“They capture a sense of magic, wonder and escapism,” says Alyson Mowat, founder of Botanique Boutique, of the terrariums she hand-makes in her east London studio. These verdant, glass-encased miniature worlds have struck an aesthetic chord in recent years, but they are not a new phenomenon – they were first used by Victorian scientists and horticulturalists to transport exotic plants across the globe, as well as to display them in their homes. But Mowat’s bespoke creations, which are commissioned by architects, interior designers and private clients, including Paul McCartney, take terrariums to new art-like levels.
Each commission (examples first picture, from £600) begins with a concept and the client’s ideas are carefully considered: what plants they like; what size and shape they want the terrarium to be; and whether they wish to personalise the piece with special fossils, birthstones and crystals. Orchids and tropical plants such as begonias and ferns, which thrive on the build-up of moisture, are best suited to closed terrariums, whereas cacti and other succulents prefer open terrariums. The plants are all sourced from specialist growers, and Mowat mixes her own organic, peat-free soil.
Crucial to this artform is the glass itself; Mowat (second picture) works with a number of glassblowers, who skilfully create the near-spherical, free-blown vessels, while she hand-cuts sheets of glass and solders them together with copper foil herself for the more angular cases. The time taken from commission to completion can vary from only a couple of days to many months for more complex works on a larger scale.
“I offer living installations that are simple to maintain but also unique; they give a room a different kind of atmosphere,” says Mowat, whose favourite commission was for an elderly gentleman who used to love gardening. “It brought part of his outside world into his bedroom and he could watch the natural cycles within.” This is a theme Mowat has further explored in a solo exhibition called Host (in collaboration with photographer Tal Silverman), which takes her “botanical experiments with crystals into a new realm”. The organic sculptures (example third picture) change over time as the plants decay and are on show at Sketch in London until August 31.