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Sunday, 21 March 2021

Gem Toes-Crichton: The Hidden Histories of Women in Botany


     Quinoa by Gem Toes-Crichton

I love Interstices, the handmade book Gem Toes-Crichton made on herbaria, illustration and the hidden histories of women in botany (the images in this post are all from this book. 

It's work where there is an interplay between the scientific, the artistic, the academic, and the photographic - and interplay which hints at the worlds which photography can inhabit in some way.  I photograph a lot of plants and gardens and this work takes me into  directions which even really beautiful exhibitions like the Botanical Mind, don't really go into)

You can read more about the work here, and Gem is speaking this Wednesday 24th March as part of RPS series of lectures I am introducing. Go here for more details. 


  • What is interesting about plants?

What isn’t? :) 

Plants are critical to maintaining life on earth, forming a fundamental part of our lives throughout history. Plant ecologist Robin Wall Kimmerer writes about plants acting as teachers, explaining that in some native languages the term for plants translates to “those who take care of us” which make a great deal of sense.

With respect to botanical art, writer and art historian Wilfred Blunt writes: “The greatest flower artists have been those who have found beauty in truth; who have understood plants scientifically, but who have yet seen and described them with the eye and hand of the artist.” 

During my masters I realised why I was so drawn to photographing plants. I was doing so in order to understand them better, which is also a fundamental part of accurate botanical illustration. It is extremely important to understand plant morphology and anatomy in order to interpret and produce accurate representations of each plant species. I soon realised that I wanted to understand them at more than a surface level.

I find plants endlessly fascinating on a number of levels, but I'm conscious that this isn’t a universal view. 

Plant Blindness is something I am particularly interested in and it's becoming more of an issue over time as this knowledge isn’t passed on or handed down as it once was. The term Plant Blindness was coined by botanists James Wandersee and Elisabeth Schussler in 1998, and is broadly defined as “the inability to see or notice the plants in one's own environment, leading to the inability to recognize the importance of plants in the biosphere and in human affairs.” Plant blindness also comprises an “inability to appreciate the aesthetic and unique biological features” of plants and “the misguided, anthropocentric ranking of plants as inferior to animals, leading to the erroneous conclusion that they are unworthy of human consideration.” 

This concept of Plant Blindness led to the creation of ‘Quarantine Herbarium’ - a collaborative and participatory botanical photography project led by me, William Arnold and John A. Blythe.

The project seeks to alleviate symptoms of Plant Blindness through a hyperlocal focus on flora while salving the monotony of lockdown through engagement with the accessible historical photo method of cyanotype sun-prints.

I think ultimately plants teach us about important lessons around the unpredictability of life. Plants adapt and survive, teaching us hope and resilience in the face of adversity. 

  • When did you get interested in women in botany and why?

I began working at the Department of Plant Sciences at the University of Oxford almost a decade ago, supporting research, teaching, communication and outreach activities. I still have vivid memories of my first tour of the Herbaria with Herbarium Manager, Serena Marner. I remember being introduced to the botanical illustrations of artist Rosemary Wise. They were like nothing I had seen before, and I was amazed to learn that she had illustrated over 14,000 species in her career spanning 55 years! 

I began my masters degree in photography at Falmouth University in January 2018. I’d already been working with plant scientists, photographing plants, events and outreach to communicate the research taking place which acted as an important starting point. I had just six months to design, produce and deliver my final major project, and was granted access to explore the collections within the Oxford University Herbaria where I work. 

The aim of the project was to research and explore botanical illustrations, specimens and objects, highlighting some of the key methods used to depict and record plants since the seventeenth century, focussing specifically on the important contributions made to date by women in the field of botany.

The decision to focus solely on the contributions of women was due in part influenced by the vast size of the collections, but also after reading a research paper entitled: “Fewer than three percent of land plant species named by women: Author gender over 260 years”. The paper discusses women's contributions to science and how this has developed over multiple generations.

  • Who are the contemporary practitioners of botanical illustration? How do they make their work?

This is a brilliant question, which I think would take too long to answer, but there is an excellent website which focuses on Botanical Art and Illustration which shares links to a number of contemporary practitioners from around the world with examples of their work (including Rosemary Wise): https://www.botanicalartandartists.com/artists.html

That said, I feel I should mention the digital botanical images created by Niki Simpson who creates composite images influenced by the long standing tradition of botanical art.

Simpson describes her intentions as: "Highly informative scientific images can convey complex botanical information to the viewer in a way that is easily accessible, regardless of language, age or level of interest. My underlying interest is in using the power of images to raise awareness of and communicate information about plants."

  • What are the key elements of illustration that photography might not have?

Another great question!

Rosemary Wise created a guide to drawing plants and botanical illustration which contains a quote I return to again and again, which is as follows: 

“The camera sees and records all, but in botanical illustration all is often too much. Selectivity is the name of the game.” 

There is of course the argument that the camera does not see anything at all, instead it is the role of the photographer to choose what to photograph and to show inside of the frame. Which reminds me of the following quote by botanist and curator Prof Stephen A. Harris:

“The fundamental factor in scientific quality of a botanical illustration is not the medium the artist chooses to use or the technology used for its representation, but the artist's understanding of plant morphology (Harris, S.A.)

Learning to draw or use a camera involves an understanding of some of the same fundamental concepts, such as careful observation, interpretation, composition, translation etc, but clearly they are separate mediums doing different things. 

