Secular icons?


I’ve got two pictures on display as part of an exhibition at Durham University Botanic Gardens, both showing abstract or semi-abstract views of algae.  One is my sextych of the alga Apatococcus(see “Little round green things …”) and the other is a triptych based on Haematococcus, an alga which I wrote about in “An encounter with a green alga that is red” back in 2013.   Both pictures were painted for my final degree show back in 2008 and both addressed questions about the boundaries between abstract and representational art.

The point that I was trying to make with these images is that the boundary between abstract and representational art depends partly on what the viewer knows about the subject matter and, in the case of algae, this is usually not very much.  In cases such as these, the legend becomes very important as a means of bridging the gap between abstraction and reality by providing just enough information to help viewers make sense of the content (see “How to win the Hilda Canter-Lund Prize (2)”).   In the case of microscopic images, this should always include some indication of scale, written in terms that non-biologists can easily understand (I would always write “1/100thof a millimetre”, rather than “10 micrometres”, for example).


Haematococcus. Triptych.   2008 50 x 130 cm Acrylic, resin and PVA on canvas.

This issue of viewers being able to “unlock” the meaning of images extends beyond the abstract/representational boundary that I encounter when displaying images of the microscopic world.  Exactly the same challenges occur when, for example, secular western Europeans look at eastern Orthodox icons, a subject that occasionally creeps into this blog (see, for example, “Unorthodox icons”.   My own curiosity about this art form led me to spend a week studying icon painting at the Quaker College in Woodbrooke, in the suburbs of Birmingham.  About ten minutes away from Woodbrooke there is the Serbian Orthodox church of St Lazar (built after the second world war by Yugoslav refugees with financial support from the Cadbury family, the Quaker philanthropists who also established Woodbrooke).

I talked a little about the practice of icon painting in “The art of icons …”.  Today, I am more interested in the symbolism.   A secular westerner can look at many of the icons I’ve depicted and broadly catagorise the contents: most would recognise that Fr Nenad, the priest of the Selly Oak Orthodox church, is holding an icon that depicts the crucifixion, for example, or that the icon just to the left of the centre of the doors in the iconostasis in the lower image depicts the Virgin and Child.  However, the symbolism goes much deeper.   I have a spotter’s guide to icons (sad, I know …) and it lists twenty eight different variants on the basic depiction virgin and child, differing in the physical relationship of Mary and Jesus, their facial expressions and the setting.  Each of these have a slightly different meaning for the Orthodox faithful.   The westerner sees “virgin” and “child”, the eastern Orthodox devotee sees so much more.


The Serbian Orthodox Church of the Holy Prince Lazar in Selly Oak, Birmingham with, right, Father Nenad displaying an icon of the crucifixion. 

What’s all this got to do with painting algae, you may ask.   Scientific illustratation and icon painting are two branches of applied art, where the subject matter serves a higher purpose.  Both, in their own way, try to help viewers understand their place in the world.  If you are not religious, you may not be comfortable with this comparison but, for most of Europe, east and west, until the Enlightenment, this would have been the case.   In both cases, however, the image cannot be viewed in isolation, the viewer needs the appropriate “keys” to unlock meaning.   Even then, the viewer is not a passive observer.   The icon requires a response from the viewer, it is the focus for contemplation and meditation and, I suggest, scientific images, when displayed as “art” should play a similar role, inviting viewers to reflect upon the mysteries of the natural world and demanding a response.


The iconostasis at the Serbian Orthodox Church in Selly Oak.


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.