Monday, 16 October 2017

Anne Pratt – a woman of the seashore

In her book Kindred Nature, Barbara Gates discusses the part that women played in the Victorian passion for Natural History. Seashore plants and animals were found especially fascinating, as marine coasts were previously under-explored, and among the women who wrote guides was Anne Pratt. She is now almost forgotten, yet Barbara Gates writes [1]:

When George Eliot and George Henry Lewes arrived in Ilfracombe in 1856, awkward and ill-equipped novices in seashore life but ready to learn enough for Lewes to be able to write Sea-side Studies in 1858, they would have been as likely to be carrying Anne Pratt's Chapters on the Common things of the Sea-side (1850) as they would Philip Gosse's Aquarium (1854) or Kingsley's Glaucus.

Having posted previously on Lewes, Gosse and Kingsley [2], I wanted to explore Anne Pratt's book and imagine the impression that it made on its readers.

As might be expected in a book written by a specialist on land plants, Chapters on the Common things of the Sea-side [3] begins with seaside plants and seaweeds, going on to describe animals of various types; the text being accompanied by Anne Pratt’s own illustrations (see below for an example). She enthuses about what we might find and encourages close observation, including, where necessary, taking specimens to small tanks of sea-water to get a better view of their form and function. A good example of the style and approach of her book can be found in her descriptions of zoophytes (i.e. animals that resemble plants):

Perhaps the zoophytes best known as such to visitors at the coast, are the beautiful Sea Anemones, which offer their loveliness to every eye, and need no microscope to reveal their tints or forms. Clustered by thousands on sea-side rocks or sands, adorning the sides of rocky pools, with flowers which resemble marigolds or China-asters in their form, but which are brighter in their colours than any flowers which our garden can show; redder than roses, of richer purple than the violet, and wearing the rainbow hues of the gorgeous cactus flower, which the painter in vain essays to copy, there are few objects in nature more calculated to attract our notice that are these living flowers..

..To look down upon these flowers, one would deem them the most helpless of living creatures. The water, with its myriads of tiny insects, seems to afford their proper nutriment, and none would guess, to glance at them, that they could possibly kill, and swallow crabs and shell-fish larger than themselves. But the great Creator, when he made them, furnished them all, helpless as they seem, with the means of securing their appropriate nutriment. They possess a poisonous secretion which soon extinguishes life in the animal which comes near them..

Reading these passages today, we recoil at some of the descriptions (of “flowers” and “insects”, for example, although we know what she meant) and many would dislike the creationist stance that was not surprising in a book published by the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge. However, her readers in the mid-Nineteenth Century would certainly have been encouraged to visit the shore and find some of the plants and animals that she describes. Indeed, her work in Natural History was recognised by the award of a grant from the Civil List, a reflection of her popularity with the public.

In the Introduction of their excellent bibliography of Philip Henry Gosse, Freeman and Wertheimer (1980) put Pratt’s book into the context of the developing science of Marine Biology that made such advances in the Nineteenth Century. They place Gosse’s work in comparison to what has gone before [4]:

His seashore studies.. ..marked an advance over previous books. Many of these, such as Mary Roberts’ Sea-side companion (1835), Elizabeth Allom’s Sea-side pleasures (1845), Anne Pratt’s Chapters on the Common things of the Sea-side (1850), and more importantly W. H. Harvey’s Sea-side book (1849), were successful enough, but as works of art, literature and science, bore feeble comparison to Gosse’s volumes.. ..Gosse’s lively and enthusiastic style was firmly based upon something which very few of the previous authors had attempted – original scientific investigation – and this makes them valuable for the present-day naturalist.

No wonder that Charles Kingsley was so impressed that he produced Glaucus as a paean of praise for Gosse and his early books. Gosse wrote for both the popular and the scientific audience and was made a Fellow of the Royal Society in recognition of his discoveries.

Does that mean we should dismiss Anne Pratt’s book about the shore in the way that Freeman and Wertheimer have done? Decidedly not, for she, together with the other women authors they mention, encouraged many who may otherwise not have become inspired by the study of the shore and among their numbers must have been many women, to whom Pratt, Roberts and Allom showed the way.

