Is this the first microscopic landscape painting?

A few years ago I read Kenneth Clark’s book Landscape into Art, written in 1949 but which is still an excellent introduction to the history of landscape painting.   There was a surprise for me in the final chapter, as Clark speculated about the future of landscape painting. He wrote:

“… the microscope and telescope have so greatly enlarged the range of our vision that the snug, sensible nature which we can see with our own eyes has ceased to satisfy our imaginations. We know that by our new standards of measurement the most extensive landscape is practically the same size as the whole through which the burrowing ant escapes from our sight. We know that every form we perceive is made up of smaller and yet smaller forms, each with a character foreign to our experience.”

The book includes a reproduction of a pastel painting by Henry Underhill, an amateur microscopist, painted in 1885. Clark comments that ‘anyone seeing it in the original is immediately reminded of Klee and early Miro’ before going on to say:

‘“But although these artists have refurnished their repertoire of forms from the laboratories, this does not by any means compensate for the loss of intimacy and love with which it was possible to contemplate the old anthropocentric nature. Love of creation cannot really extend to the microbe, nor to those spaces where the light which reaches our eyes has been travelling to meet us since before the beginning of man.”


Henry Underhill (1885) Marine Plankton. Pastel on paper. Dimensions unknown.

The reproduction is in black and white, but even without colour it is possible to recognise several of the organisms that Underhill has included.   My immediate reaction is that I cannot see many marine planktonic organisms in this picture; most of the algae he has depicted are freshwater benthos, several of which have appeared in my own work. In the top left corner, for example, there is a colony of the diatom Gomphonema whilst the desmid Closterium is visible in the top right quadrant (see “Back to the bog …” for my own attempt to depict Closterium). There are two filaments of cells; that on the left may represent Spirogyra; that on the right is harder to identify. The cell shape suggests the green alga Oedogonium or Bulbochaete but the cells at the top of the image appear to be conjugating, suggesting a representative of the Zygnemetales.   At the bottom of the image there are some long cells which could be the diatom Ulnaria ulna. The animal world is represented by a number of rotifers (see “Rotifers in the River Ehen“).

It is signed at the bottom left hand corner: “H.M.J.U . May 5th 1885”. Clark refers to Underhill as a “fellow worker in Professor Poulton’s laboratory” (possibly Sir Edward Bagnall Poulton FRS, 1856-1943) but there are also web-pages about Henry Michael John Underhill that describe him as a grocer and amateur antiquarian.   Other details about the picture, including size and location remain elusive – the credits in Clark’s book refer only to “private collection, Mansfield, Notts”.

I am intrigued by this picture as it is the earliest that I have seen in which there is an attempt to portray the microscopic world in something approaching a realistic manner. “Realistic” needs several caveats, but here it seems as if Underhill has gone beyond merely recording what he sees through his microscope to reconstructing what the community may have looked like before he scraped it up from the stream bed.   But the title, “marine plankton” for what is clearly a freshwater community (or perhaps, even, a composite built up from elements of several freshwater communities) suggests that this was not Underwood’s primary specialism. I am now extremely curious to find out more about Henry Underhill and, more especially, what other delights may be nestling in his archives.


Kenneth Clark (1949) Landscape Into Art. 148pp. John Murray, London. p140.

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