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John Martin and the Theatre of Subversion

- July 12, 2012 in apocalypse, Art and Illustrations, Articles, History, john martin, Painting, Pictures, shelley, turner

Max Adams, author of The Prometheans, looks at the art of John Martin and how in his epic landscapes of apocalyptic scale one can see reflected his revolutionary leanings.

Detail from Henry Warren's 1839 portrait of John Martin, National Portrait Gallery. (Click for source)

John Martin, born in the week that the Bastille was stormed in July 1789, was an instinctive revolutionary. His generation may have suffered from a misty-eyed envy of new-found liberties in America and France, but they understood what practical revolution might mean at home and they strove to achieve liberation from repression and tyranny without bloodshed; very largely they succeeded. Martin has often, and wrongly, been seen as a religious fanatic by a comprehensive misunderstanding of his paintings and by false association with his schizophrenic arsonist brother. He has also been portrayed as a Luddite (by critics who should have known better) and by Ruskin, a late contemporary, as a mere artisan in lamp-black. Poor Martin. Despite his very evident technical deficiencies as a painter – he inevitably suffers by comparison with his friends and contemporaries Turner and Constable – he was equally adept at creating a theatrical sense of a world undergoing irreversible change, and more fervent than either in his desire to be an engine of that change. If there were dramatists better placed to portray the dilemmas of the human condition, and one immediately thinks of Shelley and Byron, of Delacroix and Dickens, no-one came closer than Martin to designing the perfect sets on which to act out the drama: he was the supreme architect and engineer of the sublime. To start at the curtain’s uncertain opening, we see Martin, a Geordie ingénue with a chip on his shoulder, arrive in London to find that its streets are not paved with gold but with beggars. He makes his debut in the greatest city on earth in 1806, the year in which Pitt the Younger and Charles James Fox die and in which Nelson’s pickled body is carried up the Thames in mawkish pomp. Martin struggles against more proficient competition: has insufficient imagination in his mental palette other than to paint the misty blue hills of his native Northumbria and dream of maidens in skimpy veils straight out of Ovid. By 1812 his mood has darkened: his radical friends the Hunts have been jailed for seditious libel (the Prince Regent was a fat, useless libertine, a drain on the treasury and a traitor to his Whig friends but saying so in the pages of the Examiner in such terms was asking for trouble); the first global war showed no sign of ending, nor did the horrors of wage-labour poverty. Caricaturists had a field day: they could not be imprisoned. Martin’s response was weightier, loftier. His Sadak of 1812 is a dark, portrait-format theatre flat of abysmal fire in which the struggling righteous loner (his friends the Hunts, the beggar, or Martin himself: take your pick) faces alpine odds in seeking the Waters of Oblivion.

Sadak in Search of the Waters of Oblivion from 1812. (Click for source)

From here on in Martin was on a mission to bring down the unjust from their lofty perches to the level of the populace. For him scale was everything: his deployment of trompe l’oeil devices, three-dimensional column-and-tunnel special effects and epic scales has often, and rightly, been seen as a forerunner of the Hollywood movie set of the 1920s and beyond. By 1821, when he produced his Old Testament masterpiece Belshazzar’s Feast (a thinly disguised libel on the self-same Prince Regent made more potent by his coronation as George IV and the grotesque accompanying feast) Martin was exploiting his audience’s familiarity with the Bible to recreate for them the immensity of its drama, its injustices and the majesty of the retribution which God (not Martin’s God – he was a sceptic) could and would visit on those who committed the sin of hubris.

Belshazzar's Feast (cropped) from 1820. (Click for source)

The Tate Gallery, which recently hosted the largest Martin exhibition for over a hundred years, hung his paintings wrong: that is to say, too low, with the viewer’s eye line directed into the centre of the picture when Martin’s intention, I am certain, was to force the viewer to look up, up at the crenellated towers of the tyrant, to be left in no doubt of the task required in bringing its monuments down. Martin liked to open his play right in the middle of the drama, just like a modern movie director: he drops us into the action so that we are part of it, believe we can be part of it. Martin is inciting us to tear down the house; but we are certain, as participants, that we start at the bottom, as Martin had. Shelley, whose sympathies were in tune with Martin and with Prometheus, the liberator of humanity, chose to set Ozymandias (1818), his own cameo drama of fallen tyranny, after the action had long finished, in the shapeless desert where two vast and trunkless legs of stone stood as a quiet, if profoundly eloquent, epilogue to Martin’s revolutions. Shelley was interested in what the world would be like after the revolution and, in describing his idealistic new world in Prometheus Unbound (also 1821) he offered a later Romantic poet and activist, Karl Marx, the blueprint for the real thing: a revolution every bit as fantastic as Martin’s. The mid-1820s witnessed a reformist lull in Britain and abroad: opposition emasculated by internal rivalry and suicide, the lassitude of once-fervent ideologues like Wordsworth and William Godwin (a friend of Martin’s); the announcement by critics like William Hazlitt of the passing of an age of action. Martin set himself to make money to support the realities of a large family and generous domestic establishment, and he was not the only one (he lost his first fortune to a dodgy banker). But the appearance of somnolence is an illusion, just like Martin’s various engravings of Paradise Lost during that decade. Britain’s creative revolutionaries were not done. The French have a phrase for it: reculer pour mieux sauter – draw back to take a running jump. In France itself dissatisfaction with the post-Napoleonic world would lead to revolution in 1830 and its diarist-in-oils, Eugène Delacroix, heavily influenced by Martin but more interested in the actors than the stage sets, has left us the supreme finale of the drama in Liberty Leading the People (1830), with its bare-breasted Amazonian heroine and her pistol-toting lieutenants climbing on piles of bodies to wave the Tricolore. It is virtually a curtain call. Not to be outdone, John Martin’s own brother Jonathan had been tried for his life after setting fire to York Minster in a suitably Promethean gesture and by 1830 was confined for life in Bedlam. Martin himself began to plan for a new world before the old had been brought down: he designed a new sewage system for London and evolved a curious idea for a circular underground railway to run beneath the streets of the capital: Babylon-on-Thames, as it was known in a public nod to his prescience.

