Sunday, December 9, 2012

Flowers of the Sea

"OH! call us not weeds, but flowers of sea,
For lovely, and gay, and bright tinted are we;
Our blush is as deep as the rose of thy bowers,
Then call us not weeds, we are Ocean's  gay flowers.

Not nurs'd like the plants of the summer partere,
Whose gales are but sighs of an evening air;
Our exquisite, fragile, and delicate forms,
Are nurs'd by the Ocean and rock'd by the storm."

Seaweeds, the "Flowers of the Sea", were frequently collected by Victorian ladies, for inclusion in an herbarium - not an easy task given the clothing of the day:

“…many difficulties are apt to arise; among the foremost of which must be mentioned the risk of cold and destruction of clothes. The best pair of boots will not stand salt water many days – and the sea-weed collector who has to pick her way to save her boots will never be a loving disciple as long as she lives. It is both wasteful, uncomfortable, and dangerous to attempt sea-weed hunting in delicate boots. As for the hardier hunters who have learned to walk boldly into a pool if they suspect there is anything worth having in the middle of it, they will oil their boots. Next to boots comes the question of petticoats; and if anything could excuse a woman for imitating the costume of a man, it would be what she suffers as a sea-weed collector from those necessary draperies! But to make the most of a bad matter, let woolen be in the ascendant as much as possible; and let the petticoats never come below the ankle.”  
   Margaret Gatty , British Sea-Weeds” 1865

Some collections were quite scientific; carefully labeled with date and location of collection, as well as the proper Latin name, if possible.

Other's focused on a more decorative presentation:

In my presentation, "Botanizing Women: The Growth of a Cultural Phenomenon", I spoke at length at the influence botany had on everyday life in the mid-19th century. This was even noted at the time, by Susan Fenimore Cooper:

“Look at the chair on which your friend is sitting, at the carpet beneath your feet, at the paper on the walls, at the curtains which shut out the wintry landscape, at the table near you, at the clock, the candlesticks, nay, the very fire-irons – or it may be the iron mouldings upon your stove – at the picture-frames, the book-case, the table-covers, the work-box, the inkstand, in short, all of the trifling knick-knacks in the room, and all these you may see, in bolder or fainter lines, a thousand proofs of the debt we owe to the vegetable world, not only for so many of the fabrics themselves, but also for the beautiful forms, and colors, and ornaments we seek to imitate. Branches and stems, leaves and tendrils, flowers and fruits, nuts and berries, are everywhere the models… the most durable and costly materials the earth holds in her bosom, stone and marble, gold, silver, and gems, have been made to assume, in a thousand imposing or graceful forms, the lines of the living vegetation. How many of the proudest works of art would be wanting, if there had been no grace and dignity in trees, no beauty in leaves and flowers!”

Here's a couple dress fabrics, which clearly show the influence of the seaweeds:

And a dinner plate, with a coral pattern:

I live surrounded by fresh water, not the ocean, and so was not able to attempt any collection/preparation of seaweeds for my presentation. Magazines and books of the period offered instruction on the proper techniques:

Peterson's Magazine July 1857

To Preserve Sea-Weeds and the proper season for collecting them.- Sea-weeds may be collected at any time, but summer is the most agreeable season for this interesting work. Put each specimen in a plate full of water, it will then be easy to spread out and arrange the branches or fibres. Then introduce a sheet of paper under the sea-weed and carefully raise it out of the water, the specimen will be beautifully displayed upon the paper, and when dry will be found attached to the paper by means of the gluten in the sea-weed.

This past fall, I finally had my opportunity, albeit, not under ideal conditions! 

We were in Gloucester, MA. to attend the opening of the International Society of Experimental Artists exhibit, as I had a piece accepted into the show - coincidentally, a water related creation!

It wasn't until the day before we were leaving that it occurred to me that I could try to press some seaweeds to add to the display that accompanies the presentation. Luckily, our room had a kitchenette, so after collecting some "Flowers of the Sea" and some watercolor paper to use as my mounts, I started trying to "float" the seaweed onto the paper - not as easy as it might sound! A quality mount should have each tiny little filament of each piece of seaweed separate and distinct from each other - no overlaps, no bends, no wrinkles - and while it wasn't too hard to achieve while in the water, lifting them out was a whole 'nother story. I, of course, didn't have a plant press with me, so we improvised; a nightstand, protected with a plastic bag and  turned upside down had to suffice.

The mounts were not even approaching dry when we left, so into the plastic bag and into my carry on they went; we didn't arrive home until several days later and they were starting to get a bit odoriferous. But I put them in the press ASAP and here are the results:

Perfect? No, but not too bad considering the circumstances! And, no lingering odor, either.

While I have some period examples to display, I'm really glad to have tried this experiment - hands on is always preferable to theory.

I first presented "Botanizing Women: The Growth of a Cultural Phenomenon", in 2008, at the Ladies & Gentlemen of the 1860's conference. It is, by far,.my favorite presentation that I've ever assembled and was very well received by the attendees. I've had one other opportunity to share it and would love to do so again , if you know of a group that might be interested, please do let me know!

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