Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Ecclesiastical fashion

As a boy, I attended Winner Street Baptist Church in Paignton with the rest of my family 1 and remember well the plain surroundings and pews shown in the illustration from 1943 shown below. However, there were changes from this view, as the organ was re-located to the left in 1951 and a new pulpit was positioned “as near to the front of the platform as possible, as several friends had difficulty hearing the preacher”. 2 It was in this modified form that I remembered the pulpit end of the church, until I left as a young teenager, beginning a new path away from organised religion.

The minister during my time at Winner Street was the Reverend Leonard C. Wilson and he wore a suit, dark shirt with dog collar, and an academic-style gown when preaching and conducting services. As no academic hood was worn, the appearance of our Minister was as plain as his surroundings and some of the more evangelical Baptist ministers in Torbay wore a suit and tie, being indistinguishable in appearance from their congregation. Yet vicars in the Church of England, and priests in the Roman Catholic Church, dressed in special uniforms, as did the choirboys in those churches. The members of the choir at Winner Street, of which I was one, wore just Sunday-best clothes.

I’m impressed by the vestments worn by clerics in the Catholic and Anglican traditions, but have no knowledge of the significance of the different types worn. Bishops are distinguished by having copes and mitres (and various other bits and pieces) and these appear to come in a broad range of colours and patterns, while conforming to the same basic style:

How are the garments chosen by the bishops - or are they chosen for them? Is it a matter of fashion, with some vestments being considered more racy than others, like the “1960s hotrod flames” on Archbishop Sentamu’s mitre in the illustration above (top right). Was that meant to be entertaining and thus “in touch with the people”, as that good man appears to be? Gold seems to feature as a colour in several of the designs, but is that a reference to wealth and power, or to something else? What is the link between the colours and patterns of the vestments and the singular message of Christianity - that Christ died for our sins? Is the colour scheme and appearance of the garments intended as some form of mystery? There are clearly very good answers to my questions and I am not tempted to go as far as Federico Fellini in suggesting that vanity may also come into play. The “ecclesiastical fashion parade” in the wonderful Roma struck a chord with me when I first saw it and, if you haven’t it, a clip from the film can be viewed here (please use the full-screen mode, if possible):

Of course, some of my bemusement stems from puritan roots and the plainness of Winner Street Baptist Church and its services. Yet Baptists enjoy visual myths from the Catholic tradition, such as angels being human beings with bird wings attached to their backs, so why not spice up their ceremonies with a bit of colour and dressing-up? After all, it’s about a theatrical performance, as anyone who has witnessed evangelical Baptists in action will agree.

1 Roger S Wotton (2012) Walking with Gosse: Natural History, Creation and Religious Conflicts. Southampton, Clio Publishing.

2 Patricia M Leaman (1986) Winner Street Baptist Church, Paignton: A History of the First Hundred Years taken from the Church Minute Books. Paignton, Suttons. [Private publication]

Monday, 19 August 2013

An extraordinary alga

In The Romance of Natural History, 1 Henry Gosse writes:

There is a sea-weed, the Nereocystis, which grows on the north-west shores of America, which has a stem no thicker than whipcord, but upwards of three hundred feet in length, bearing at its free extremity a huge hollow bladder, shaped like a barrel, six or seven feet long, and crowned with a tuft of more than fifty forked leaves, each from thirty to forty feet in length. The vesicle, being filled with air, buoys up this immense frond, which lies stretched along the surface of the sea: here the sea-otter has his favourite lair, resting himself upon the vesicle, or hiding among the leaves, while he pursues his fishing. The cord-like stem which anchors this floating tree must be of considerable strength; and, accordingly, we find it used as a fishing-line by the natives of the coast.

The quotation is from a chapter entitled “Vast” in this splendid book, written when Gosse was full of enthusiasm, 2 and it reveals his sense of wonder at the size of such a plant. However, the account was not based on Henry’s own observations and the dimensions of Nereocystis are exaggerated, something which would not have occurred if the description was first-hand. Some of the terms used - leaves and stem, for example - are not helpful, as Nereocystis is a brown alga and those terms are more commonly retained for more advanced plants. Each individual alga is anchored to the substratum by a holdfast and linked to the gas-filled vesicle and fronds at the surface by the very long stipe. The holdfast is not used for uptake, and there is little transport of liquids within the stipe, so the only analogy to the stem of higher plants is the supportive function, enabling the fronds, with their flotation device, to remain at, or near, the water surface. This allows the greatest capture of sunlight by chlorophyll in the cells of the fronds, but it should be remembered that the growth of the stipe from the substratum to the surface is also fuelled by photosynthesis. The algae can only grow in clear waters, and their rate of growth is impressive, with more than 10 cm per day being common. They rarely live for more than 18 months.