The Bard, circa 1817. (Click for source)

More subtle revolutionaries – Michael Faraday and Charles Wheatsone making sparks in the laboratory, the Brunels with their tunnels, the Stephensons with their belching locomotives and railways – were busy forging a completely new symbolic lexicon of steam, electricity and subterranean sublimity for artists to work up on their canvases. Turner, as so often, was first on the scene. He was there, when the old Houses of Parliament burned down in 1834, to record the irony of a Reform Bill, passed the year before, which left Parliament more or less unreformed. He was there when the old warship Temeraire, a symbol of the patriotic Heart of Oak Royal Navy, was towed up the Thames by a steam tug to be scrapped. He was there, in spirit at least, to record the impression which the onrushing steam railway age left on a generation which had previously only known the pedestrian power of the horse and millwheel (Rain, Steam and Speed, 1844). In doing so he leaves us still physically reeling, as if the action is now so hot that we cannot, literally, focus on it. The stage has become a roundabout and we are dizzy, clinging on for dear life. A look at Martin’s later works, from 1838 (when he and his son Leopold visited Turner in Chelsea to watch progress on the Fighting Temeraire) and his overtly populist and tediously static Coronation of Queen Victoria, to the ethereal beauties of Solitude (1843) and Arthur and Aigle in the Happy Valley (1849) might give the impression that Martin, like Wordsworth, had become an old fogey, too comfortable or cynical or tired to light the touch paper for any further apocalypse. The impression is understandable; but it is quite wrong. One of the things I most admire about Martin is that, almost with his last breath, he had the guts to once more put on the costume of the grand ringmaster, crack his whip and serve up the greatest show on earth. Until The Great Day of His Wrath (1853) the victims of Martin’s retributive fury had always been tyrants or hubristic fools: Pharaoh; Lot; Belshazzar; Edward I, even. Now, as if to say ‘That’s all, folks!’ (and meaning just that) Martin took the set, the whole set, and burned it down, stage, proscenium arch, auditorium, theatre and all: the entire world is folded in upon itself in an unimaginable (by anyone but Martin) volcanic conflagration. Everything, everyone is terminally punished for every sin ever conceived. This is the Day of Judgement. The world ends. The End (and no curtain call).

The Great Day of His Wrath (cropped), circa 1851. (Click for source)

Max Adams was born in London in 1961 and after more than twenty years as an archaeologist turned to writing. His first major biography, published in 2005, aimed to rescue the reputation of a neglected naval hero, Admiral Collingwood (Weidenfeld 2004). His group biography of artist John Martin’s circle, The Prometheans was published in 2009 and was a Guardian Book of the Week. Max’s third neglected-Geordie biography, just completed, is a life of the first Englishman of whom one could write a biography: Oswald, the Dark Age Northumbrian king and saint. Max is a Royal Literary Fund Fellow at the University of Newcastle. His website:

Links to Works

A good selection of works by John Martin can be found here on Wikimedia Commons

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Painting the New World

- April 24, 2012 in algonkin, algonquin, Art and Illustrations, Articles, colonialism, History, john white, lost colony, Painting, Pictures, richard grenville, Roanoke colony, settlers, virginia dare, walter raleigh, watercolours

In 1585 the Englishman John White, governor of one of the very first North American colonies, made a series of exquisite watercolour sketches of the native Algonkin people alongside whom the settlers would try to live. Benjamin Breen explores the significance of the sketches and their link to the mystery of what became known as the “Lost Colony”.

'The Flyer', a Secotan Indian man painted by John White in 1585. British Museum, London.

“As lucklesse to many, as sinister to myselfe.” Such was the Elizabethan colonist John White’s gloomy assessment of his tenure as the first governor of Britain’s fledgling colony on Roanoke Island, Virginia. As White lived out his final days on an Irish plantation in 1593, he struggled to come to terms with his ambivalent legacy in the “Newfound Worlde.” Just eight years earlier, White had set out for North America as part of an expedition lead by a fiery-tempered courtier named Sir Richard Grenville. This voyage was not without its challenges – White recalled laconically that in a battle with Spanish mariners he was “wounded twise in the head, once with a sword, and another time with a pike, and hurt also in the side of the buttoke with a shot.” Yet in this time White also witnessed natural marvels, helped build a new colony, and even celebrated the birth of his now-famous granddaughter, Virginia Dare, the first child of English/Christian parentage to be born on American soil. Ultimately, however, White’s ambitions ended in catastrophe, with the mysterious disappearance of the ninety men, seventeen women, and eleven children who comprised the Roanoke colony – a group that included his daughter and granddaughter. In the centuries since White’s death, his story has diverged in an interesting way. Generations of schoolchildren raised in the United States can probably recall reading about the “Lost Colony” at Roanoke in textbooks. In these simplified accounts, White and his fellow colonists typically figure as doomed but visionary pioneers in a larger narrative of British-American exceptionalism. Among professional historians, White is equally famous, but for rather different reasons. In recent histories of colonial British America, it is John White the artist, rather than John White the colonial governor, who takes center stage. This is because White was a watercolor painter of extraordinary talent whose works number among the most remarkable depictions of early modern indigenous Americans ever created. To be sure, many other European contemporaries of White offered up visual depictions of native Americans. Readers of André Thevet’s early account of Brazil Les singularitez de la France antarctique (Paris, 1557), for instance, could expect to be treated to renderings of Tupí Indians harvesting fruit, singing songs (complete with musical notation recorded by Thevet) and even munching casually on barbequed human thighs and buttocks.

Engraving of Tupí Indians harvesting cashew fruits in André Thevet's Les Singularitez de la France Antarctique; (Paris, 1557)

Yet White’s illustrations stood out among those of his peers. Rather than working via woodblock printing or engraving, White produced paintings in vivid watercolors. This allowed him to achieve a level of lifelike detail which printed illustrations couldn’t hope to match. One of the most striking examples of White’s eye for detail is found in his tender depiction of an Algonquian Indian mother with her daughter.

John White, "A cheife Herowans wyfe of Pomeoc and her daughter of the age of 8 or 10 years." (1585) British Museum, London.

