Monthly Archives: February 2013

Amy Cutler (Ph.D. candidate) is co-curating a public event at Parasol Unit contemporary art gallery on forests, literature, and historical geography.

Write off the map

intercapillary forests poster


I am very excited to be co-curating, with Edmund Hardy, the next event in the Intercapillary Places modern poetry series at the Parasol Unit.



‘Sometimes I think we all need a little / forest glossary’, Jeff Hilson writes on the first page of In the Assarts (2010). This evening will focus on the ‘glossing’ of forest space in new poetry, pairing a reading by poet and academic Hilson (University of Roehampton) with a talk by geographer John Langton (University of Oxford).

Hilson’s playful poems riff on medieval histories and forest law, creating a modern ‘lingo’ of the forest as well as revisiting previous literary excursions, from Thomas Wyatt to the Sheriff of Nottingham. Langton will speak on the realm of the forest in thought and culture from early-modern times, drawing from his multi-disciplinary survey, Forests and Chases of England and Wales c…

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Engaging with botany at the Natural History Museum


The Botany Gallery at the NHM c. 1923By permission of the Trustees of The Natural History Museum

The Botany Gallery at the NHM c. 1923
By permission of the Trustees of The Natural History Museum

One month into my AHRC post-doctoral Cultural Engagement post and I’ve been trying to get to grips with the botany collections at the Natural History Museum. One of the project’s aims is to look for areas of shared history between the collections at Kew and the NHM, one element of which is display. At South Kensington the last dedicated botanical displays were in existence from 1881 to 1940 when the Botany Gallery was bombed during the Blitz, and from 1962 to 1982, when it was replaced by the British Natural History Gallery (closed 2003). Since the last of the Kew museums closed in 1987, it is some time since botany has been extensively represented in London’s museums.

Bomb damage incurred in 1940By permission of the Trustees of the Natural History Museum

Bomb damage incurred in 1940
By permission of the Trustees of the Natural History Museum

However the Museum’s historical records are enabling me to better understand how botany was constituted as a museum subject in the nineteenth and twentieth century.

One medium that both museums made use of was models of plants. If you rely on dried leaves, seeds, and other plant parts, botany displays can start to look awfully ‘brown’, and give little idea of the living plant. Consequently illustrations and models formed a key feature of such displays.

One of the best documented collections of botanical models at the NHM is the collection of fungi models created by naturalist James Sowerby over the period 1796 to 1815, whilst he was writing and illustrating his book English Fungi. His aim was philanthropic as much as it was scientific: to provide models of poisonous and edible species, to educate the public, and ‘prevent, as far as possible, future mistakes’. There had been a series of well-publicised self-poisonings prior to this, hence Sowerby’s concern. At his house in Lambeth he had had a special room built as a sort of museum where the models were displayed and where the public could visit ‘every first and third Tuesday in each month, from Eleven until Three o ‘Clock’. In total he created 193 models and in 1844, after his death, they were purchased by the British Museum for £70.

Parasol Mushroom (Agaricus campestris Sowerb.)

Parasol Mushroom (Agaricus campestris Sowerb.)

Unfortunately the models were constructed of unfired pipe-clay which made them very brittle and vulnerable to damage. Furthermore whatever paints Sowerby had used had changed colour over time, to the extent that whites, yellows and blues had turned black, rendering them unsuitable for the purpose of species identification. The models were repainted in oils and remounted by mycologist Worthington G Smith and went on display in the new Natural History Department of the British Museum, as it was then known, in 1888.

In 1940, most of the models were destroyed when the Museum was bombed but about thirty survive, and are now in store.

I was lucky enough to have a look at them the other day, courtesy of Curator of Lichens, Dr. Holger Thüs. They are quite beautiful and take you back to a time when foraging and botanising were widespread popular pursuits. Holger explained that the wooden mounts were those added by Smith in the 1880s. Originally Sowerby had fixed the models on sanded blocks of wood or cork, surrounded by moss – an inaccurate representation of the habitat of underground species such as truffles. The names given on the base were Sowerby’s own. However, as botanical names changed over the nineteenth century, new labels were applied over the original ones. These, too, have been kept and stored with the models, and together they tell a story of the ever-changing nature of botanical classification and nomenclature.

