Artist Residency at Royal Brompton Hospital, Chelsea
Thinking more about representations of organic forms and development of photographic imaging, Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions by Anna Atkins is thought to be the first book ever to be printed and illustrated using photographs, published in 1843. You can see the whole book here I’m quite struck by how similar some of these images are to the scans I made, using far more complex equipment.
I’ve used the cyanotype process previously, and the X-rays I produced with Nelly reminded me of the silhouetted forms of Atkins’ work. Below I’ve added a blue filter to the original X-ray image of the plant Ammi Visnaga. As I develop my outcomes, I will be considering this idea of positive and negative forms and how light might interact with a surface to create imagery.
I also discovered the ‘X’ in X-Ray, was only meant to be used as a temporary name – the X being short for ‘an unknown’ radiation. Unfortunately for Wilhelm Röntgen who discovered the process, the name stuck. Although, less useful for Scrabble, they are known as Röntgen in various languages.
‘Art Forms in Nature’ was also the name of Karl Blossfeldt’s collection of photographs published in 1928. These uncanny images were made with a camera designed by Blossfeldt to magnify his subjects with the intention of revealing the structural intricacies of the plants and literally enabled the natural world to be seen through a different lens.
Botanical illustrations and the historic diagrammatic presentation of the organic world (from gemstones to coral) has always fascinated me, and a key part of Seba’s cabinet was the illustrated Thesaurus he commissioned.
Ernst Haeckel’s ‘Art Forms in Nature’ is something I always return too, and these works in white on black are particularly reminiscent of the scans we produced. Interestingly Haeckel also coined the term ecology.
I think this tradition of scientific illustration will inform the visual direction. However, I am less interested in presenting didactic imagery and would prefer to present work which is ambiguous and allows the viewer to interpret and build their own narratives.
I’m really interested in this idea of collection and contextualisation of objects and artefacts – whether organic or otherwise. Interestingly I also learnt Artefact is a term used in imaging to describe errors in the imaging process. They can happen for numerous reasons, often based on the scanner settings – for example if the scanner is too slow to capture the data (I.e. a beating heart ) the images may be blurred. Or elements may overlap, like in this example. I guess it’s a little like the settings of a camera, where you control shutter speed, aperture etc. I think the scans we produced with my specimens produced quite a few artefacts! But again, it’s interesting to think of these machines as imaging making devices in their own right.
Thanks to Jack Allen. (Research Associate at CMR Unit, Royal Brompton Hospital) for his insight into this.
Sloane corresponded with Albertus Seba, a Dutch apothecary who was famed for his cabinet of curiosities and corresponding publication of his Thesaurus. Unlike other collections, Seba’s was focused solely on natural specimens.
Collections were key to developing knowledge of nature and an important research tool for doctors and apothecariespioneering empirical sciences.
Seba’s ‘Thesaurus’ and work with taxomony influenced Carl Linnaeus and his binomial nomenclature , the contemporary naming system for classifying organisms.
Cabinets of curiosity may appear random, but they were kind of eco systems in themselves, with relationships between objects determined by symbolic significance, religion and alchemy, as well the classification of their material properties and aesthetics.
I am really drawn to this idea of presenting seemingly ambiguous information that can be arranged and understood differently based on who views it.
Images from Taschen’s new edition of Seba’s Thesaurus Cabinet of Natural Curiosities.
A few weeks ago I was thinking about how I might present my research on curtains around recovery bays, where patients will be lying potentially looking for something of interest. I thought of presenting imagery as if a strange collection of objects on shelves, and struck upon the idea of a cabinet of curiosities.
I have been considering this since and as a I explore the idea further have discovered how appropriate an approach this might be in the context of the project – directly relating to biophilia, the heritage of Chelsea and the development of medicine and imaging.
Sloane’s vast collection of specimens was a primary reason for his purchase of Chelsea Manor, where he planned to present it in the Manor House. Of course the collection later formed the basis for the British Museum and Natural History Museum.
Another collection in Chelsea was found at the coffee house of Don Saltero and his ‘Knackatory’. Established by James Salter in 1718 (he changed his named to appear exotic) his own curious collection was said to have included; mummies hands, the head of a Spatula bird; King James’s coronation sword; Queen Catherine’s skin and a piece of Solomon’s temple. He had previously worked for Sloane, so perhaps developed his penchant for collecting through him and reputedly would acquire Sloane’s ‘cast offs’. There was also a collection of similarly odd artefacts at The Chelsea Bun House.