In 1585, one of White’s companions in Virginia, a natural philosopher and inventor named Thomas Hariot, remarked that the indigenous children he encountered in America “greatlye delighted with puppets and babes which are broughte oute of England.” White’s painting actually offers a direct visual proof of this observation: in the hands of the woman’s child, one can spot a tiny female doll wearing Elizabethan dress. As the historian Joyce Chaplin notes in her book Subject Matter: Technology, the Body, and Science on the Anglo-American Frontier, 1500-1676 (Harvard University Press, 2003), this image was later recreated by the Dutch printmaker Theodore de Bry, who used White’s watercolors to create engravings for Thomas Hariot’s A briefe and true report of the new found land of Virginia (1590). De Bry’s depiction shows the Indian girl holding not only “an English doll in Elizabethan clothing,” but “an armillary sphere,” which served as “an instructional and decorative representation of the globe and heavens” (Chaplin 36).

Engraving by Theodore de Bry after John White's watercolour, from Thomas Hariot’s A briefe and true report of the new found land of Virginia (1590)

White also had a remarkable ability for “zooming out” from a scene to create an imagined isometric perspective. His painting of an Algonquian village stands out as one of the most detailed depictions of indigenous American village life to survive from the sixteenth century.

Village of the Secotan Indians in North Carolina, by John White in 1585. British Museum, London.

As the detail of the dancing circle in the lower right of this image suggests, White seems to have had a particular interest in Algonquian religious ceremonies. Another painting by White along similar lines gives a precious glimpse of pre-contact American Indian religious practice and daily life:

Ceremony of Secotan warriors in North Carolina. Watercolour painted by John White in 1585. British Museum, London.

What, then, was White’s final legacy? In a narrative first printed in Richard Hakluyt’s Voyages, White described his return to Virginia in 1590 in search of the colonists he had left at Roanoke (he had returned to England three years earlier in efforts to obtain “supplies, and other necessities”). His account evokes the haunted landscape of a ghost story, and its eerie details have made it part of American folklore ever since. On the 17th of August, White recalled, three ships under his command reached Roanoke, where they “found no man, nor signe of any that had been there lately.” The next evening, one of White’s sailors spied “a fire through the woods” and the men “sounded a Trumpet, but no answer could we heare.” The light of the next daybreak revealed that this was “nothing but the grasse, and some rotten trees burning.” Finally, however, White found evidence of the colonists’ wherabouts. In a tree, he discovered “three faire Roman Letters carved C. R. O.”: this was a pre-arranged maker which White understood “to signifie the place where I should find them”: Croatan. White’s suspicion was confirmed with the discovery of a scene that is now almost mythical:
We found no signe of distresse; then we went to a place where they were left in sundry houses, but we found them all taken downe, and the place strongly inclosed with a high Palizado [i.e. a palisade of wooden stakes], very Fortlike; and in one of the chiefe Posts carved in fayre capitall Letters C R O A T A N, without any signe of distresse, and many barres of Iron… and such like heavie things throwne here and there, overgrowne with grass and weeds…
Interestingly, White’s account here connects his two identities as governor and painter. He remarks that his men “found diverse Chests which had been hidden and digged up againe” surrounding the palisade. Among these chests, White was surprised to find objects which he knew “to be my owne”: “books” and “pictures” he had created in the years before, now “scattered up and downe…[and] spoyled.” In the end, White was unable to follow up on these strange clues: storms forced the expedition’s ships to turn back before reaching Croatan, and he returned to Britain with the mystery unresolved. The ultimate fate of the Roanoke colonists continues to be debated. Some have conjectured that White’s fellow colonists may have opted to join a local Algonquian Indian tribe and adapt themselves to the very different (and rather more effective) Amerindian methods of contending with the harsh American landscape. It is unlikely that we’ll ever know what happened – but if White’s daughter and granddaughter really did become incorporated into an Indian tribe, it would have made a strange sort of sense. Few sixteenth century Europeans looked upon indigenous Americans with anything other than a jaundiced and prejudiced eye. Yet White’s sensitive and humane portrayals of daily life among the Algonquians tell a different story, and suggest that his own stance toward the native peoples he encountered in the New World was rather more complex. In White’s sensitive depiction of the Algonquian woman and her child holding a European doll, perhaps we can discern a foreshadowing of the hybrid Euro-American fate of his own daughter and grandchild. The intertwined tales of the failed colony White governed, the family he raised, and the artworks he created offer one of the earliest examples of the mingling of cultures that would define the history of the Americas in the centuries to come.

Watercolour by John White of Fort Elizabeth in Guyanilla Bay, Puerto Rico, where the colonists were based before going on to found the Ranoake Colony in North Carolina.

Further reading:
  • Michael Gaudio, Engraving the Savage: The New World and Techniques of Civilization(University of Minnesota Press, 2008)
  • Joyce Chaplin, Subject Matter: Technology, the Body, and Science on the Anglo-American Frontier, 1500-1676 (Harvard University Press, 2003)
  • Daniel Richter, Facing East from Indian Country (Harvard University Press, 2001)
  • Kim Sloan et al, A New World: England’s first view of America (University of North Carolina Press, 2007)

Benjamin Breen is a PhD candidate in the Department of History at the University of Texas, Austin. He is currently a Fulbright Fellow based in Lisbon, Portugal where he is conducting research toward a dissertation on the circulation of medicinal drugs and natural knowledge in the Portuguese and British empires. He blogs about premodern history and visual culture at

Links to Works

  • John White’s watercolours on Wikimedia Commons

  • A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia (1903, facsimile of original 1588 book) by Thomas Hariot
  • Sir Walter Raleigh’s lost colony. An historical sketch of the attempts of Sir Walter Raleigh to establish a colony in Virginia, with the traditions of an Indian tribe in North Carolina. Indicating the fate of the colony of Englishmen left on Roanoke Island in 1587 (1888), by Hamilton McMillan
  • Conquest of Virginia, the first attempt : being an account of Sir Walter Raleigh’s colony on Roanoke island, based on the original records, and incidents in the life of Raleigh, 1584-1602 (1924), by Conway Whittle Sams

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The Life and Work of Nehemiah Grew

- March 1, 2011 in Books, botany, Illustrations, nehemiah grew, Philosophy, Pictures, plant anatomy, pollen, Public Domain, Science, the anatomy of plants