Label for the Parasol Mushroom with revised 19th century name

Label for the Parasol Mushroom with revised 19th century name

There are more botanical models at the NHM, but they are dispersed across various collections and have been little researched since their disappearance from the public galleries. I hope to discover more of them as the project progresses.

Caroline Cornish is an AHRC research fellow at Royal Holloway and is currently conducting research across the botany collections of Kew Gardens and the Natural History Museum as part of a ‘cultural engagement’ project.


photo (89)

‘From the Sea to the Land Beyond’

Waves breaking on the shore appear in cinema from the pioneering kinetoscope nature documentary Rough Sea at Dover (1895) to last year’s documentary The Secret History of Waves (2012), and were a returning feature of this week’s Passengerfilms event. The screening combined archival coast footage with live music and discussion of film scoring and landscape.

The J. B. Holmes documentary The Way to the Sea (1936), a part collaboration with composer Benjamin Britten (score) and poet W. H. Auden (narrative), retold the story of the electrification of the London-Portsmouth line and the superimposing of the National Grid on the old Roman road to the sea. Starting in AD 286, it gave a rapid history of invasions and shipping, finishing with Auden’s eccentric address to this century’s leisure-seekers on the ‘last straight run to the rolling plain of ships and the path of the gull’. The text (‘we seek… the sea!’) is available in full online here.


‘Foes, they are’ – guess who? in ‘The Way to the Sea’

Dr. Julie Brown, reader in music at Royal Holloway, discussed the remaining evidence of the scores of the Royal Geographical Society expeditionary films to Mount Everest (kinematographer J. B. Noel’s 1923 and 1924 films). As well as presenting the guttural Tibetan music which inspired the movements, she traced the history of the films’ exhibition in Britain, including live performances by visiting Tibetan monks, and played samples of her own reconstructed ‘palimpsest’ score.


Julie Brown playing her reconstructed accompaniment to ‘The Epic of Everest’


‘Into a Fairyland of Ice’, Epic of Everest intertitle

Guitarist and viola-player Kieron Maguire then introduced ‘The Shanty of Living Cinema’, a collection of extracts from experimental coastal films with a live soundtrack by himself and Robert Parkinson (dulcimer) of The Cabinet of Living Cinema. His talk moved from the sea horizon to the fascination with sea creatures in surrealist cinema. The film ‘The Salmon Jumped Over the Sun’ (Guinane, 2009) uses a canoe to film the waves from a seagull’s perspective. Jason Eberts’ ‘Aqueous Duende’ (2010) injected billows of ink into water to revisit the underwater aesthetic of cinematic works like H. M. Lomas’s ‘Fathoms Deep Beneath the Sea’, Jean Painlevé’s ‘The Love Life of the Octopus’, and Jean Vigo’s ‘L’Atalante’. Finally, an extract from ‘At Land’ (1944), by high priestess of surrealist cinema Maya Deren, opened with images of waves breaking and descending back into the sea, as Maya emerged like an amphibian to climb driftwood. (This film is featured in a montage of cinematic waves on beaches here, alongside Peter Hutton’s film on shipping containerisation ‘At Sea’). The Cabinet of Living Cinema finished with an audio piece, Sound Journeys of Dorset, which recorded experiences of stone quarrying in the Dorset sea cliffs by rock climbers, wild gardeners, and shell collectors.


