The Lady Botanist – Erica Seccombe

From top:
Erica Seccombe, A spider sewed at night, 2017, screen print, Ed. 4. image 55 x 55, paper, 76 x 56 cm, data courtesy ANU Department of Applied Mathematics
Erica Seccombe, Two souls entwined, 2017, screen print, Ed. 7. image 55 x 55, paper, 76 x 56 cm, data courtesy Natural History Museum, London
 Erica Seccombe, Residence within, 2017, Photogravure (etching), ed 10. image 25 x 25 cm on Rives BFK, data courtesy Natural History Museum, London

Patsy Payne reflects on the work of Erica Seccombe, whose exhibition of screenprints and etchings, The Lady Botanist, was recently shown at Megalo Print Studio & Gallery in Canberra.

Erica Seccombe is a storyteller. She unveils mysteries and shows us intriguing forms revealed beneath the skin of things, dragged from the recesses of our memory, perhaps imagined on a dark night. Monsters, hybrids and beasts emerge from the scientific laboratories and virtual spaces in which Seccombe works. She has embarked on a particular project at the Natural History Museum in London. Here she has created new stories to make sense about the history of collecting, microscopy and the scientific pursuit of truth.

The specimens are discovered deep within the museum archives. Their forms are subjected to x-ray beams and image-making procedures which penetrate their skin, flay them, expose them, create vast screeds of numbers that represent them. Then they creep out from time spent in the windowless climate-controlled rooms which contain the technology powerful enough to render them in three and four dimensions.

They finally emerge from the dark room where the voluminous visualisations have gone through another transformation from three dimensions to two. They have been beaten and flattened into submission in order to be re-imagined. Here they are, now pinned to the wall with a mist of memory trailing behind, evoking their journey through the rooms described. The narrative they reveal is one of hidden knowledge, occasional moments of illumination and the wonder of being glimpsed and understood; and then, perhaps, the sadness of being put away.

These forms have a long journey from the collecting jars and equipment of Victorian lady botanists on the coast of England, or the flower hunters of the jungle in Papua New Guinea or daughter-assistants in remote laboratories of America in the nineteenth century. The specimens collected and observed so carefully became part of the amazing museums of Europe and America. They were added to a body of knowledge based on the systematisation enabled by the relentless and vast program of collecting intriguing and wonderful objects from the natural world. Their own story was subsumed and became part of the mythology of science.

As botany transitioned from an elite pastime to a professional science in the second half of the nineteenth century, the field became increasingly specialised. While a small number of women achieved respected positions in botany through academic study at institutions of higher learning, this avenue remained unavailable to most. Despite the barriers women encountered in seeking a career in the botanical sciences, some women managed to use alternative means, such as illustration, to break into the profession. As in the biological sciences, illustration was a crucial component to the study of botany. Moreover, illustration and botany both existed in a liminal space more accessible to women: illustration was not considered fine art, and botany was considered as being among the most rigorous of the hard sciences.

Baron Ferdinand von Mueller is one of the foremost figures in science in nineteenth century Australia. He was appointed government botanist by Governor Latrobe in 1853 and was appointed the first director of the Melbourne’s Royal Botanic Gardens. He published more than 800 papers and major works on Australian botany, he collected and identified, presented lectures and presided over committees. He also supervised many women collectors and illustrators such as Euphemia Henderson, Harriet and Helena Scott, Ellis Rowan and Marie Wehl. With Mueller’s support these women engaged in the meticulous work of collecting and identifying specimens then produced the most beautiful illustrations of newly identified and described species in Australian botany.

In 1870, Mueller wrote to The Perth Inquirer’s editor asking to, “call the ladies’ attention through your widely circulated journal to the very interesting employment of preserving flowers and seaweed. Those who are at all disposed to amuse themselves at their leisure will find the best time for collecting seaweed is to take a walk on the beach during the winter months.”[1] Dr Mueller’s believed that any such contributions would “tend to augment the material”[2] for the work in which he was engaged. This often unspoken history is part of what has inspired Seccombe to work in the way she has.

Confabulations is a collection of essays by John Berger that has made me think about the nature of confabulation in relation to this work. It is both conversation and discussion, but there is another meaning which is the replacement of a gap in a person’s memory by a falsification that he or she believes to be true. Seccombe’s pictures are both based on truth (data) and a fiction. They have become windows into other worlds. Are they botanical or biological forms that hover on the edge of vision, glimpses from our unconscious – or simply the practical structures revealed by sophisticated imaging procedures? What a wonderful trick for an artist to play and what an interesting way to remind people of the value of archives and repositories which house objects separated from their original context which can take us on fictional and fascinating journeys as we reimagine the past of the world.

The art of these works is in teasing us to visit our own imagination, to make up our own meaning out of stories that come to mind as we stand and contemplate. These pictures work in reverse to this process of filling a gap in memory. They are based on truth but we believe them to be imagined. John Baldessari, whose conceptual practice is concerned with the imperfect nature of communication and individual knowledge, stated, “everyone knows a different world and only part of it. We communicate only by chance, as nobody knows the whole, only where overlapping takes place.”[3] He elucidates the very reason we tell stories, why we are constantly drawn to images and forms collected from nature and why we share them. Why not make pictures and see if it’s possible to reveal the way you we make meaning, make sense of existence, understand your infinitesimally small moment of relevance in the vast aeons of time in the universe?

[1] Olsen, Penny, Collecting Ladies: Ferdinand von Mueller and Women Botanical Artists, National Library of Australia, 2013, p.10.

[2]  ibid., p.10

[3] van Bruggen, Coosje, John Baldessari, New York, 1990, p.11.

Patsy Payne is Emeritus Fellow in Printmaking & Drawing at the ANU School of Art & Design.