Wednesday, 18 April 2018

Torbay and a passion for collecting on the shore

Many British seaside towns are currently fighting a reputation for being run down, having many residents suffering financial hardship, having an influx of homeless people with all their problems, and also for open drug use. This is, of course, a generalisation, as there are many “bijou resorts” with many (un)occupied second homes and even the major resorts have marinas filled with craft owned by wealthy residents or by visitors who own apartments where they spend a few weeks, or week-ends, each year.

The influx of visitors to UK resorts has always been at its height during summer and in the 1950s and 1960s tourists poured in by train, coach and, latterly, by private car. “No Vacancy” signs were everywhere: on large and small hotels and also on guest houses, often converted from large Victorian properties built for a quite different type of visitor. I was brought up in Torbay and, as a year-round resident, was aware of the huge differences in the numbers of people in Paignton and Torquay in the summer months compared to the population in winter, when so many businesses that catered for holidaymakers shut down. All this was obvious, but I was not as curious as I should have been about the origins of the handsome villas and large houses that had been converted to accommodate visitors (and are now more widely used as holiday apartments). The young rarely are curious about history: it is something which comes with age and a sense of time passing.

Torquay was especially lucky in having a building boom in the mid-Nineteenth Century, with villas in an Italianate style being common, mirroring the Riviera feeling that the location of the town provided. Some of the villas were permanent residences and some were for shorter-term stays for those who wanted to own property in this fashionable resort. Then there were hotels that catered for First Class passengers and for members of the burgeoning middle classes who were attracted by the climate, beautiful setting and social cachet of the town. It was a time when visitors enjoyed a gentle walk, or a carriage ride, through the beautiful countryside and many also joined in the passion for Marine Natural History that was at its height at this time.

We get an idea of just how important a visit to the shore could be from the writings of Philip Henry Gosse, who lived in St Marychurch in Torquay, venturing round the coast and out to sea [1]. He was one of the great popularisers of Natural History and part of the fascination for visitors to the shores of Torbay was down to him [2]. In his book Land and Sea [3], Henry Gosse describes the local coastal scenery and the book is illustrated by woodcuts in a highly Romantic style that must have encouraged readers to visit Torbay (some are shown below).

Another woodcut from the book (see below) shows a man and woman on the shore, dressed appropriately for collecting and making observations [4]. This is what Henry Gosse writes about the effects of collectors, especially of sea anemones, that would be added to their parlour aquaria, a popular form of “entertainment” at the time:

Ah! gentle reader, I’ll whisper a secret in your ear; but don’t tell that I said so for ‘tis high treason against the ladies. Since the opening of sea-science to the million, such has been the invasion of the shore by crinoline and collecting jars, that you may search all the likely and promising rocks within reach of Torquay, which a few years ago were like gardens with full-blossomed anemones and antheas, and come home with an empty jar and an aching heart, all now being swept as clean as the palm of your hand! Yet let me do the fair students and their officious beaux justice: the work is not altogether done by such hands as theirs; but there is a host of professional collectors, small tradesmen whom you must search-up in back alleys, and whose houses you will easily recognize by the sea-weedy odour, even before you see the array of pans and dishes in front of the door all crowded with full-blown specimens. These collect for the trade, and are indefatigable. Only think of the effect produced on the marine population by three or four men in a town, one of whom will take ten dozen anemones in a single tide!

A reflection then of the popularity of the pursuit of collecting marine animals. It is not something that we recognise today, although families still venture on the shore to examine rock pools.

Later in Land and Sea, Gosse describes travelling to parts of Torbay that were less popular for collectors [3]:

Therefore it was that we ran some miles away from home, and pursued a pleasant road, partly through green lanes, rank with the glossy young leaves of the arum, and the arching fronds of the hart’s-tongue fern, scarcely embrowned by the late arctic winter; and partly sweeping along the shore-line and over the cliffs that make the base of this beautiful bay; till, Paignton being some distance behind us, we turned off to the left down a little lane, and drew up at the margin of the broad flat beach called the Goodrington Sands.