I would like to end with two further quotes about Anne Pratt, the first from the doverhistorian website and the second from the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography:

..although she brought the interest of botany to the masses, she never received academic acclaim – she was self-taught and a woman. Indeed, fifty years after her death her work was trivialised by the art historian Wilfred Blunt. [5]

Anne Pratt’s works were written in popular style but were said to be accurate. [6]

Being self-taught was viewed as a handicap in some circles and may explain the patronising comment about accuracy in the second quote above. Perhaps of greater significance was that Anne Pratt was a woman and a populariser, rather than a member of the developing scientific establishment that was completely dominated by men. Does that explain the condescension towards her?

[1] Barbara T Gates (1998) Kindred Nature: Victorian and Edwardian Women Embrace the Living World. Chicago, Chicago University Press.

[2] [several posts].

[3] Anne Pratt (1850) Chapters on the Common things of the Sea-side. London, Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.

[4] R. B. Freeman and Douglas Wertheimer (1980) Philip Henry Gosse: A Bibliography. Folkestone, Dawson.

[6] B. B. Woodward (2004-16) Pratt, Anne (1806-1893), rev. Giles Hudson. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

Tuesday, 3 October 2017

The “odd” illustrations by Mark Catesby

I’m amazed by the industry of the Natural Historians of the 18th and 19th Centuries. Without the aid of any of the rapid and accurate illustrative techniques with which we are familiar today, they had either to describe their findings in prose, or use a combination of written description and illustration by herbarium specimens, by nature printing, or by paintings and drawings. Of the Natural Historians using paintings as illustrations, one of the best known was Mark Catesby (1683-1749), an Englishman who travelled to Virginia in 1712 to visit his aunt [1]. He spent his time in the Carolinas before returning to England with his herbarium collections and these were much admired by members of the scientific establishment. Catesby returned to the Carolinas and southern North America in 1722 to collect more material, also visiting the Bahamas in 1725 [1] and his observations and collections formed the basis of two volumes of The Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands [2,3] that were self-published. It is from these two volumes that we have the illustrations that I describe in this post.

Some of his illustrations seem odd to the contemporary viewer and I am grateful to Alex Seltzer for sending me a copy of his detailed, and scholarly, essay [2] that describes attitudes to Natural History that were prevalent when Catesby was active. I cannot paraphrase Seltzer’s developed thesis in a blog post, but would like to quote some passages:

The answer .. for these so-called aberrations is that modern viewers must first consider the underlying social function of natural history in the early 18th-century. What else, one may well wonder, would an illustrated natural history be for if not to represent plants and animals accompanied by their physical descriptions in an adjoining text? But framing Catesby’s imagery strictly in terms of literal visual description entirely elides an important aspect of early 18th century natural history: the ‘book of nature’ – living proof, as Catesby put it, ‘of the Glorious Works of the Creator’.. ..By looking at Catesby’s odd couplings in the light of contemporary theological attitudes towards nature, many of these irrational combinations start to make metaphorical sense, imparting an unsuspected (or unarticulated) layer of meaning to his work. The seemingly incoherent illustrations in his Natural History offer an alternative reading of nature according to the prevailing attitudes known as ‘physico-theology..

Physico-theology promoted ‘argument from design’: the notion that the natural world was far too complex to have occurred by mere chance and therefore could only have been the result of a divine Intelligent Designer.

It is against this background that we must look at Catesby’s illustrations and, especially, some of the odd associations that he appears to suggest. Let’s look at some of them, with notes appended, including comments by Catesby:

A hummingbird with wings like “the blade of a Turkish Cymiter [scimitar].. ..receives its Food from Flowers, after the Manner of Bees.” [3] The plant is the trumpet flower (Bignonia) – “Humming Birds delight to feed on these Flowers” and the nectar they contain [2].

A fox-coloured thrush “called in Virginia the French Mockbird” [3] is feeding on a clustered black cherry (Cerafi), the fruits of which “are much coveted by Birds, particularly of the Thrush-kind.” [3]

A green turtle (described by Catesby as being prized for their value as food for humans) is swimming against a background of a rooted plant that “grows in shallow Water; several grassy narrow Blades shoot from a stringy fibrose Socket, which arises from the Root, fixed at the Bottom of the Sea.” [4] As Catesby points out, these seagrasses (terrestrial flowering plants that have invaded shallow marine habitats) are often referred to as “turtle grasses” [4].