In the 82 illustrated plates included in his 1680 book The Anatomy of Plants, the English botanist Nehemiah Grew revealed for the first time the inner structure and function of plants in all their splendorous intricacy. Brian Garret, professor of philosophy at McMaster Univerity, explores how Grew’s pioneering ‘mechanist’ vision in relation to the floral world paved the way for the science of plant anatomy.
Nehemiah Grew (1641-1712) is best remembered for his careful and novel observations on plant anatomy, for his role in the development of comparative anatomy and as one of the first naturalists to utilize the microscope in the study of plant morphology. His most lasting work, containing his observations and impressive illustrations, is most certainly his early work The Anatomy of Plants begun as a philosophical history of plants published in 1682. Although Grew continued to publish throughout his life, especially on the chemical properties of various substances, all but the The Anatomy have fallen into obscurity. Grew was a doctor by profession, receiving his degree from the university of Leiden in 1671. He was the son of a nonconformist and supporter of parliament, who was briefly imprisoned while his son gave lectures to the Royal Society and dedicated his books to the King. Nehemiah had little of his father’s political inclination, although he inherited some of the latter’s nonconformist religious views. He practiced medicine in London where he met John Wilkins (1614-1672), one of the founders of the Royal Society, who was likely attracted by the younger man’s opinions. Wilkins was impressed and he recommended Grew to the Royal Society for membership. Grew later served as secretary to the society, along with Robert Hooke (1635-1703), the infamous virtuoso and inventor. Like Hooke, Grew utilized the microscope for his investigations into plant anatomy. Along with Marcello Malphigi, Grew is remembered for establishing the observational basis for botany for the next 100 years. As Grew acknowledged, Wilkins’ encouragement was crucial to his work, both intellectually and financially. Having been made a member under Wilkins’ influence, he was engaged by the Royal Society at 50 pounds a year to research plant anatomy. But getting actually paid another matter and Grew had to plead with the society to receive what he was due. In his later life he practiced medicine in London and Coventry. Throughout the 1670′s Grew wrote short pamphlets on botany (often in Latin) and in 1680 translated and compiled them together under the title The Anatomy of Plants. He published a number of minor essays in the Transactions of the Royal Society, for example, “The description of an…Hummingbird” and “Some observations touching the Nature of Snow.” In 1681 he published The comparative anatomy of stomachs and guts, packed full of curious observations. 1683 saw the publication of New Experiments and useful observations concerning sea water made Fresh and in 1697 his Treatise of the nature and Use of Purging Salt contained in Epsom and such other waters. In his last work, Cosmologia Sacra (1701), Grew turned to philosophy and theology in order to demonstrate “the Truth and Excellency of the Bible.” In many ways a contemporary review best sums up the significance of Grew’s scientific work, since much of that significance is obscure today:
In general, it is noted by our Author, that it will here appear, that there are those things which are little less wonderful within a Plant than within an Animal; that a Plant, like an Animal hath Organical parts, some whereof may be called its Bowels; that every Plant hath Bowels of divers kinds, containing divers liquors; that even a Plant lives partly upon Air, for the reception whereof it hath peculiar Organs. Again, that all the said Organs, Bowels, or other parts are as artificially made, and as punctually for place and number composed together as all the Mathematical Lines of a flower or Face; that the Staple of the Stuff is so exquisitely fine, that no Silkworm is able to draw so small a thred; that by all these means the ascent of the Sap, the Distribution of the Air, the Confection of several sorts of Liquors, as Lymphus, Milks, Oyls, Balsoms, with other acts of Vegetation, are all contrived and brought about in a Mechanical way. – [Philosophical transactions, 1675].
The significance for this 17th century reviewer is the ‘Mechanical way’ and Grew’s Organ-ism; that plants possess organs and structure. It wasn’t certain before the 17th century that plants had much internal structure in which distinct parts or organs played distinct roles. It was often thought, especially during the Renaissance, that the external shape of a plant was a clue or signature to its use, but whether there was anything resembling organs in plants was contested. A generation earlier, in his Of Bodies (1644), virtuoso (and all-round blow-hard) Sir Kenelm Digby (1603-1665) downplayed the existence of distinct organs in plants. However, Grew’s detailed observations established without a doubt that plants were analyzable into functional and morphological units, reinvigorating a tradition that went back to Theophrastus.

Grew is remembered for his detailed descriptions of plant anatomy and with him we see the beginning of modern comparative anatomy. He was guided by the idea that there may be similarities of function between animals and plants and this led him to look for equivalent organs in each. He thus believed in the circulation of sap, on analogy with William Harvey’s discovery of the circulation of blood in animals, and he believed in a form of respiration in plants. Although the recognition of plant sexuality was old, Grew is remembered for noting the stamen as the male organ of the plant and pollen as seed. He also noted the prevalence of little bladders, or “cells” as Hooke had coined the term, especially in the parenchyma tissue (a term we have retained from Grew). Many of Grew’s observations were diachronic, putting emphasis on the development of the plant and its structures. The growth of a plant he deemed to be a function of sap circulating through the tissue, carrying and adding material to the plant. His observations on the bud of the flower revealed the complicated folding of the unexpanded leaves, something that had not been previously seen with the naked eye. Grew’s mechanism consisted in his adherence to observations and his avoidance of explanations invoking vital forces, signatures, sympathies and antipathies. Also to be avoided was the direct hand, intervention, or guidance by God. Instead the mechanist looks for natural or secondary causes for the phenomena and the laws that govern them. Grew invokes no “occult” or hidden forces, although he offers a great deal of “wild” chemical speculation in his botanical and medical studies. The mechanistic project was a deliberate attempt to offer explanations of phenomena in terms that were “corporeal”, material or physical, however these difficult terms were to be interpreted. The mechanical philosophy allowed the researcher to think much like an engineer – how to make available materials do the task that is desired. The engineering image was also theologically acceptable: God is the engineer who constructed the mechanisms of nature and as such nature can be seen as “artificial”, the product of God’s industry. As natural philosophers (or scientists) we can uncover how these artifacts are constructed and how they function, by analogy with discovering how a machine, such as a clock, is constructed and functions.