Far away is the edge of the sea, for the tide is wonderfully low, though we have yet a full hour and a half before it will be at its lowest point, and an immense breadth of soft, wet sand lies exposed. We pause for a moment to gaze on the boundary to the right. It is Berry Head, a noble headland that projects like a long wall far out into the sea, and presents its bluff termination, crowned with fortifications, to the impact of the waves that drive in with impotent fury from the wide Atlantic.

Berry Head is mentioned in the label to the woodcut of collectors shown above and, in Land and Sea, Gosse goes on to describe his methods of collecting, although contemporary Natural Historians would frown at his use of chisels and hammers to remove specimens together with the rocks to which they are attached.

Above are two contemporary images of Goodrington Sands and I wonder how many visitors today are aware of the activities of the passionate collectors of the mid-Nineteenth Century? The rocks in the lower picture were one of the collecting sites used by Henry Gosse and it is good to see young children in the picture following his example, but presumably without chisels and hammers. If only they knew about their enthusiastic predecessors.

[1] Edmund Gosse (1896) The Naturalist of the Sea-shore: The Life of Philip Henry Gosse. London, William Heinemann.

[2] Charles Kingsley (1855) Glaucus; or, The Wonders of the Shore. London, Macmillan and Co.

[3] Philip Henry Gosse (1865) Land and Sea. London, James Nisbet & Co.

Friday, 13 April 2018

Tempus fugit

More than 45 years ago, I spent two summers at the Moor House Field Station. It was a remote place, only accessible by a track from Garrigill near Alston in Cumbria: an idea of how remote is provided by the videoclip below [1]. Originally, the building was a hunting lodge, but a succession of outbuildings was then added and a laboratory (the large square structure shown clearly at 3.04 in the video) constructed for those working on the  IBP (International Biological Programme) in the 1960s and 1970s. In addition to research on the biology of vegetation and grouse, the laboratory was an outstation of the FBA (Freshwater Biological Association), with scientists investigating the effects of building Cow Green Reservoir on local rivers. Most of the “permanent” members of the Field Station came in by Land Rover each day, but there were also residents, including a cook/housekeeper in the summer months to cater for visitors, staying for days to months, from Universities and other establishments.

I first visited Moor House as a research student of the University of Durham from 1970-1973 but returned during the time of my first academic post at the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. In the summer of 1972, I lived at Moor House during the week and walked to the local streams that I was studying, as well as driving to sites in Upper Teesdale in a Land Rover. My interest was in the distribution and biology of blackfly larvae in moorland streams (it was usual at that time to have an interest in one group of animals or plants) and compare the effects of altitude on distribution and production. All the collections needed to be processed and this work was carried out in the laboratory at Moor House (see the photograph below, taken by Patrick Armitage of the FBA).

All the hours of work resulted in a PhD thesis and some research papers, although my contribution to science was at that time minimal. By the time of my second summer, in 1974, my interests were broadening into studies of feeding in freshwater invertebrates and, serendipitously, these led to a paper in Nature [2], regarded as something of a “holy grail” for scientists starting out on their careers. It was from this work that I became a little more widely known and I then began a collaboration with the Rheo-Group in Lund in Sweden that provided both a jumping off point for my studies on particulate and dissolved organic matter in water bodies and for many research visits to Sweden and Finland. I never went back to Moor House.

So, what became of the Moor House Field Station? Sadly, it was regarded as being of limited use to the research community after the 1980s, except for those who continued to make day visits, and “permanent” staff left for other posts. The buildings began to decay and were then demolished, the rubble being used to reinforce the track – providing an odd memorial to the achievements of many who stayed, or worked, at Moor House (see below for how the site looks now [3]). My study streams remain – they were there long before the House, of course – and there will otherwise be no record of my research other than a few pieces of paper in journals. Of course, my memories are strong and there are many happy times to recall. These included playing Layla (Derek and the Dominoes) and All the Young Dudes (Mott the Hoople) at full volume on some evenings and, more reflectively, listening to Bruch’s Scottish Fantasia so often that it almost became a theme for the place. Then there was the excellent food cooked by Mrs Dunn in the large AGA in the kitchen and the pleasure to taking a bath at the end of a long day – once one became used to the peat-stained water.

Like I say, just memories and little else, yet it all seemed so important at the time.

[2] R.S.Wotton (1976) Evidence that blackfly larvae can collect particles of colloidal size. Nature 261:697.

