[“To Miss Annie Paxton, who drest as a fairy, stood upon a leaf of the Victoria Regina, Chatsworth, 1849,” in the Blanche Paxton Album on William Makepeace Thackeray]


On this album page a wreath formed of cut-outs of flowers and leaves serves as a frame for a poem composed by the nineteenth-century playwright and humorist Douglas Jerrold and addressed to Annie Paxton, sister to Blanche Paxton, the album’s owner. The poem that Jerrold has written out by hand on this page, and which he finishes with his signature, memorializes both a famous event in the history of nineteenth-century horticulture, one in which the seven-year old Annie was involved, and the impromptu lines that Jerrold is said to have uttered as a witness to the occasion.

The wreath, almost certainly added to the page later than the poem, appears to have been commercially manufactured; it seems to have been crafted either in part or as a whole from the sort of die-cut, relief-stamped “scraps” that, in the second half of the nineteenth century especially, were frequent ornamental additions to album pages. Its flowers and leaves add relief and texture to the page on which they have been pasted and provide it with a splash of vibrant color. Bright pink roses are arranged evenly around the wreath’s circumference, and the purple daisies positioned on its bottom left are balanced out by the multi-petalled orange marigold on the top right. The rich green foliage, embossed, and in two shades of green, is dotted by tiny blue blossoms, and golden corn stalks have been woven in among the leaves. One red and yellow flower appears to have become unpasted and to have fallen off the wreath: readers who examine the album may have to dislodge it from the volume’s inner crease.

Jerrold’s poem reads

“To Miss Annie Paxton, who drest as a fairy,
stood upon a leaf of the Victoria Regina"

On unbent leaf in fairy guise
Reflected in the water,
Belov'd, admir'd by hearts and eyes,
Stands Annie,—Paxton's daughter.
Accept a wish, my little maid,
Begotten by the minute,
That scene so fair may never fade,
You still the fairy in it.
That all your life, nor care nor grief
May load the winged hours
With weight to bend a lily's leaf
And all around be flow'rs.

Douglas Jerrold—
Feb. 4:1850
West Lodge Putney Common

The album that houses this page belonged to Annie’s older sister, Blanche Paxton, who began keeping her album in 1849, when she was about 17 years old. Eventually Blanche would fill up her book (bound in ornate dark green morocco leather) with a collection of literary treasures, including manuscript letters and sketches by leading figures of nineteenth-century literature and art, many of them her father’s acquaintance. (The album is especially celebrated for its inclusion of unique sketches and manuscripts by the novelist William Makepeace Thackeray.) 1849 also witnessed a celebrated episode in the life of Blanche’s and Annie’s father, Joseph Paxton, who was by then a railway developer, a media magnate, and publisher of the monthly periodical Paxton’s Magazine of Botany, and whose meteoric social rise had been launched in 1823 when he was first employed as a gardener at Chatsworth House, the great Derbyshire estate  of William Cavendish, the Sixth Duke of Devonshire. In 1849 Joseph Paxton obtained a seed of the enormous Amazonian water lily, Victoria Regia, so christened by the British plant hunter who had encountered it in British Guyana just over a decade earlier and who sought with that name to honor the newly crowned Queen Victoria. (The plant is now generally known as the Victoria amazonica.) When, growing inside the purpose-built aquatic habitat that Paxton had designed for it at Chatsworth, the water lily was at last coaxed into bloom, Paxton devised a scheme to test the strength of his new botanical treasure. He placed his seven-year-old daughter atop one of the lily pads, which by this time had grown to a diameter of two meters. Miraculously, Annie stayed afloat. Her father’s rather theatrical demonstration of the scale and the strength of the plant was repeated throughout November 1849, for the benefit of the Duke and of an increasing numbers of spectators, Douglas Jerrold among them. On each occasion, it seems, the lily “leaf,” as Jerrold observed, remained “unbent” (the ribbing on the underside of the leaves of the Victoria amazonica makes them especially sturdy). The image of a small girl costumed as a fairy and floating on a lily pad subsequently appeared in illustrated newspapers and horticultural magazines, while Jerrold’s poem was published in some of the same venues.

The wreath on the page encircles the poem and makes it seem almost to float suspended in the page’s center, much as the little girl appeared to float above the pool in Chatsworth’s lily house. Jerrold’s poem depicts Annie as an ethereal fairy, a figure of otherworldly lightness. It will be her fate, however, as Jerrold reminds her, to grow up and grow heavier, not only literally but with the weight of the “care and grief” that come with age. While recapitulating a poetic tradition that made flowers the symbols of maidenly purity, Jerrold adds, subtly, some conflicting notes: his mention, for instance, of the watching eyes of the admirers to whom Annie has been exposed underscores from the start the perhaps overly public nature of the scene that the father has stage-managed. This maiden is by no means alone in nature—which she should be, however, according to the usual script of floral femininity. Jerrold’s lines are also typical of album poetry in combining the wish that a scene of beauty might never fade with the wry acknowledgement that such precious moments—wishes “begotten by the minute”—are as fleeting as the blooms of flowers. The flowers of the Victoria amazonica blossom for only one day and two nights. 

Accession Number: 

HEW 8.6.2

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Scrapbooker: Blanche Paxton, 1831–1890, English
Poet: Douglas Jerrold, 1803–1857, English

Image contains an annotation in pencil, in a second hand, identifying the lines as “Poem to Miss Paxton by Douglas Jerrold”

Image curated by Faith Pak and Deidre Lynch

Provenance: Matthew Smith, Esq.; and Harry Elkins Widener (on the evidence of the bookplates in the album)