It is easy to see the association between the pairs of organisms and, allowing for some inaccuracies of scale, this is a form of illustration that we would find logical and easily understandable today. The next three illustrations are less straightforward and may contain elements of physico-theology:

A flamingo is shown against an unidentified plant [?] that Catesby describes as Keratophyton Dichotomum fuscum that is much-branched. He writes “They are in great Plenty at the Bottom of the shallow Seas and Channels of the Bahama Islands, the Water there being exceeding clear.” [3] We know that flamingos feed by sieving suspended organisms and particles from the water column, so this is clearly not a food plant. Why the association? Is it to make us think about two elongated forms that inhabit shallow water?

A green spotted snake climbs through Apocynum Scandens that “trails upon, and is supported by Trees and Shrubs to the Height of ten, and sometimes twenty Feet..” [4] Catesby is thus drawing parallels between the creeping habit of both the snake and the plant, each needing a support. 

A bone-fish is seen against a sea-feather (Corallina), described by Catesby [4] as having “..Stalks of an Horny transparent Substance of a light brown Colour.” The association of the fish and the alga is likely to occur in nature, but Catesby may also be drawing our attention to the spikiness of the plant and the spines along the dorsal fin of the fish.

The final examples of Catesby’s pairings in illustrations provide us with more of a challenge.

A fieldfare is shown against a background of the Snake-Root of Virginia (Aristolochia) that flowers “close to the ground” [3]. The roots of the plant are used as a herbal cure for snakebite, amongst other things, and perhaps that is why we are shown the fieldfare apparently dead? However, the seeds do not have the same properties and the fieldfare would be unlikely to eat the root.

A pilchard is shown in front of a shrub, with a fruit “somewhat in the Shape of a Kidney” [4] and leaves like those of the black poplar. Although Catesby remarks that these plants are found near the sea, what can be the association with pilchards - fish that from large shoals while feeding on plankton?

A globe fish, known to inflate its stomach with water (or air, if caught out of water)  is shown against two plants: a type of dogwood with small white flowers and berries and a creeper that is “supported by Trees” and has pods that contain “usually seven or eight small round brown Pease.” [4] What is the association between the three, bearing in mind that Catesby’s illustrations of fish do not usually have an accompanying plant?

Catesby provides us with examples that make us think about solutions in the “design” of plants and animals that are similar, but what of the fieldfare or the globefish? Would an eighteenth-century reader easily make the connection or were they, like us, left in a state of puzzlement by some of the illustrations?

[1] F. Nigel Hepper (2004-16) Catesby, Mark (1683-1749), naturalist. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford, Oxford University Press.

[2] Alex Seltzer (2015/6) Catesby’s conundrums: mixing representation with metaphor. The British Art Journal 16: 82-92.

[3] Mark Catesby (1731) The Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands. Volume I. London, Self-published.

[4] Mark Catesby (1743) The Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands. Volume II. London, Self-published.

This blog post was inspired by Alex Seltzer’s essay in The British Art Journal and readers are recommended to get a copy of that paper to allow a much more developed understanding of the oddness of Catesby’ illustrations.

For a populist view of Mark Catesby see:

Monday, 18 September 2017

Dyrham Park, Murillo, and migas

Last week, I visited Dyrham Park for the first time. The late 17th and early 18th Century house has a breathtaking setting (see above) and its grounds, with their ponds and formal gardens, add to the perfection of it all. The interiors are equally splendid and I enjoyed walking around, looking at the furnishings and decoration, but I was drawn to a painting. This was Murillo's An Urchin Mocking an Old Woman eating Migas that had been in the house for centuries, although the canvas I was staring at was, I think, a copy [1] of the original (see below).

There are two threads to Murillo's work: religious paintings and those of street life, and the painting at Dyrham Park combines both. Prolific and popular in his time, Murillo had an excellent technique and was able to convey movement and feeling. I remember being struck by his work when I first saw The Heavenly and Earthly Trinities [2] on a visit to the National Gallery in London as a teenager.

