Thursday, 4 May 2017

The Marvels of Clarence Bicknell


Continuing with the botanical theme (see my post on visiting the orto botanico) this week's cultural talk at the British Institute was about ‘The Marvels of Clarence Bicknell’. Although well known and respected in Liguria, the Riviera and the Martine Alps, this intrepid botanist, writer, and artist remains relatively unknown in the UK. Impressive given that there are several species named after him, everything from Pimpinella bicknellii, a beautiful small white flower, to a particular type of Australian ant. 

Next year is Bicknell’s centenary so I’m sure this won’t be the last we’ll be hearing about his work and beautiful watercolours over the next few months. 2018 is also the release date for his first official biography by Valerie Browne Lester, which should hopefully give more context to the prolific recorder and the 7,000 plus artefacts, of pressed flowers, letters, and paintings that he left behind. Graham Avery, previously a fellow of the European Institute and now at St. Antony’s College Oxford, and Bicknell’s own relative Marcus reflected in their talks that Bicknell never courted the English elite while he was working, he didn’t go to any of the important meetings and practiced outside of England, so his impressive legacy has largely been ignored. 

We began the evening with a short documentary produced by french film maker Rémy Masséglia, which certainly transported us all into Bicknell’s Riviera world. With swooping landscape shots of the luscious fields and mountainous areas that Bicknell explored it certainly set the scene beautifully for Graham Avery’s brilliant exploration into the self-taught botanist's work. Born in 1842 in Herne Hill near London, the 13th child in a large family, Bicknell ended up studying at Cambridge University and entering the Anglican church. After doubts with his faith he wrote ‘I fear I have become rather narrow’, and soon after taking on the chaplaincy at All Saints Church in Bordighera threw off his dog collar at the age of thirty-five and threw himself into the flowering plants and ferns of the surrounding environment and neighbouring mountains. His first published book Flowering Plants and Ferns of the Riviera, came soon after in 1885. 

In 1897 he discovered prehistoric engravings while out walking in the mountainous Fontanalba and took to heading out each day to make delicate rubbings and copies of the engravings in order to raise awareness of their existence, sometimes lying flat out on the rocks for several hours to capture the images as precisely as he could. He loved the area so much that he ended up building a house there which he named Villa Fontanalba. Sadly the estate is now owned privately, but from the sounds of it, the hand crafted interiors with their mural walls and hand-painted scenic depictions rival that of the Bloomsbury group. 

One very interesting point that was made when flicking through Bicknell’s elaborately decorated guest-book for his Villa Fontanalba (which alone speaks volumes for the care and artistry that Bicknell took with the details of his home) was that he had written the entire document in Esperanto. Apparently this was common for Bicknell who was deeply involved in the movement for the universal language pioneered by a Polish doctor that envisioned a means of international communication. He was even vice president of the Esperanto society in Italy. 

Described by Avery as ‘incredibly modest’ his humble work ethic of concentrating on recording his findings (as opposed to interpreting), hindered his fame abroad. At one point Avery laughed and compared the fascination that Bicknell had with flora and fauna akin to collecting stamps, with each botanist always eager to see a specific they had yet to see before, specimens were traded around like stamps, each flower had its own particular fascination and worth to the beholder. Bicknell spread dried plants all over the world in correspondence with a variety of influential botanists, a dedicated writer his commitment to communicating with his friends, family and contemporaries can be attested by the vast paper trail he left behind, such as his 700 plus archive of postcards and letters to Émile Burnat. His carefully hand illustrated notes are incredibly inspiring in a world where pen and ink correspondence feels fairly neglected (also an excellent reminder that it's always a good idea to send more postcards). 

It was wonderful to learn so much from such a passionate assortment of people about a man whom otherwise I would probably have never come across. I particularly loved the fact that Bicknell preferred wild flowers over cultivated ones, one book he owned was called 'the triumph of the dandelion', and I think the title says a lot about the optimistic spirit of this adventurous botanist.  

Graham Avery ended by telling us all the best places to visit Bicknell’s work. For those interested they are as follows: Biblioteca Bicknell (Bordighera), Musee des Merveilles (Tende), and Val Fontanalba. They've all certainly made it on to my ever growing list of places to visit! 

For more information about Clarence Bicknell click here.