[3] John Adamson (2009) Moor House Memories. (access through

Wednesday, 4 April 2018

Murillo’s Heavenly and Earthly Trinities

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo was born in Seville in 1617, the last of fourteen children of a surgeon barber and his wife, who had been married for 30 years by the time he came along. Unfortunately, his parents died before he was 11 years old and he went to live with a sister, married coincidentally to a surgeon barber, but he did not follow tradition and became apprenticed to the painter Juan del Castillo, to whom his mother was related.

Murillo soon became recognised as a gifted artist and he specialised in genre paintings, showing the street life of Seville, and in religious works, both types being commissioned throughout his life and being much sought after by collectors in Spain and elsewhere in Europe. Apart from two short stays in Madrid, Murillo lived in Seville, visiting Cadiz to complete commissions towards the end of his life. It was in Cadiz that he received a severe abdominal injury after falling from a scaffold while painting and he died in Seville in 1682 as a result of this injury.

No consideration of Murillo and his work can be complete without knowing more about Seville at this time. Situated on the Guadalquivir River, some 100 km inland from the Gulf of Cadiz, Seville had been an easily defended commercial port from Roman times. After the Moors had been defeated by the Spanish, it became a major trading hub and, at the time of conquests by Spain in the Americas, grew very wealthy. As a demonstration of this wealth, the mosque was demolished in the 15th Century and replaced with a huge Gothic cathedral that was completed in the Sixteenth Century, the minaret of the mosque being used as a bell tower – the Giralda. Also retained from the Moorish period was much of the original Alcázar palace and its beautiful gardens, showing that not everything from this time was to be destroyed. However, the Roman Catholic Church showed no tolerance for Muslim beliefs, or those of other faiths, and the courts of the Inquisition were active. The Counter Reformation was also in full flow and the Spanish Baroque, with its strongly Roman Catholic symbolism, gives a flavour of the times in terms of religious power in Spain, the great wealth of Seville contributing to the importance of the Church in the city.

While there were great riches, there was also poverty and the Caridad Fraternity was founded to provide charity to the poor. This was an important organisation and it was needed, for, in addition to widespread poverty, there was also disease, including a devastating outbreak of plague in 1649 that resulted in tens of thousand of deaths. By the Seventeenth Century, Seville, still thriving as a trading centre, had lost its significance as a port, with Cadiz becoming much more important. The wealth of the city was also affected by taxes levied to pay for wars in which Spain was involved, including the 30 Years War.

It was against this background of a wealthy/poor city that was declining, and in which there was suffering, that we should view the works of Murillo. Add to that the tragedies of his own life and we can imagine a man who felt emotional pain. In the self-portrait that hangs in the National Gallery we can see this side of the man and, as the painting was requested by his surviving children, and retained by them, our impression is probably not based on imagination alone (see above). We know also that Murillo was active in the work of the Caridad Fraternity and, although he was wealthy and successful, we sense a man who felt for those less fortunate than himself. This is the secret of his genre painting, where street urchins, although clearly poor, are usually portrayed as being well-fed and cheerful - not true of all older people who feature in some pictures, like the wonderful An urchin mocking an old woman eating migas (see below). Although it is a generalisation, the impression gained from the genre paintings is one of resourceful survivors and they challenge us when they look out of canvasses. The rich owners of these works could convince themselves that the poor were able to thrive and the subjects will have reminded them of The Beatitudes and the difficulty of the rich entering Heaven that is expressed in The Holy Bible (Matthew 19:24). Much charity probably resulted, as well as generous gifts to the Church and the financing of Fiestas that all citizens of Seville could enjoy.

Among Murillo’s religious paintings, the finest is The Heavenly and Earthly Trinities painted near the end of his life (probably completed the year before he died) and also providing a link to his genre painting. This wonderful work (shown above) hangs in the National Gallery in London and I’d like us to look at it in detail. Let’s begin with its composition rather than its subject matter. In the picture below, I have plotted (crudely) the principal lines of composition and these can be listed:

1. The composition is framed by an oval and all our attention is drawn to the characters within that frame.

2. The vertical is not at the mid-point – 45% of the painting is to the left, 55% to the right

3. Two diagonals run across the painting, crossing the vertical at the near-central point of the picture.

4. Further “sub-diagonals” (shown as dotted lines on my sketch) link the central figure with the figure at lower left and the figure top left with that at lower right. 

