Ocean Flowers: Impressions from Nature. Edited by Carol
Armstrong and Catherine de Zegher. 312 pages, with 245 plates and 36
illustrations. Princeton University Press, 2004. $49.95.
Botanical illustration is often seen as occupying a no-man's-land
between art and science, not properly belonging to either. The role
illustration has played in the development of the science of botany,
particularly in the taxonomic side of the discipline, has been, and
continues to be, critical. Botanical illustrations—be they
crude woodcuts of medieval herbals, the exquisite watercolors of
Georg Dionysius Ehret or the Bauer brothers, or the photographs
taken by today's botanists in the field—can be categorized as
works of art or works of science, but their power lies in their
ability to be something of both, a bridge between two worlds.
Ocean Flowers is a book about a short period in botanical
illustration, the use of an interesting technique—cyanotype
printing—and the intersection of that technique with the
development of photography as a way of recording images of objects
in nature. The images are taken from a 2004 exhibition of the same
name held at The Drawing Center in New York and the Yale Center for
British Art in New Haven. They represent an eclectic and fascinating
glimpse into the sheer variety of techniques and style in use at the
middle of the 19th century. Centering on Anna Atkins's collections
of cyanotypes of British algae, the book is essentially a catalogue
of the exhibition, although I am not sure whether all the works
exhibited are reproduced. "Ocean flowers" is a bit of a
misnomer, as the majority of the images in the book are of
algae—seaweeds—which today we know are not flowers; some
of them are not even closely related to flowering plants. The title
is taken from one of the works exhibited: Ocean Flowers and
Their Teachings, published in 1847 by Mary Howard. Her
books are classics of the moralistic genre, full of admonitions
taken from highly individualistic readings of "nature's signs."
Anna Atkins, whose amazing, striking blue-and-white diazo prints of
seaweeds are the main feature of the book, was a different matter
entirely. She and her family were associates of the astronomer John
Herschel, who at the time was investigating the chemistry of the
photographic process. I can well imagine her experimenting with the
new technology, just as today's illustrators endlessly experiment
with new techniques—art, like science, is often the result of
a person wondering "What if?" Atkins produced images
without commentary, as evidence of what a particular species looked
like. Anyone who has children and has bought them a sun-printing kit
will know how lovely these white-on-blue pictures can be.
The technique is particularly suited to seaweeds, whose form is
destroyed when they are taken from the water. The cyanotype picture
of a seaweed is really just an extension of how a seaweed specimen
is prepared for scientific use. Botanists collect seaweeds by
floating them onto a bit of paper over mesh (usually in a
photographic developing tray!), creating swirling and lovely
patterns just like those created by Atkins, who was making
photographic specimens of algae in a similar manner. Specimens and
illustrations are evidence—they are the records of what
occurred where and when—and evidence is the stuff of science:
Without it, nothing is repeatable or even believable.
Ocean Flowers, despite the wonderful images it contains, is
a huge missed opportunity. The text of the book consists of an
introduction and a series of five essays that seem to have little
connection to those images. (The essayists include a professor of
art and archaeology, an artist, a curator, a professor of aesthetics
and a lecturer in architecture.) This might have worked if the
essays were clearly and concisely written and made a series of
points that joined together into a better understanding of the
whole, but instead they bristle with impenetrable jargon from the
humanities. They also suffer from a lack of grounding in the reality
of just what many of these artists were doing: illustrating
botanical specimens for scientists. Scientists often stand accused
of incomprehensible writing, but the essays in Ocean
Flowers could have done with an injection of scientific clarity
The almost Proustian difficulty of the prose is not the only problem
with the book. I was dismayed by the lack of accuracy in the
attributions of many of the images. For example, the lithographs
done by Walter Hood Fitch of Victoria regia—the
amazing water lily—are attributed to William Jackson Hooker,
who did pay for them, but certainly did not have a hand in the
actual making of the image. Another difficulty is that very few of
the images are identified with their current botanical names. In
addition, and even more irritatingly, there is no index, nor is
there a master list of illustrations—how is a reader supposed
to find anything?
I am not really sure for whom this book is intended. Scientists will
certainly be annoyed by the essayists' basic misunderstanding of
what science actually does, and artists might rather just look at
The art of nature printing, using modern versions of cyanotypes or
other techniques, is still very much alive. For example, the British
artist Angela Easterling works with scientists from the Eden
Project, the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew and the Natural History
Museum to make amazing cyanotype images of threatened plants in
threatened habitats. Her images, like those depicted in this book,
are wonderful, contributing both to art and science. Ocean
Flowers would have been a wonderful opportunity for scientists
and artists to collaborate in the exploration of media of and
motives for illustration—a fitting tribute to the accuracy and
beauty of what these British Victorian botanical illustrators
achieved. Alas, it falls woefully short.—Sandra Knapp,
Department of Botany, The Natural History Museum, London
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