I have indicated the main lines of composition in the Dyrham Park painting above, the background being of little significance. From this analysis, we see that our eye is led around the images, with the lines drawing us to the face of the woman and, over and over again, to the face of the boy. The dog also plays a part, as does the food that the woman is attempting to eat with a spoon. The boy has a beautiful face (we can barely see his body, but for the right shoulder and arm) and, while engaging us, he is mocking the old woman, who looks across and up with fear and resignation. Her bowl of migas is drawn to one side and partially hidden from him (and the dog) by her right arm. The message is one of the cockiness of youth and the despair of bullying in old age and being able to do nothing about it. While the religious component is hidden, the painting could be taken as a model for at least one of the Beatitudes [3] and may well have been conceived by Murillo with this in mind.

Another question arises from the title of the work: what is migas? By chance, I had lunch yesterday at Moro in Exmouth Market in London. On the menu (see below, with magnified section) they had migas as an accompaniment to grilled lamb and sweetcorn, so I had some. The migas that I was served was a ball of fried, seasoned breadcrumbs and this is the way the dish is served in modern Spain, and in many other countries, often with some small pieces of meat or chorizo included. It is thus "leftovers" and this further emphasises the lowly position of the old woman in the painting, although her migas looks much more substantial and was possibly of bread scraps moistened with liquid (water, milk, or oil?) from the jug seen in the bottom left of the composition.

If you get the chance, visit Dyrham Park [4]. It is a magnificent place and you, too, can stare at the Murillo painting and be challenged by Murillo's urchin.

Wednesday, 30 August 2017

Elgar's Enigma

I've been re-reading Patrick Turner's scholarly book on Elgar's Variations on an Original Theme (Enigma) Op. 36 [1]. He explains how the piece acquired its title and also puts forward an explanation of the enigma – that the variations originated with the French folk melody to which we sing the nursery rhyme Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star. As Elgar never explained the origin of the Variations we will never know whether Turner is correct, but we do know that Elgar played a tune to his wife, Alice, in the manner of several of his friends and that this led to the dedication of the Variations by Elgar "to my friends pictured within".

The link below is to the acclaimed interpretation of the work by Toscanini.

Even if one knows little of the origins of the piece, the Enigma Variations are certainly popular and "Nimrod", the variation based on Elgar's friend August Jaeger of the music publisher Novello, is the best known. I knew it before I knew the rest of the piece, largely from hearing "Nimrod" many times on radio programmes of music requests. We didn't have a record player (this must sound so odd to readers brought up in the modern era) and it wasn't until I was a student that I was able to buy an LP of the Enigma Variations and that began my exploration of Elgar's beautiful and inspiring music.

I have already written about Elgar and soul, complete with a tease that neuroscientists will never understand how music affects the emotions [2], but I wanted to write more after reading quotes in Turner's book [1]. The first came from the conductor Leopold Stokowski after he conducted the Variations in Philadelphia and New York in 1929:

We had not played them for four seasons, and the impression I received from them was of such depth of feeling and beauty that I was stirred by this music far more profoundly than I can express in words. Often when we play a work after not having heard it for several seasons, we have the impression of its being the expression of another period and of being alien to the life of today. But your Variations gave me the most powerful impression of eternal vitality and architectural design – and also something very difficult to express, a floating upward into a mystical level where time and space seem to cease.

The other quote is from Turner himself:

..I never cease to wonder what it was about Elgar that enabled him to produce music which succeeds in moving me in a way in which no other music does. What is the strange alchemy that draws people to his music and, once drawn, traps them?

Both quotes imply that Elgar had a special quality that enabled him to communicate something deep and intimate. I alluded to this in the earlier post [2], yet I have no idea whether the moving feelings that I have when listening to the piece are the same as those that Stokowski, Turner and many others describe. The imagery that I have must be personal, yet the result is the same for all of us – almost being in contact with a higher sense. What is the rational explanation of that and why is Elgar so good at creating that feeling? It's another enigma.

[1] Patrick Turner (1999) Elgar's 'Enigma' Variations – a centenary celebration. London, Thames Publishing.