I am very aware, however, of the issues around of the idea of cabinets of curiosities, particularly in relation to the accumulation of 17th and 18th century collections as I touched upon before. One person’s curio is another person’s everyday object. I was interested to watch some fascinating talks on these ideas recently through the Pitt Rivers Museum.
My own mini collection of specimens from a speculative journey to an unknown landscape. How it started vs How its going …
Hans Sloane, whose name is synonymous with the Chelsea landscape has become a major connector node in my research.
He trained at Chelsea Physic Garden (now a statue, above), was then a physician at the forefront of medical developments at the time and much of Chelsea has been influenced by him – from the naming of streets to the contemporary land ownership of Chelsea. He went on to become Chelsea Physic Garden’s main benefactor when he purchased Chelsea Manor and leased the land for £5 a year – which is still the rate paid to Cadogan Estates today.
His collections of natural specimens, founded the British Museum and subsequently the Natural History museum collections. The idea of collection, study and presention of natural specimens as a form of biophilia is something I’m really interested in.
My field trip to collect samples in an unknown landscape also echoes his voyage to Jamaica to collect specimens of plants.
Simply asking why a street or area is named after someone can open whole new perspectives and I’ve come to realise working with maps is an inherently political act which leads to questions about how a given society has come to be.
For all the good Sloane did, it’s important to acknowledge enslaved people assisted with his collecting of specimens and much of his wealth came from sugar plantations in Jamaica. With this wealth, he was able to purchase Chelsea Manor in 1712 which his daughter Elizabeth Sloane inherited after his death. She married Charles, second Baron Cadogan, and much of Chelsea is still owned by and managed through Cadogan Estates. So the subsequent development of the Chelsea landscape since Sloane’s time has been indirectly enabled, in part, by the exploitation of enslaved people.
Whilst this is a much simplified series of events, in my ongoing research – from Skye to here – it’s clear what a massive legacy the transatlantic slave trade has had on the contemporary landscape of Britain. I recently listened to Akala’s book which offered a fascinating and crucial insight into post empire Britain. You can also read more about the Natural History Museum’s connections to slavery here
I wondered if there was a particularly good soil for growing, so looked into the geology of the area. I’m a little bit obsessed with geology diagrams.
I found documents investigating the contamination of the land from previous industry. It’s fascinating to consider the ground holds chemical traces of the past, highlighting the fact we live in a sealed system, where our activities have lasting impact on our environments and everything has to go somewhere.
It’s also a reminder that below the paved streets ‘natural’ processes are occurring – whether recovery from damage or plant growth we see peaking through the cracks.
The Brompton Park Nursery was influential and widely regarded. As well as root veg, corn and ‘exotic plants’, the nurseries grew and gave it’s name to the Brompton Stock plant. I wonder if this would fit with Carl’s plans for planting in the grounds…
Gardens are big part of the landscape and history of the area around the hospital. The land was originally market gardens and nurseries, which were developed into pleasure gardens in Victorian times, before becoming the landscape we recognise today – private squares included. The V+A is actually build on the site of Brompton Nurseries.
Interestingly, George London, famed gardener at the nurseries integrated ‘wild’ elements into his designs, alongside the fashionable formality of French and Dutch gardens of the time.
Chelsea Physic Garden provides a link back to those times , being founded in 1673 by the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries to grow medicinal herbs and train apprentices in how to use them. During my visit I was surprised to hear the garden described as a collection, emphasising the curation and man made nature of gardens and idea of objectification and classification of vegetal life into commodities.
It feels like horticulture was a massive part of the development of Chelsea and the trade of exotic plants was big business up until the mid 19th Century. It was also interesting to find out the location of CPG was based on easy access to the river for shipping and receiving new specimens.
I’ve been touch with Lambeth Garden Museum to see if they can give me any more information on the development of gardens in the area. Hopefully I can actually visit soon.
As I’ve touched upon, I have been struck by how many private gardens are in the area. I found it intriguing that there is a lot of opportunity to look into these green spaces, without having actual access to experience them (aside from a couple of days a year for Open Garden Squares Weekend) – so they become terrarium like. Interestingly the Warden case, an early type of terrarium, was invented by Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward, an English doctor who presented his design at Chelsea Physic Garden in 1854.
Whilst it was frustrating not being able to access these spaces, I was captivated by glimpses into these secret gardens and the sense of potential they offer – the concept of imagining a garden can be a power and uplifting idea.
I was also interested to read about the future of green spaces in the city as part of London’s green infrastructure plans improving the environment beyond the aesthetic rus in urbe.
Here’s some potentially interesting links on private gardens in London – 🌳🌿🪴