‘At Land’


‘From the Sea to the Land Beyond’

The feature film, Penny Woolcock’s ‘From the Sea to the Land Beyond’ (2012), was nearly dialogue-free, entirely composed of a hundred years of coastal footage from the BFI’s archives, in collaboration with the Brighton-based band British Sea Power, who composed the full score. Some of the original archival clips are also mapped out on the English, Scottish, Welsh, and Irish coastlines here (click the interactive map). The use of collective filmmaking of this kind allowed the film to range across the many periods and themes of the coast (which Auden appeals to in his commentary), from boat building to beauty pageants, dancing halls to military armaments, and shipping containerisation to endangered migratory birds. Amongst the inevitable romantic themes – the derelict wharf; the lone lighthouse – were montages studies of historical change: phone networks, railway lines, shipping forecasts, and the changing practice of sea rescue across time. Motifs ran throughout the evening’s screenings and talks:  the ebb of tourism, the rhythm of film scores, snatched footage of seagulls in flight, and, of course, the waves breaking on the sea shore, across the century of film.

'From the Sea to the Land Beyond'

‘From the Sea to the Land Beyond’

For further information on this event’s materials please see here; to be informed of future Passengerfilms events (which are monthly), subscribe to the Passengerfilms blog, or follow them on Twitter (@PASSENGERFILMS) or Facebook.

P.S. Coincidentally, sound artists Mark Fisher and Justin Barton’s audio-essay on the Suffolk coastline, On Vanishing Land, combines digital music with coastal ghost stories, and will be screening until the end of March.

Short video on the personal meaning of apartheid to South African exile and anti-apartheid activist, Esau du Plessis

Chomping at the Bloodied Bit

In this brief video extract the former leader of Boycott Outspan Action communicates some personal meanings of apartheid:

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Amy Cutler (Ph.D. candidate) writes on the materials being screened and performed on Monday at Landscape Surgery’s PASSENGERFILMS event.

Write off the map


While I usually don’t post my own events here (the monthly academic screenings can be seen at the Passengerfilms blog), Monday’s event (7.30pm, 25th Feb, Roxy Bar & Screen) is explicitly coastal. The Cabinet of Living Cinema are performing a live cinema voyage “from Romantic poetry to avant-garde cinema to surf films, exploring our aesthetic relationship with seascape and coastline”. This will include excerpts from Maya Deren’s second experimental film, At Land, and also the live radio piece, Sound Journeys of Dorset, recorded amidst the quarries of Dorset’s man-made wilderness. The live scoring and live foley will be by Kieron Maguire (guitar, viola) and Robert Parkinson (dulcimer).



At Land, made partly in collaboration with John Cage, is a fifteen minute silent film in which Maya Deren is a creature washed up from the sea, crawling into cramped, claustrophobic society. The soundtrack will be…

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Amy Cutler (Ph.D. candidate) launches a new mailing list for scholars and researchers working on the culture of trees and forests.

Write off the map

On the basis of some correspondence with other researchers, I’ve started a JISCMail for forest research. Charles Watkins has observed, in European Woods and Forests: Studies in Cultural History (1998), that ‘the complexity of forest history has been disguised’ by its treatment within particular definitions and disciplines, and that broader work is needed on the cultural meanings of woods and forests. Sylvie Nail, in Forest Policies and Social Change in England (2008), observes that the rise of new academic disciplines such as landscape ecology and environmental psychology has added to the copious discourse around forests. This includes analysis of history, politics, aesthetics, cultural meanings, and social and economic power structures: ‘(m)ore often than not, however, such aspects are dealt with in isolation, cut off from one another’.

Many distinct groups exist which address such aspects of forest use – Forest Research stations such as Alice Holt, and research…

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Tim Cresswell discusses his forthcoming collection of poetry: Soil.


It is an important landmark when a cover appears for a new book that has only been an idea and files on a computer. The book takes another step towards objecthood. It is especially exciting when it is a new kind of book. My debut collection of poetry is coming out in the summer – with the ever inventive press Penned in the Margins. They have come up with a sensational cover based on a photograph by the ever-creative Bradley L Garrett. And a lovely, kind quote from TS Eliot award winning poet, Philip Gross.


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