Our eye is thus drawn through, and around, the subject and we can readily identify the characters. The central figure is Jesus, shown somewhat unusually as a child, and the principal lines of composition run through his face, that looks upward. The vertical connects Jesus to God through a dove representing the Holy Spirit, thus giving the “Heavenly Trinity”. A dove is used as it is impossible to visualise the Holy Spirit and doves are mentioned in The Holy Bible as appearing at significant events – as in the Baptism of Christ by John (Mathew 3:16). White doves are a colour variant of Rock Doves (Columba livia) that are the ancestors of urban pigeons and also homing pigeons. The homing ability of these birds has been known for thousands of years and, in a society where humans had never flown, a pigeon able to fly and travel to a known destination is a suitable symbol, especially if it is white as this is the colour of purity in Western culture.

Both the dove and Jesus have an aura of light behind them in Murillo’s painting and this emphasises that they are part of God. Trinitarianism was probably an early invention of the Christian Church and there were some who feel that Jesus, while the son of God, was not God on Earth. Perhaps the leading scholar of the early writings that led to Trinitarianism was Sir Isaac Newton, but his lengthy scholarship was not published and his notes were only discovered after his death. Newton was, after all, a Fellow of Trinity College Cambridge and public knowledge of his view that the worship of Jesus was idolatrous would have been disastrous, even though no one would have questioned his otherwise orthodox Christian belief. Having established Trinitarianism early in its development, it is no surprise that the Roman Catholic church retained this view, as did the Protestant Churches.

In the painting, Jesus is standing on what appears to be a mounting block and his hands are resting on those of Mary and Joseph – importantly, he is being steadied, but not being held. Showing Jesus on a pedestal has two functions: the first is compositional, as has already been described; and the second is that Jesus is not of the Earth. The Earthly Trinity thus has three members of very different status. The sub-diagonal running from the head of Mary to that of Jesus emphasises the close link between them, as does their physical closeness (provided by the shift to the left of the vertical "centre line" of the painting). We are reminded of the idea of intercession by the Virgin and anyone gazing at Murillo’s master work is aware of Mary’s status. We are getting close to Marian worship here.

Joseph looks out at us and we wonder what he is thinking. He carries the flowering rod that identified him as the future husband of Mary, an old story that was given significance by The Golden Legend of Jacobus de Voragine from mediaeval times and now enshrined in Roman Catholic doctrine. We note that his costume is that of a carpenter and its colour reminds us of the colours of Murillo’s genre paintings, another link to his poor and very earthbound position. However, the sub-diagonal that runs across the picture from Joseph to God, across the void of space, ensures the importance of his role. Mary wears much more expensive robes in “her” colours of blue and scarlet and the brighter colours of the left “half” of the picture, remind us of Rubens (who probably inspired Murillo’s palette). The contrast in the colours of the two halves was balanced by Murillo by shifting the centre line to the left, in addition to drawing Mary closer to Jesus.

God is in Heaven and has his hand on a silver globe that emphasises his being the Creator and also comments on the geocentric nature of Roman Catholic belief at this time. Although Copernicus had demonstrated that a heliocentric view of the solar system was the best explanation of our observations, this view was considered blasphemous by the Church as it offended Christian orthodoxy. Indeed, it should be remembered that Galileo was found guilty of blasphemy for propounding heliocentric views in the early Seventeenth Century and died under house arrest in 1642.

