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BOOK REVIEW

Seaweed Cyanotypes

Sandra Knapp

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.

A chromolithograph...Click to Enlarge Image

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."

Cutleria multifidaClick to Enlarge Image

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.

Iridaea edulisClick to Enlarge Image

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 and realism!

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 pictures!

PolypodiumClick to Enlarge Image

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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