Henry Gosse was quite right in suggesting that the stipe needs to be strong and it must overcome both pulling and bending forces. To cope with these stresses, it has an interesting internal structure. Below is a diagram from my lecture notes and based on descriptions in a research paper by Koehl & Wainwright 3 (I always drew a copy on the board but, as is obvious from these sketches, my drawing skills were poor compared to those of Henry Gosse):

The cuticle provides resistance against abrasion, but the key structures are the lumen (space) running through the stipe and the structure of the cortex, which has two distinct parts. As in a scaffolding pole, the lumen provides resistance to bending pressure, so that it is much more difficult to collapse than would be the case if the same amount of tissue was used to grow a solid stipe. The cortex prevents breakage of the stipe, something which would cause the fronds to be washed out to sea or on to shore. In the outer cortex the cells are arranged radially and bending can cause these cells to split apart, absorbing some of the effects of strong lateral pressure. The cells of the inner cortex, in contrast, are arranged in parallel with the main axis of the stipe and pulling therefore causes them to stretch, a force which is resisted by the spiral arrangement of cellulose strengthening, transferring the force longitudinally and laterally. Put simply, the structure of the stipe is a very elegant engineering solution for resisting the forces that are likely to break it, although breakages do occur during heavy seas.

My description of Nereocystis in lectures showed clearly my sense of awe when considering its structure and, at this point, I always asked “How did this evolve?”. It is easy to see how such a structure could be designed by a highly skilled engineer, but how could it be done when the cells of the stipe are living and generate the whole structure by their own growth and reproduction - and without external tools? If that prospect seems extraordinary, then how did all the changes required occur through the evolution of ancestral plants? My question to the students was one that I was fond of making, to get the class thinking about the complexity of Nature and of evolution. Occasionally, a student felt that, by posing this question, I must be a Creationist like Henry Gosse, but I am not. I cannot begin to provide an answer and that came as a shock to one individual who, in the anonymous reviews completed by students at the end of each course, stated that it was my job as a teacher to provide answers to questions. If only I could.

1 Philip Henry Gosse (1860) The Romance of Natural History [First Series]. London, J.Nisbet and Co.

2 Roger S Wotton (2012) Walking with Gosse: Natural History, Creation and Religious Conflicts. Southampton, Clio Publishing.

3 M.A.R.Koehl and S.A.Wainwright (1977) Limnology and Oceanography 22: 1067-1071.

Friday, 16 August 2013

Hockney, Elgar and dead trees

A Bigger Picture, the exhibition of David Hockney’s landscapes, especially those of his native Yorkshire, was almost overwhelming in its scale. The paintings were mostly huge and many had such bright colours that it took some time for me to get over a sense of shock. Being a traditionalist, I liked his more naturalistic works and I found Hockney’s occasionally vivid palette to be too much for my conventional taste. There was an exception, the painting entitled Winter Timber. It was the bleakness of the subject that I found fascinating, with felled wood stacked up and ready to be taken out on a track passing through leafless, wintry trees and over the horizon in the far distance. Alongside the felled timber is a dead tree stump, an icon which appears out of place. We all put our own interpretations on what we see and for me the painting represents death and the achievements of each of our lives, which will be removed and forgotten. However, the one tree stump remains as a symbol - but of what? Of death certainly, but also of the existence beyond death of works of art (the stump that clearly meant a lot to Hockney has since been destroyed by vandals).
There is something about trees, and especially dead trees, that moves us. They are larger than we are and decay more slowly, remaining sometimes for decades or even centuries, as reminders of a past life. We know that one group of dead trees was of particular significance to another great English artist, the composer Sir Edward Elgar. At the end of the 1910s, Elgar became disillusioned and miserable after the devastating events of the First World War and the ending of the values of the Edwardian era. His last major work, the Cello Concerto, reflects this in having a sense of yearning for earlier times. It was also a time when Lady Elgar, his greatest support, suffered from illness and the composer must have felt intimations of mortality (to borrow from Wordsworth). Three chamber works were completed by Elgar at about the same time as the Cello Concerto and these all have an eerie, mysterious quality. We find out from Billy Reed, the violinist and good friend of Elgar’s, that a group of dead trees near Brinkwells, a cottage in Sussex that provided an escape for the Elgars, influenced the composer strongly at this time: 1

A favourite short walk from the house up through the woods brought one clean out of the everyday world to a region prosaically called Flexham Park, which might have been the Wolf’s Glen in Der FreischΓΌtz. The strangeness of the place was created by a group of dead trees which, apparently struck by lightning, had very gnarled and twisted branches stretching out in an eerie manner as if beckoning one to come nearer, To walk up there in the evening when it was just getting dark was to get “the creeps”..

   ..The rather oriental and fatalistic themes in the quintet, and the air of sadness in the quartet, like the wind sighing in those dead trees - I can see it all whenever I play any of these works, or hear them played. Elgar was such a nature-lover and had such an impressionable mind that he could not fail to be influenced by such surroundings. There was so powerful a fascination for him there that he was always strolling up to look at the scene again.

