Caught by the River


27th April 2018

William Arnold casts an eye over Samuel Zeller’s Botanical, new from Hoxton Mini Press and out now

Inherently relatable, Samuel Zeller’s motivations for making this series of sumptuous photographs are no doubt as old as the wrought iron and glass plant palaces he depicts.

Fatigued and distressed ‘after a particularly bad day at the office’, the photographer quit his train a stop early to seek solace amidst the humid wood-mulch scent and diffused evening light inside the conservatory of Geneva’s botanical gardens.

Photographing the specimens and the architecture without preconceived outcomes, or commercial work pressure, the experience in ‘that green island inside the city’ appears to have been something of an epiphany — a rediscovery of innate wonder — leading ultimately to the study of glass houses in Belgium, Scotland, Poland, the Czech Republic and France that comprise this book.

It is a beautiful piece of work, full of impressionistic references, but also a flattening of perspective where leaf and frond meets glass – calling to mind the contemplative shadow catching of Susan Derges, or early Garry Fabian Miller.

Through myriad greens and colourful flashes of Rousseau’s Dream, condensation clings to the climate-defying panes and we can reflect on the glasshouse as a breathing space, literal and figurative: botanical respiration, inspiration, expiration and the longed-for respite for our author.

It is worthy of note that Zeller, for the most part, eschews modern pop-science space domes and hyper-functional vegetable factories for the altogether statelier lines of the 19th Century’s cutting edge.

A product of industrialised modernity, the winter garden stands alongside public libraries and swimming baths as one of the great totems of Victorian civic pride. For all the grubby ills of industrial capitalism – the drive to display technological prowess, dominance over nature and the display of the spoils of empire – the desire to create a civilised metropolis that led to the incorporation of these green pressure valves in the sooty machinery of the city perhaps holds more relevance now than ever.

Occasionally, the viewer is presented with a glimpse of architectural functionality and a rogue tendril or two straining to escape from a cracked pane or vent. Overwhelmingly however, these spaces and these photographs are transporting and dreamlike, presenting as they do a controlled, idealised version of nature at odds with the often scruffy — but no less valuable — free-for-all of a city’s wilder flora.

Constructed with a designer’s eye from without and within they are a haven, a place of education, mental replenishment, or simply somewhere to lose one’s troubles…the root of the word ‘paradise’ is, after all, to be found in the ancient Persian walled garden.

I could gripe unconstructively about the title, which feels a little like a cop-out, but on the whole this book is a gem. And looking away from my screen and back to the pages of Botanical, Samuel Zeller’s photographs, like the glasshouses themselves, are a salve.


William Arnold is a photographer living and working in west Cornwall. A selection of photographs from his Suburban Herbarium series is on display at Kestle Barton, Helston, until 29 April. More information here.

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