Grew published his philosophical and theological views late in life in his Cosmologia Sacra: or a Discourse of the Universe as it is the Creature and Kingdom of God. In his last book Grew argues for a number of doctrines. He divides the natural causes within the universe into vital and corporeal components. Living and cognitive creatures have their origins in a Vital Principle, distinct from matter, yet bodies are necessary for the existence of Life. Life, being “more excellent” [p.34] than mere physical motion, requires an “Excellent, and so a distinct Subject, to which it belongs. And therefore something, which is Substantial, yet Incorporeal”. Grew’s vitalism was not uncommon for the time, especially among the doctors, and reflects the neo-Platonist heritage found in many influential naturalists such as John Ray (1627-1705). But Grew revealed his sympathies for nonconformist religious thought in his account of miracles. Grew asserts a form a Deism: that once God has created the world in accordance with His laws, God has no further need to interfere. God acts through the world only through secondary, that is, natural causes (which includes the vital, incorporeal principle of Life). God does not act directly upon natural events but brings them about by other natural events. Miraculous events are merely those events which are rare and for which the cause is unknown; but they are not caused directly by God “…every Miracle is effected in the Use of some Second or Natural cause: Yet to make it a miracle, it is requisite, that this cause be unknown to us” [p. 195]. The denial of miracles supports Grew’s dominant theme: that the universe reveals the existence and wisdom of God in its design and structure. The deist view sits happily with mechanist perspective. Everywhere a doctor looks he can see the remarkable living machinery of the body; how organs grow to their proper and useful places. Grew took it that the teleological features of the universe revealed the wisdom of its construction. The idea was an old one but had recently gained ground in Robert Boyle’s discussion A Disquisition About Final Causes. Grew was not as careful as the skeptical alchemist and saw many of the world’s wonders as designed for the sake of Man, although he took it that the internal structures of plants were for the benefit of plants. The incredible usefulness of the Coco plant, the silkworm and of iron, indicate that the universe is well suited to Mankind. But the argument from design is often ridiculed as an argument from poor design, when one reflects on the hardships of life and the immorality of Men. Grew is not daunted by such reflections:
The most Exorbitant Phancies and Lusts of Men, illustrate the Beauty of God’s Creation. One man makes all his thoughts and Pleasures, to centre in Meats and Drinks; Another, in Musick; a third, in Women; or some other Sense or Phancy so as to think of nothing else. Which, as it shows the infirmity of human nature; so the Plenitude and Perfection of the World, in being fitted, so many ways, to Beatifie Men, would they know discreetly how to use it. And the same Lust and Phancies, are many other ways turned to Good. [p.104].
Grew made his observations independently but simultaneously with Marcello Malphigi, in what might be considered a case of independent co-discovery, an interesting phenomenon in the history of science. Most famous is the co-discovery of natural selection by Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace. But if Grew and Malphigi’s work counts as co-discovery it is in a very different way from that of Darwin and Wallace. Arguably, the co-discovery in plant morphology was a result of technological advances due to the invention of the microscope and was somewhat non-theoretical. Darwin and Wallace, however, discovered a law of nature, making significant theoretical advances in addition to their remarkable observations. But of course, without the meticulous work by the pioneers of botany, fruitful theory would not have arisen. Thus Nehemiah Grew must be remembered for his pioneering role in the establishment of modern botany.

Brian Jonathan Garrett is professor of philosophy at McMaster University, Hamilton, Canada. Selected publications include: “What the history of vitalism teaches us about the Hard problem of consciousness” Philosophy and phenomenological research 2006, “Teleology and Vitalism in the Natural Philosophy of Nehemiah Grew” British Journal for the History of Science 2003 and “Santayana’s Treatment of teleology” Bulletin of the Santayana Society 2010. His research combines history of biology and contemporary metaphysics. In particular, he researches how the history of evolution, vitalism and teleology bears on puzzles concerning mental causation, determinism and free will.

Links to works

  • An idea of a phytological history propounded, together with a continuation of the anatomy of vegetables, particularly prosecuted upon roots (1673)
  • The Comparative Anatomy of Trunks (1675)
  • Cosmologia sacra, or a discourse of the universe as it is the creature and kingdom of God (1701)

Lewis Carroll and The Hunting of the Snark

- February 22, 2011 in boojoum, Books, henry holiday, hunting of the snark, lewis carroll, Literature, Pictures, Poems, poetry, Public Domain

In 1876 Lewis Carroll published by far his longest poem – a fantastical epic tale recounting the adventures of a bizarre troupe of nine tradesmen and a beaver. Carrollian scholar, Edward Wakeling, introduces The Hunting of the Snark. Although best known as the author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking-Glass (1871), Lewis Carroll – the pen-name of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, a mathematical lecturer at Christ Church, Oxford – was also an avid reader and writer of poetry. He greatly enjoyed the poems of Victorian writers such as Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and Christina Rossetti. His own poems were varied – some just humorous nonsense, some filled with hidden meanings, and some serious poems about love and life. Probably his best known is called “Jabberwocky,” with its opening line of “’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves…”, and its many invented words, some that have now entered the English language, such as “chortle” and “galumph”. Such nonsense verse is as popular now as it was when first published. His more serious poetry, it must be admitted, is generally inferior to his humorous verse and often over sentimental. Between 1860 and 1863 he contributed a dozen or more poems to College Rhymes, a pamphlet issued each term to members of Oxford and Cambridge universities, and which, for a time, he edited. In 1869, he compiled a book of poems, many of which he had already published elsewhere but now issued in revised form, together with one main new poem, which gives its title to the book, Phantasmagoria. One particular poem stands out from all the others that Carroll wrote. It has inspired parodies, continuations, musical adaptations, and a wide variety of interpretations. It is an epic nonsense poem written at a time when Carroll was struggling with his religious beliefs following the serious illness of his cousin and godson, Charlie Wilcox, who eventually died from tuberculosis. Although the poem concerns death and danger, it is filled with humour and whimsical ideas. Strangely, it was written backwards. After a night nursing his cousin, Carroll went for a long walk over the hills near Guildford, and a solitary line of verse came into his head – “For the Snark was a Boojum, you see!” The rest of the stanza, the last in the poem, came to him a few days later. Over a period of six months, the rest of poem was composed, ending up as 141 stanzas in 8 sections that Carroll called “fits.” The poem concerns a quest by a crew sailing to catch a mysterious creature called a Snark. Each member of the crew has an occupation beginning with the letter “B” – Bellman (the Captain), Baker, Banker, Barrister, Billiard-Marker, Boots, Bonnet-Maker, Broker, and Butcher, accompanied by a Beaver. Their maritime map is an absolute blank. They reach an island, and the hunt for a Snark begins. But the quest is fraught with danger because although Snarks are not in themselves harmful, those that are Boojums are ferocious and will kill. The question that naturally arises is “does the poem have a meaning?” Carroll denied that he meant anything in particular – the poem was all nonsense – but that did not stop people asking him, and it inspired others to give it their own meaning. To some extent, the poem is about the relationships that emerge among the crew, and the interaction between this motley bunch of characters. All behave in odd ways, some have close-shaves, and one completely vanishes – caught by a Boojum. The poem was entitled The Hunting of the Snark with the subtitle, An Agony in Eight Fits. Carroll originally intended it as a set of verses to be included in another of his children’s stories, but it grew too long and became a book in its own right. He published it on 1 April 1876 – the date chosen with care. However, many of his presentation copies to friends are dated 29 March. Although issued in a pictorial buff coloured cloth, he had copies bound in red, blue, green, and white cloth, all with gold decoration, to give away to his friends and family. The book was dedicated to one of his friends, Gertrude Chataway, and a dedicatory acrostic poem that introduces the book embodies her name as the first word of each stanza, Gert, Rude, Chat, Away, and also the first letter of each line. Accompanying the poem were illustrations by Henry Holiday (1839-1927), artist, sculptor, stained-glass designer, and book illustrator. He drew nine illustrations for the book; a tenth illustration depicting a Snark was rejected by Carroll – he wanted the creature to remain unimaginable.

