertise, laying bare “the admirable laws which govern” the natural world, the author of Phantom Flowers admits that “to American minds especially”, the primary question readers might ask is: “Will it pay?”
Here, then, is the conundrum underlying the production of artful specimens so characteristic of Victorian parlor displays. While these authors underscored the scientific, aesthetic, and even religious nature of working with plants in such intimate, embodied ways, these objects were never far removed from the commercial and colonial realms of Victorian Britain and America. Perhaps paradoxically, the trend died out quickly. Phantom flowers have, for the most part, become rare ghosts of the nineteenth century. Attempting to preserve ephemeral floral beauty for eternity, these objects now largely exist as skeletons of the past, an experiment in preservation that did not last.
September 6, 2022