There are of course botanic illustrators who approach their work in a photographic style, such as Marianne North, and there are photographers working in a very illustrative way, such as Niki Simpson.

I’d say visual literacy is key here, or to be more specific, botanical and scientific literacy. But I would certainly be interested to hear what others think about this question.

  • You work in a herbarium – first of all what is a herbarium, and how has having one as a workplace influenced your research and work?

Herbaria are, in essence, preserved plant collections. The OED definition is: “A collection of dried plants systematically arranged; a hortus siccus*. Also, a book or case contrived for keeping such a collection; the room or building in which it is kept.” 

*Hortus Siccus is “An arranged collection of dried plants; a herbarium.” In Latin it means ‘dry garden’.

I work in the Department of Plant Sciences, at the University of Oxford and the Oxford University Herbaria forms an important part of the department, with three principal collections:

  • Fielding-Druce Herbarium: worldwide collection, including all pre-1796 and British holdings. 

  • Daubeny Herbarium: former herbarium of the forestry department and particularly strong in African woody species. 

  • Xylarium: wood block and microscope slide collection.

Being surrounded by such talented scientists researching across biology is such a privilege. Their passion and drive for science and discovery is infectious, causing me to ask questions and want to learn more. This teamed with access to the Herbaria collections which comprise of circa one million specimens has only heightened my curiosity. 

In science it is widely accepted that experiments can and do fail, but that this is an integral part of the process. I think this way of thinking (and working) has had a huge influence on me in terms of making work. I’d go as far as saying that the process of making work is as important as the final result to me.

  • Your artist’s book, Interstices: Hidden Histories of Women in Botany, is a supremely physical thing. What role do papers and the material play in its construction? And how did you decide on and source the materials used in the book? 

Spending time in the Herbaria with the curator caused me to question everything. I began by interviewing him, discussing my interests and trying to define my research question and ultimately the work I made at that time. Through examining the collections I became fascinated not only with the objects, but also the everyday materials and ephemera used to catalogue and preserve them.

I wanted to understand why and how certain materials were being used and reflect and translate this understanding through the construction and sequencing within the book. Almost every part of the book has been made using herbarium materials and methods used for preservation. (Although I imagine that conservators would not approve of mounted specimens being sewn into a book as this definitely doesn’t align with the correct procedures for careful handling of objects and their preservation!)

I particularly enjoyed learning about the methods used in making dried plant specimens and creating folded plant fragment and dissection packets used to secure loose plant matter and seeds. (Much to the amusement of herbaria staff!) 

I became increasingly interested in materiality, spending the day at the London Centre for Book Arts learning to construct and sew an exposed spine bound book to present the project. I decided to harness the herbarium materials as a method of sharing my experience with the viewer. I wanted to emulate the experience of working in an herbarium, handling plant specimens, photographs, archival collections, books and other objects.

  • There is a sensory quality to your work. What senses are invoked and is this something that comes from botany, from illustrators, or from the archival?

Thank you for saying that. This is a tricky question for me to answer properly, but I would say that I find the botany, illustration and the archival all to be distinctly sensory subjects. When entering a Herbarium for the first time I was struck by the heady smell. It’s like a mixture of old books, wood cabinets and plant preservation chemicals, which all feeds into the experience of physically being there. I really want whoever views my book to get a sense of that, which is another reason I decided to show the book and prints within the Oxford University Herbaria itself. I wanted to share what I had experienced during my time working with the collections.

  • How does the archival influence your work?

Spending time in archival collections is fascinating, but it is also extremely time consuming and can be difficult in terms of locating, handling and translation. But it is also rewarding, providing insights into the past and opening up conversations about the present and the future. 

For me, exploring the historical collections allowed me to work with a range of sources, including;  plant specimens, letters, telegraphs, books, illustrations and paintings. Engaging with such a wide range of materials and objects opened up a number of discussions and provided insight into the lives, work, challenges and accomplishments of a range of women in botany.

This period of time spent undertaking practical research in the archives clearly had an impact on the work I created. It also heavily influenced my approach to image making, book layouts and sequencing.

  • You cut across the botanical, the artistic, the photographic, the historical, and the handmade artist’s book. How do you balance these different elements?

In this instance I was highly influenced by what I had seen and experienced, so wanted to combine my learning across the history of photography, the archives and botanical art and science. (It wasn’t easy!)

The aim was for the book to be a very physical and tactile representation of what I had found interesting as I wanted to share that experience with others. In hindsight though, I wonder whether a scaled back version would perhaps allow me to bring this work to a wider audience.

  • This is a uniquely made book – are there any plans for either a small handmade edition, or a trade edition?

This is a difficult question to answer, but never say never! The book can’t easily be replicated due to the unique unfixed prints and historical materials used to construct it. However, a scaled back or limited version is possible, and is something I have been exploring.

  • A lot of people work with flora in photography. How can one make interesting work with photography in an area that has been and is so photographed?

I suspect this depends on what is considered to be interesting. I tend to find the most interesting work tends to be underpinned by research and made through experimentation, but of course that's all subjective and personal.

I think we often try purely to seek out the new or novel, and that can be difficult to do with flora (and with photography more broadly). My practice certainly shifted when I began to collaborate with others, and in particular, with scientists. Interdisciplinary collaborations caused important shifts in my perspective, causing me to ask new questions and look at subjects in different ways which in turn changed my ways of working.

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