The poem owes a debt to “Jabberwocky” – some of the invented words from these verses reappear in The Hunting of the Snark and Carroll explains their derivation in his Preface, such as frumious being a portmanteau word based on “fuming” and “furious.” Some of the creatures also make a second appearance – the vicious Jubjub bird and the terrifying Bandersnatch. The poem was very popular – it was reprinted many times. In Carroll’s lifetime, over 20,000 copies were sold. The poem was incorporated into Carroll’s compendium of humorous poetry entitled Rhyme? and Reason? (1883). Since then it has been illustrated by a variety of artists and translated into many languages, and the book rarely goes out of print. People are known to memorise and recite the poem. Some people form Snark Clubs. There is a timeless nature about the verses that make it as relevant today as it did in 1876. .
Edward Wakeling is a long-standing member of the Lewis Carroll Society. He has written widely on Carroll over the last three decades, and among his publications is the first unabridged edition of Lewis Carroll’s Diaries in 10 volumes. He has written on Carroll’s photography, letters, mathematics, puzzles and games, and logic. As a recognised Carrollian scholar and collector, he is frequently called upon to contribute to conferences, exhibitions, and television programmes around the world. His website is

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The Snowflake Man of Vermont

- February 14, 2011 in jericho, Photography, Pictures, Public Domain, Science, snow crystals, snowflake bentley, snowflake man, snowflakes, vermont, weather, wilson bentley

Weather scientist Keith C. Heidorn takes a look at the life and work of Wilson Bentley, a self-educated farmer from a small American town who, by combining a bellows camera with a microscope, managed to photograph the dizzyingly intricate and diverse structures of the snow crystal. In 1885, at the age of 20, Wilson Alwyn Bentley, a farmer who would live all his life in the small town of Jericho in Vermont, gave the world its first ever photograph of a snowflake. Throughout the following winters, until his death in 1931, Bentley would go on to capture over 5000 snowflakes, or more correctly, snow crystals, on film. Despite the fact that he rarely left Jericho, thousands of Americans knew him as The Snowflake Man or simply Snowflake Bentley. Our belief that “no two snowflakes are alike” stems from a line in a 1925 report in which he remarked: “Every crystal was a masterpiece of design and no one design was ever repeated. When a snowflake melted, that design was forever lost.” It started with a microscope his mother gave him at age 15 which opened the world of the small to young Wilson. A lover of winter, he made plans to use his microscope to view snowflakes. His initial investigations proved both fascinating and frustrating as he tried to observe the short-lived flakes. So that he could share his discoveries, he began by sketching what he saw, accumulating several hundred sketches by his seventeenth birthday. When his father purchased a camera for his son, Wilson combined it with his microscope, and went on to make his first successful photomicrograph of a snow crystal on 15 January 1885. In addition to the development of the hardware, Bentley also had to devise a protocol to capture a snow crystal and transport it with minimal damage to the camera’s field of vision. What he found worked best was to capture the crystals on a cool velvet-covered tray. Taking care not to melt the crystal with his breathe, he identified a suitable subject and lifted it onto a pre-cooled slide with a thin wood splint from his mother’s broom and nudged it into place with a turkey feather. The slide was then carried into his photographic shed and placed under the microscope. The back-lit image was focused using a system of strings and pulleys he devised to accommodate his mittened hands. Once focused, the sensitized glass plate — the “film” — was exposed and stored for further processing, development and printing. Bentley also devised his own processing methods. In addition to developing the original image, he also created a post-development process to enhance it. Since each photograph was taken of a white snow crystal against a white background, Bentley was dissatisfied with the initial photograph. He felt he could improve the contrast and enhance the detail if he presented the crystal against a dark background. To do this, he painstakingly scraped away the dark emulsion surrounding the snow crystal image from a duplicate of the original negative using a sharp penknife and steady hand. The altered image was then carefully placed upon a clear glass plate and then printed, giving it a dark background. Even after years of practice, this post-production process often took as long as four hours for a complex snow crystal. With 70-75 photographs per storm and notes on the conditions under which they were collected, Bentley accrued a considerable understanding of snow. In 1897, he became acquainted with Professor George Perkins, a professor of geology at the University of Vermont, and they prepared the first paper on snow crystals published in the May 1898 issue of Appleton’s Popular Scientific entitled “A Study of Snow Crystals.” While photographing snowflakes was his passion, Bentley also turned his interest to examining and sizing raindrops for seven summers from 1898 to 1904. From that work, he gave us early insights into raindrops and their size distribution in storms. After some experimentation, he developed a simple yet effective apparatus for gathering raindrops: a shallow pan of wheat flour. At first, he simply photographed the imprints made by the falling rain in the flour. Then in 1998, he made a serendipitous finding. In his journal, he wrote: “In the bottom of each raindrop impression in the flour there could always be found a roundish granule of dough nearly exact size of raindrop. After experimenting with artificial raindrops I could measure [its] diameter before falling into the flour, and thus tell if the dough granule corresponded in size with the measured raindrop.” Bentley measured these raindrop “fossils” and divided them into one of five size-range categories. Over the tenure of his raindrop studies, he collected 344 sets of raindrop pellets from over 70 distinct storms, including 25 thunderstorms, to which he added meticulous weather data about the storm: date, time of day, temperature, wind, cloud type and estimated cloud height. He concluded that different storms produce different size raindrops and different size distributions. Few rainfall events had uniform drop sizes, but when they did, he discovered, they were composed of either all small drops or all large drops. Low rain clouds produced mostly small drops. The largest drops, around a quarter inch in diameter, fell from the tall cumulonimbus clouds of thunderstorms. He concluded that the size of drops and snowflakes could tell a lot about the vertical structure of the storm. Unfortunately, Bentley was so far ahead of his time that he wasn’t fully appreciated by contemporary scientists. They didn’t take this self-educated farmer seriously. It was 40 years later — the study of cloud physics and precipitation processes would not blossom until the 1940s — before his raindrop work was rediscovered and corroborated. The first recognition of Bentley’s raindrop experiments appears to have been by US Soil Conservation Service scientists J.O. Laws and D.A. Parsons, who published a paper in 1943 reporting measurements of raindrop size under various rainfall intensities using Bentley’s collection method. Although he dropped his study of raindrops after a few years, he continued to photograph snow crystal and speculate on the nature of snow. From his large data archive, Bentley’s analysis convinced him that the form the ice crystal took (hexagonal plate, six-sided star, hexagonal column, needle, etc) was dependent on the air temperature in which the crystal formed and fell. Nearly three decades would pass before Ukichiro Nakaya in Japan would confirm this hypothesis.