The final figures in Murillo’s painting are the cherubs that are flying around on either side of God. To anyone interested in the history of Western Art, these figures will be recognised as putti that adorn some Italian Renaissance pictures and sculptures. Putti have older origins but, in Italian Art, they represent agents of Cupid, the Roman god of love, and the role of these boy babies with sparrow wings is to encourage a “bit of action”, sometimes by firing darts from the little bows that they may carry. The cherubs of the Spanish Baroque clearly have another function and possibly represent cherubim, described in the Bible as being part of the heavenly throng. Roman Catholic doctrine on heavenly beings was formed around the writings of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, who identified classes of beings, with angels and archangels as the lowest two orders and seraphim and cherubim as being of the highest rank. Unlike Biblical descriptions of angels and archangels, where wings are not mentioned, we know that seraphim have six wings and cherubim two, but they are large enough to cover the mercy seat. There is thus a conflict between the cherubim of The Holy Bible and the cherubs of Spanish Baroque paintings and we do not know what they represent. In some paintings, including at least one by Murillo, we see heads with wings attached (there being no body) and these take away the need to disguise their sex. It might be proposed that these torso-less heads represent souls that have flown to Heaven, or to Purgatory, but that cannot be the explanation of the cherubs in Murillo’s painting as they would have to be Jewish souls and that would not go down well with the authorities. They must represent something important to those of faith, but what?

Such a question does not detract from the magnificence of the work and its grand scale. It is unquestionably a great painting and we are lucky to have it on public display, whether we agree with Roman Catholic doctrine, or not.

This essay is a shortened version of a talk that I gave in Room 30 at the National Gallery in London on 21st March 2018.

The following sources formed a vital part of my research for both the talk and the article, together with numerous internet sources:

Vicky Hayward (editor) (1982) Bartolomé Esteban Murillo 1617-1682. London, George Weidenfeld and Nicholson Limited.
Xavier F. Salomon and Letizia Treves (2017) Murillo: The self-portraits. New Haven, Yale University Press.

Richard Westfall (1993) The Life of Isaac Newton. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Wednesday, 28 February 2018

The antics of sea monkeys

Human imagination is powerful and, as a result, we can readily be taken in by the power of advertising. One example of which I am especially fond is that of sea monkeys, sold through advertisements in children’s comics in the last century (see below), but still available today.

The excerpt from the advertisement shown above sums up the enjoyment that we are likely to have by watching the antics of sea monkeys and we hold the miracle of life, being able to create them by adding powder from a series of bags to an aquarium tank of water. The bags contain salts, nutrients, and the encysted eggs of brine shrimps (Artemia) that hatch to produce larvae in the saline water and these metamorphose into adults (see below) after a few days. The idea of branding the shrimps sea monkeys came from Harold von Braunhaut, a New York entrepreneur, and he encouraged us to imagine that the Artemia swimming around in tanks, some of which had lenses set into the plastic to allow a better view, had faces and were performing tricks.

I wonder how many of those who had sea monkeys (and we had some in our household when our children were young) overcame their disappointment that they were shrimps and not little monkeys, by considering the biology of these remarkable animals. The name brine shrimps gives away the habitats in which they are found – small freshwater pools with high levels of salinity, especially during drying events. Artemia can tolerate salinities from 25-250 g/L (sea water is usually 35 g/L) and they can do this because they have an impervious exoskeleton that prevents osmosis and thus water incursion at low salinities and dehydration at high salinities. That in itself is something that promotes wonder, as does their ability to reproduce parthenogenetically.

When their pools begin to dry, encysted eggs are produced and these withstand extremes of temperature, very low oxygen tension, and the presence of poisonous gases (although experiments conducted by NASA, and others, suggest they may be susceptible to the deleterious effects of cosmic rays [1,2]). They are effectively as dry as the dried pool in which they are found and are referred to as being is a state of cryptobiosis – meaning that all signs of life are hidden. They can remain in this state for years and that is why living Artemia soon appear in sea monkey tanks after we have added powder to the water. It also explains why they return after we add fresh water to a dried-out tank.

The encysted eggs of brine shrimps are not the only examples of cryptobiosis; many seeds and spores can also remain in long-term dormancy before returning to resume their “normal” life when conditions become suitable. More unusually, there are creatures that can become dried during other phases of their life cycle – tardigrades and nematode worms provide examples, as do the larvae of an African midge (Polypedilum vanderplanki) that become dried with the temporary rain pools in which they live. Animals that become cryptobiotic as larvae or adults replace water with organic compounds that maintain the integrity of tissues and, as with the production of encysted eggs by Artemia, the metabolic changes required for survival are triggered by changes in water quality that indicate that drying is about to occur.

If we are amazed by the antics of sea monkeys, how much more amazed are we that several different lineages of animals have evolved cryptobiosis and the ability to become dried? And independently, at that.