In Portrait of Elgar, 2 Michael Kennedy records that Lady Elgar referred to these late chamber works as “wood magic” and she made direct reference to the dead trees as having an influence on the Quintet. It was the “curse” of being struck by lightning that provided the force - these were not trees that had died naturally, but ones which had been killed by an outside force. You can hear the mysterious quality of the work in this clip of a fine performance:

So, two great artists inspired by dead trees; one by cut timber and a single stump and the other by a group of dead trees killed by lightning. Of the very large number of trees in Great Britain, it was these that acted as inspirations. For all of us, dead trees remind us of what we leave behind, whether we are great artists or not.

1 W.H.Reed (1936) Elgar as I knew him. London, Victor Gollancz.

2 Michael Kennedy (1968) Portrait of Elgar. Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Friday, 9 August 2013

Nature Printing

Many Natural Historians in the Nineteenth Century faced a challenge when illustrating their work. Unless they were gifted painters, like John James Audubon or Philip Henry Gosse, they could either make “word pictures” of what they saw, or produce sketchy illustrations. Of course, they could commission an artist to produce work, but this could never have the personal touch conveyed by the Natural Historians themselves. Drawing and painting skills could be acquired, but constant practice and the development of technique was then needed. Even with this practice, success depended on talent, both for observation and for the meticulous use of brushes, pens or other tools.

In the age of digital photography we can all produce excellent images of plants and animals, although not all of us have the eye of someone like Matt Coors, and we can use photomicroscopes and electron microscopes to obtain images of minute objects. In earlier times we had photographic film, the first being produced in 1884, and before that plates had to be used. Plate cameras required long exposures and were therefore not suitable for obtaining images of moving objects, or even those which swayed gently in the breeze, and certainly not those which were only a short distance from the observer.

One solution to the problem of illustration for the Nineteenth Century Natural Historian was the development of Nature Printing, especially for producing images of butterflies and moths. These insects were collected enthusiastically by explorers, missionaries and colonisers, resulting in pinned collections of dead insects in drawer after drawer of cabinets, or mounted into an artistic display. We are all familiar with herbarium collections of dried plants and the use of pressed flowers in illustration but they are not permanent, whereas Nature Prints are. They provided descriptions of butterflies and moths for those who could not visit museums and other collections to see preserved specimens, and adherents of the technique believed it was superior to any painting or drawing.

A handbook for those interested in Nature Printing butterflies and moths was published by “A.M.C.” in 1879.1 He details five separate methods, the best known of which is the Gum Process, which had its origins in the preparations made by French missionaries in India. Firstly, a piece of high quality paper is folded and the inner surface coated with Gum Arabic (“the very best and clearest which can be had”) using a finger. The wings are then cut from butterflies (or moths) and laid on the paper which is then re-folded to ensure that each side of the wing is attached to the glue. Then begins a lengthy rubbing process to ensure adhesion of the scales and this ends with a rapid pulling apart of the folded paper. The wing membrane should now remain, with the scales of the upper and lower surface stuck into the gum. After drying, the paper is cut around the outline of the wings and each preparation is then ready for mounting.

Wonderful examples of Nature Printing are given in Joseph Merrin’s book Butterflying with the poets; a picture of the poetical aspect of butterfly life 2 produced in 1864, thirteen years before A.M.C.’s handbook. Thanks to Valerie McAtear, the Librarian of the Royal Entomological Society of London, I was able to look closely at a copy of this book and also take photographs, a selection of which is shown below.

Merrin mounted each paper outline and then used pressed bodies of the butterflies to give a “realistic” appearance, although the antennae were drawn in ink in all the illustrations. It is a lovely book and the author writes:

... the process of Nature-Printing, as applicable to the Lepidoptera, which the Author has improved, rend[ers] possible the permanent transfer to paper of the scales, and consequently the colours, of the insects themselves. By this means all the delicate varieties of shade, marking, and colour are faithfully preserved, and a brilliant reality given to the representation, of which the most carefully finished portrait of the artist would be deficient. The number of specimens obtainable is, however, so limited, and the manipulative labour required to prepare the impressions from them so great, that the price of any work giving this novel and beautiful species of illustration, must necessarily be high and the numbers of copies executed very limited.

So, there we have the downside of using the technique and we can only wonder at the industry and patience that must have been required; all for little gain in terms of the few books produced. It makes handling a volume like Merrin’s a privilege, especially in our current age of instant, high-quality illustrations.

1 “A.M.C.” (1879) A guide to nature-printing. Butterflies and Moths. [Read in facsimile edition published in 2010 by General Books.]

2 Joseph Merrin (1864) Butterflying with the poets; a picture of the poetical aspect of butterfly life. London: Longman, Green, Longman, Roberts, and Green.