He also wanted to promote his work for its beauty, and thus submitted articles and delivered lectures that focused on his snow photography over the years. His lectures were popular, and from them he was dubbed The Snowflake Man and Snowflake Bentley by the newspapers. Over one hundred articles were published in well-known newspapers and magazines such as The Christian Herald, Popular Mechanics, National Geographic, The New York Times Magazine, and the American Annual of Photography. His best photographs were in demand from jewelers, engravers and textile makers who saw the beauty in his work. He also submitted technical reports to the US Weather Bureau’s publication Monthly Weather Review. Although he received scant recognition from most scientists, he did receive encouragement from Weather Bureau chief meteorologist Dr William J. Humphreys who helped him publish a collection of his photographs. Humphreys wrote the technical introduction and appeared as co-author. The book Snow Crystals by W. A. Bentley and W. J. Humphrey was published by McGraw-Hill in November 1931. It contained 2500 selected snow crystal photos plus 100 of frost and dew formation. The book has since been republished by Dover Books. As a grown man, Bentley was slight of frame, likely just over five feet tall and weighing around 120 pounds, but could dig a row of potatoes or pitch hay as well as any farmer in the valley. He continued to farm the acreage with his older brother for all his life. Though not an outgoing man, he loved to entertain by playing the piano or violin and singing popular songs. He also played clarinet in a small brass band and could imitate the sounds of many animals. Bentley never married. In early-December 1931, Wilson Bentley walked six miles, ill-dressed, through a slushy snowstorm to reach his home. Not long thereafter, he contracted a cold, which grew into pneumonia. “Snowflake” Bentley died on 23 December at the age of 66. In March of that year, he had taken the last of his photomicrographs of snow, still using the same camera that took the first one. Although his father thought Wilson’s snow photography a lot of nonsense and not the proper thing for a farmer to do, Wilson broke unique ground in the early days of modern meteorology as well as microscopic photography. His biographer, cloud physicist Duncan Blanchard, dubbed him “America’s First Cloud Physicist.” The Burlington Free Press wrote in a Christmas Eve obituary for Bentley: “Longfellow said that genius is infinite painstaking. John Ruskin declared that genius is only a superior power of seeing. Wilson Bentley was a living example of this type of genius. He saw something in the snowflakes which other men failed to see, not because they could not see, but because they had not the patience and the understanding to look.” On the morning he was laid to rest in the Jericho Center cemetery, it began to snow, leaving a dusting over the burial ground. Keith C. Heidorn, PhD has nearly forty years of experience in meteorology, climatology, air quality assessment, and education. Currently, enjoying semi-retirement in the Canadian Rockies, he continues to write The Weather Doctor internet site. The site, now beginning its fourteenth year, celebrates the beauty of weather through science and art. Dr Heidorn is author of three books: The BC Weather Book: From the Sunshine Coast to Storm Mountain, published in 2004, and And Now…The Weather, released in July 2005, and The Field Guide to Natural Phenomena, coauthored with Ian Whitelaw, released in 2010. When not writing about the weather, Keith can be found painting weather and other landscapes using oil, acrylics and watercolors.

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Ernst Haeckel and the Unity of Culture

- January 24, 2011 in art forms of nature, biogenetic law, ernst haeckel, evolution, Kunstformen der Natur, mario di gregorio, monism, Pictures, Public Domain, Science, the history of creation

