In 1853 Cecilia Louisa Glaisher (1828-1892) was twenty-five years old. She had been married for ten years to James Glaisher (1809-1903), had had two children, Cecilia Appelina (1845-1932) and James Whitbread Lee (1848-1928), and was living in Blackheath, Kent, where her husband was Superintendent of the Meteorological and Magnetic Department at The Royal Observatory, Greenwich. All the work shown in this exhibition appears to have been made between approximately 1853 and 1858, when she gave birth to her third child, Ernest Henry (1858-1885).

Her father, John Henry Belville (1795-1856), also worked at the Greenwich Observatory, so she was brought up in a world where observing and precisely recording natural phenomena was a way of life. Her work can be seen in the context of a more general preoccupation at the time with collecting, describing, and classifying works of nature in order to gain insights into and understanding of the natural world.

In 1841, aged thirteen, she started painting lessons. As seen in the accompanying exhibition, she became skilled in the use of many different media. It is likely that she learnt about photography from her husband, and through contact with other practitioners during visits to Hartwell House in Buckinghamshire, the home of Dr John Lee (1783-1866), one of the great patrons of science and learning at the time. The British Meteorological Society was founded at Hartwell House in 1850.

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Hartwell House and Observatory. From Ædes Hartwellianæ, Plate IV.

In the late 1840s and 1850s Cecilia and James Glaisher made frequent visits with their children to Hartwell, where they formed part of a constantly changing mix of astronomers, clergymen, professional and 'hobby' scientists, antiquarians, social reformers, and radical thinkers who gravitated around Dr Lee and his home. The resulting intermingling of ideas and exchanges of information bridged worlds, especially for Cecilia Glaisher, whose work was seen and discussed by established professional men who would otherwise have been inaccessible to her.

In the mid-1850s her fern photographs, and photographic copies of her snow crystal drawings were displayed at learned society meetings and scientific conversazione.

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A scientific conversazione on microscopy held at Apothecaries' Hall on April 11th, 1855, where photographic copies of Cecilia Glaisher's illustrations of snow crystal forms were displayed. From The Illustrated London News, April 28th, 1855.

Like many women at the time, her observational and artistic skills would have been useful to her husband, and possibly to other scientists with whom the Glaishers mixed. However, while actively participating in acquiring scientific knowledge, whether by actual research or by carefully recording, classifying, or illustrating specimens, women in mid-Victorian Britain were not admitted as members to the majority of learned societies where such research was discussed. Although acknowledged publicly for her artistic contribution, the initial observations and subsequent scientific analysis were always presented as her husband's.

Among the many learned societies to which James Glaisher belonged was the Microscopical Society, of which he was President in 1865-8. He was also a member of the Photographic Society, becoming its longest serving President, holding office in 1869-1874 and 1875-1892. His involvement with these societies may help to explain the discrepancies which arose in descriptions of the snow crystal illustrations, which were often assumed to be photographs, and made by him.

It would appear that the majority of Cecilia Glaisher's creative work - except that which went to New Zealand where her daughter Cecilia Appelina emigrated with her husband, Dr F. E. Hunt (1840-1900) - remained first with James Glaisher, then with the Glaishers' eldest son, James Whitbread Lee, coming to the Fitzwilliam Museum following his death in 1928.

The Fitzwilliam Museum : Background

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