Behind The Scenes, 30 July 2018: Neogeographies #2 – A research visit to the archives
This year marks 250 years since Captain James Cook set sail from Plymouth on an expedition during which he and his crew charted Tahiti, New Zealand and the eastern coast of Australia. He enlisted artists who made sketches, and then prints, of the plants, animals and people that lived there.
We are supporting artist Helen Snell’s Cook 250-inspired project ‘Neogeographies’ which is a direct response to the prints and images that circulated in Britain and beyond that documented Cook’s voyages.
This post documents a research visit Helen recently made to the archives at the Plymouth and West Devon Record Office with our Art Curator, Terah Walkup.
During the visit they looked at the travel narratives that were around the same time as Cook’s journals to compare. They also looked at how other artists documented places that were new to them and how they represented what they saw. They began with an example of an architect who travelled to Italy – a popular journey for artists and the educated elite in the 18th century, often called the Grand Tour.
With sufficient light, the laser cut black and white figures are reduced to inverted shadows that sit side by side, the shadows do not distinguish between race or gender, northern or southern hemisphere.
I also brought a pair of Rooted Goggles with me. The wearer has two ‘lenses” through which to see, one oak tree eye and palm tree eye linked together by a system of roots or veins.
The tension between the two eyes suggests the thirst for new worlds, the pull of home and the exotic (especially to eager botanists and zoologists).
We started with a taste of the Grand Tour, leafing through this wonderful volume of hand coloured engravings by Angelo Uggeri. Cook’s artists would have shaped their observations of exotic lands through this classical frame of reference. The fixation on classical archetypes seems so singular to my modern eye. The eighteenth-century lens through which all the world is scrutinised is fascinating, with its rigid application of geometry, symmetry and composition. In my mind this also highlights the indifference, if not the blind disregard, for other cultural sensitivities. The artist-intellectual is centre stage here.
Terah: Helen then asked if we had any works by female explorers. In the Cottonian Collection we have a first edition of Maria Sybilla Merian’s ‘Insects of Suriname’. It was published in 1726 and illustrated with engravings based on her drawings and later sumptuously hand-coloured. Merian was an early pioneer in botany and biology, their illustration and taxonomy.
Helen: In 1699 Merian travelled to Dutch Surinam (a plantation colony in South America) to study and record the tropical insects – an extraordinary adventure for a seventeenth century woman! It was thrilling to turn the pages of this majestic work. The coloured illustrations are so gloriously vivid they jump off the page.
Few images of the New World were printed before 1700 so Merian’s work was pivotal in influencing a range of naturalists and other illustrators. Her meticulous observations and documentation of the metamorphosis of the butterfly are a spectacle to behold. No wonder she’s considered one of the most significant contributors to the field of entomology.
In my imagination, the illustrated lifecycles of egg-laying parasitic creatures seem to equate with voracious European colonists, as did the bird-eating spiders.
The image to the right depicts Maria Sybilla Merian working in the field. I have zoomed in with one of my Magnifiers on the small figure in the red dress in the middle distance who must surely be her.
The image is from the frontispiece (an illustration that faces the title page inside a book) of the first edition from the Cottonian Collection. In the image Merian is holding a butterfly net and there are some sketchy lines nearby that must denote butterflies. You can see her hand is outstretched so she is definitely coaxing them in!
I love that she features so minutely and in such a discreet way (almost insect-like herself) and seems a bit hidden in such an extravagant composition. If you look closely you can see that the two male figures on the right appear to be looking at her in a rather bemused and condescending fashion!
Terah: Uggeri’s engraving and Merian’s frontispiece illustration show the typical artist-explorer of the 18th century that Cook aimed to take with him on his voyages. With Helen’s Rooted Goggles and Magnifiers, she engages in and critically examines the long history of artists representing the act of observation.
Read Helen’s first blog post originally published in May 2018 here.
Follow her ‘Neogeographies’ project on Instagram here.