High above visitors to the Natural History Museum is an art exhibition, but one you could easily miss if you didn’t know it was there. Look up from the busy Central Hall in the heart of the Museum and you’ll find a wonderful spread of ceiling panels decorated with plants from every corner of the globe. Beautiful in design, richly coloured and gilded, each has a story to tell.
They speak vividly of an era when specimens of plants from around the world flooded into Britain, sparking an explosion of interest in botany and horticulture, with new glasshouses and public parks springing up all over the country.
Explore the fascinating histories of these exotic species and British flora in this slideshow.
Why are there painted ceiling panels at the Museum?
Richard Owen, the first Superintendent, wanted the Museum to display the natural world in all its great variety using specimens, models, sculpture and art. The gallery ceilings were chosen to depict some of the wonders of the plant world.
Who painted them?
Architect Alfred Waterhouse, who designed the Museum, probably created the original drawings. To translate his ideas into reality, Waterhouse chose the firm Best & Lea. They worked with him on later projects including the magnificent ceilings of Manchester Town Hall.
Few can imagine a day that doesn’t start with a fragrant cup of coffee. Despite its name, Coffea arabica is native to the mountains of Ethiopia. Plantations were established by the Dutch in the East Indies in the seventeenth century, from where seeds were taken all over the world.
The drug digitalin was first isolated from the foxglove (Digitalis purpurea) in 1875, and went on to revolutionise the treatment of a common and previously incurable heart condition.
The ornamental plant that would truly change the face of Victorian gardens was the rhododendron. The climate of the Himalayan foothills from which it came was very like that of Britain, and so the plants often did extremely well in British gardens.
First brought back to Europe by the Spanish, tobacco was used medicinally as a cure for gluttony and the respiratory disorder ‘rheums’. Raleigh introduced smoking to the court of Queen Elizabeth - even persuading her to have a puff.
Chocolate as prepared by the people of the New World was a bitter drink. Collector Sir Hans Sloane wrote from Jamaica that it was ‘nauseous, and hard of digestion, which I suppose came from the great oiliness’. He added milk and sugar to the recipe and so brought the first milk chocolate drink to the UK.