Dr Mario A. Di Gregorio, professor of the History of Science at the University of L’Aquila and author of From Here to Eternity: Ernst Haeckel and Scientific Faith, takes a look at Haeckel’s theory of “monism” which lies behind the mesmerising illustrations of his Kunstformen Der Natur. Few people were better known in the nineteenth century than the German zoologist and Darwinist Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919), yet nowadays he is known to many simply as the man who coined the phrase “ontogeny recapitulates phylogey” – the Biogenetic Law. There is much more to Haeckel than this. Haeckel studied medicine at Würzburg with Rudolf Virchow, who taught him the importance of cell theory, and at Berlin with Johannes Müller, who remained his inspiration and ideal of a teacher. His main cultural influences were Alexander von Humboldt, and, like all educated Germans, J.W. Goethe. Haeckel never wanted to be a physician but aimed for a synthesis of his interest in zoology with his artistic ability and sensibility. The decisive event for his career was the patronage and friendship he received from the anatomist and morphologist Carl Gegenbaur. This led to an appointment at the university of Jena, where he stayed all his life, and a scientific journey to southern Italy where he studied marine invertebrate zoology, in particluar radiolarians, which first suggested to him a close connection between the scientific study of nature and its inner beauty. On his return to Jena in 1860, Haeckel read the German translation of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species. He was thoroughly won over by the book to the extent that he became the most outspoken supporter and propagandist of an evolutionary view, one which combined Lamarckian and Darwinian elements with the morphological interpretation of the aesthetic aspects of nature – thus fulfilling Goethe’s and Humboldt’s ideal of the unity of culture. In 1866 Haeckel published his major theoretical work, Die Generelle Morphologie der Organismen (The General Morphology of Organisms). It was, however, a difficult book and seldom read. In response he went on to publish his lectures on evolution in Natuerliche Schpfungsgeschichte (The History of Creation) which, on the other hand, in its many editions from 1868 onwards, was a great success. Haeckel’s view of evolution can be summarized as follows: at no point did God create anything, whether inorganic or organic. All is originated through an incessant progressive process leading from the simplest to the most complex – organic matter originating from inorganic matter through spontaneous generation – a process called Entwicklungsgeschichte, the “history of development”. In this process lower living forms start from a simple cell and follow a long evolutionary path leading to higher forms. The process of life, in its increasing intricacy, can be represented best in the branching forms of the tree and Haeckel, an excellent artist, drew many beautiful such trees. In them we find explained what he believes to be the fundamental law of natural evolution, the Biogenetic Law, that is “Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny”. Every living form travels in its embryological development (ontogeny) through stages which resemble – recapitulate, in fact – the stages through which the group to which that animal belongs itself went through in the course of its evolution (phylogeny). The gaps in the geological record of evolutionary process can be filled by hypothetical passages, and thus embryology and its foundation, cell theory, solves the evolutionary problems left unsolved by paleontology. The highest forms are nothing but lower forms which in their history have grown to their higher position in the tree of life – a new version of Lamarck’s transformism. A worm follows an evolutionary path which takes it to higher and higher forms – man being of course the highest in its most elevated aspect, educated man. Indeed, we may conclude that a German professor is nothing but a progressed worm! Natural selection is seen by Haeckel as applicable not so much to individuals but mainly to groups, the Phyla – a word introduced by Haeckel himself (one of the many new words he invented, although only a few, such as “ecology”, have survived). This scheme can be applied to any part of the living world, whether fungi, plant, animal or, by consequence, to the highest pinnacle of evolution, man. In Haeckel’s thought, man is basically an evolved ape and, looking further back, an evolved worm. The main character which distinguishes man from apes is language and to fill the gaps between speechless apes and speaking man Haeckel hypothesized a link which he called “Pithecanthropus alalus”, that is “speechless apeman”. He had been interested in languages since the days of his friendship with Jena philologist August Schleicher, supporter of an evolutionary interpretation of languages, and was aware of the studies performed by his cousin Wilhelm Bleek in South Africa on the language spoken by the Bushmen which Bleek suggested represented the nearest approximation to the original language of humankind. Haeckel used Bleek’s studies to claim that there was a hierarchy of languages corresponding to the hierarchy of races which spoke them. He claimed that this hierarchy of languages showed that the “lower” human races were closer to apes than to the “higher” races – the highest being the educated man descended from the ancient Greeks. Culture was for Haeckel a much stronger method of studying humans than the physical anthropology propounded by his former teacher Virchow. A vital aspect of Haeckel’s programme of a “unity of culture” was his attempt to provide a bridge between biological science and art, the result of which was the visually dazzling Kunstformen der Natur, the Art Forms of Nature, published in 1904. With the assistance of Jena artist-lithographer Adolf Giltsch, Haeckel produced one hundred plates depicting the forms of animal life, mainly marine animals. With this book Haeckel wanted to create an “aesthetics of nature” and to show how the incessant struggle for existence he had learnt from Darwin was in fact producing an endless beauty and variety of forms – Darwin and Humboldt combined together.

In all his works Haeckel focused on the aspects of knowledge that pointed to a general unitarian outlook, a unity he believed to underlie the superficial diversity of all things. Haeckel called his view of unity “monism”, a term coined in juxtaposition to dualist conceptions, which postulated gaps or oppositions in the explanation of reality in all its aspects. His hostility to dualism was such that over time he would come to label anything he disliked as dualist. In perfect Orwellian fashion, he held the motto “monist good – dualist bad” as his main guiding mantra. This monism became a real philosophy, a theology and an ideology. In it there was no room for the traditional Christian God, which science, Haeckel said with dubious humour, had reduced to a mere “gaseous vertebrate”. Rather than an atheism, however, Haeckel saw a unity of God and nature in a conception reminiscent of Spinoza’s Pantheism. Following his main theological influence, David Friedrich Strauss, Haeckel believed that science had killed the traditional concept of God and replaced it with the forces of nature which were best made sense of by the modern theory of evolution. Thus evolution – Darwinism combined with Lamarck – was the foundation that made possible the modern worldview. No dualism, no divine creation, no afterlife, just the eternal existence of force and matter in incessant change. Individuals were the ephemeral means for the maintenance of force and matter, and into the eternal substance of the universe from which they had come they would return: from here to eternity. Monism became a true movement and the Monist League became a major reference for the educated free-thinkers around the turn of the century, Haeckel being openly advocated as the “anti-pope”. The very beginning of the twentieth century saw the publication of Die Welträtsel, “The Riddle of the Universe”, which served to summarise and expound all his main views. The book was widely read and translated into many languages. It made Haeckel possibly the most famous scientist of the time. It was the triumph of progress and monism, the light for the new path that mankind had to follow in order to build a brave new world. But a tragic event seemed to destroy that plan – the first World War. Haeckel was devastated, blaming it all on British greed. When the war was over, however, he did regain some of his optimism, not realizing though that with the war his dream of progress through evolution and the final marriage of scientific and artistic truth was smashed, and with it too the fame of Professor Ernst Haeckel. Dr Mario A. Di Gregorio is Professor of the History of Science at the University of L’Aquila, Italy, and Visiting Academic at the University of Cape Town, South Africa. His main publications include: T.H.Huxley’s Place in Natural History, New Haven-London: Yale University Press 1984; Charles Darwin’s Marginalia (with N.W. Gill), vol.1, New York: Garland 1990; and From Here to Eternity. Ernst Haeckel and Scientific Faith, Göttingen: Vandenhoek & Ruprecht 2005.

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