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LEFT: Hard Fern (Blechnum spicant), P.12288-R
CENTRE: Sea Spleenwort (Asplenium marinum), P.12502-R
RIGHT: Black-leaved Spleenwort (Asplenium adiantum-nigrum), P.12489-R



The images of the Hard Fern (above left) and the Sea Spleenwort (above centre) are typical of the way Cecilia Glaisher often arranges stems in her compositions: more angular V-shapes in the Hard Fern, and curved over each other in the Sea Spleenwort to give a sense of movement to the fronds. Where the stems of ferns were too long to fit, they have been bent up, and sometimes back over themselves, as in the Black-leaved Spleenwort (above right), making a pattern of intersecting lines that resembles calligraphy.

In the series of photogenic drawings of the Holly Fern (below) it can be seen how she experimented with small variations to the arrangement of fronds to get the specimens and compositions looking exactly as she wanted.

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Holly Fern (Polystichum lonchitis), P.12367-R (left), P.12368-R (centre), P.12372-R (right)

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Holly Fern (Polystichum lonchitis), P.12373-R (left), P.12369-R (centre), P.12374-R (right)


At first glance the two images below appear to show different specimens of the same species, but when you look more closely you can see that they are in fact not individual plants. Cecilia Glaisher has composed each of them from the same fronds.

In the picture on the left, the white object lying horizontally at the bottom of the negative is the thicker part of the root system - the same object that has been placed vertically in the picture on the right.

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Limestone Oak Fern (Gymnocarpium robertianum), P.12346-R Limestone Oak Fern (Gymnocarpium robertianum), P.12343-R

Looking closely at the fronds shows that the same three have been used in both images, but arranged in different ways. The lower frond in each image is the same, the one in the picture on the left with a curved stem placed sideways, the one at right with a V-shaped stem placed upright. The tallest frond in the picture on the left is also the tallest in the image on the right, but has been placed in reverse (flipped left to right) on the paper.

In both images, starting from the root systems, you can see how the fern stems have been arranged to emerge in different ways; and how the stems are in fact made up from pieces - like making figures out of matchsticks.

In a letter to Edward Newman, George Maw, who was a subscriber to the complete series of The British Ferns and had lent some specimens for the project, wrote that he was fully prepared to hear that his specimens had been "mutilated in order to make them useful to the Photographic Process & can only say how truly glad I am that Mrs Glaisher has been able to make use of them for her beautiful publication - & when they are quite done with I shall replace them "disjecta membra" [in disjointed parts] in my herbarium with additional interest."


Some of the difficulties Cecilia Glaisher experienced in getting the thicker parts of ferns to render accurately by the photogenic drawing process can be seen in this sequence showing Bory's Spleenwort. When arranging fern parts of different thicknesses it was not possible to get all the elements to lie flat and in direct contact with the paper, even when placed under glass, so not all of the specimen would register clearly.

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Bory's Spleenwort (Asplenium onopteris), P.12492-R (left); P.12493-R (centre), P.12494-R (right)

On the photogenic drawing at right above, red has been added at the top left corner and down the edge of the paper to block light from passing through, thereby creating more white space around the tips of the fronds in any subsequent positive prints. Also, in this image and the one at centre, retouching has been carried out along the sides of some stems to make their lines print more cleanly.

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Bory's Spleenwort (Asplenium onopteris), P.12496-R (left); P.12497-R (centre), P.12498-R (right)

Another problem was that light could not pass through the more solid parts of the root system, leaving the paper underneath unexposed and white as in the images above. To overcome this, it was necessary for her to draw or paint in details to these areas, as seen in the slight variations and close-up (below).

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Bory's Spleenwort (Asplenium onopteris)
P.12497-R (detail)

A resulting negative and positive pair shows a root system with apparently realistic detail, even if it appears slightly 'un-photographic' when looked at closely.

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Bory's Spleenwort (Asplenium onopteris), photogenic drawing (left) P.12498-R, salted paper print (right) P.12499-R

All this attention to detail and experimenting with small variations show how painstaking Cecilia Glaisher was in her attempts to get the compositions of her images and the information they conveyed as realistic and precise as possible. From preparing the photogenic drawing paper to arriving at a finished print with which she was satisfied would have been a laborious and skilful process.

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The Fitzwilliam Museum : Ferns

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