Trinity College has seen many notable botanists pass through its doors, perhaps most famously John Ray and Francis Willughby, whose magnificent busts by Roubiliac adorn the entrance to the Wren Library. A small exhibition running until 4 July 2018 celebrates the botanical paintings of Clarence Bicknell, a student at Trinity in the 1860s who spent most of his working life in the Italian Riviera, where he died 100 years ago on 17 July 1918.
After graduating from Trinity, Clarence Bicknell followed a familiar path into the church, serving as a curate first in Newington, Surrey then Stoke-on-Tern in Shropshire, where he joined the Brotherhood of the Holy Spirit. This semi-monastic community was founded by another Trinity man, Rowland Corbet, a leading light of the Oxford Movement whose beliefs were contrary to those of the Unitarianism of Clarence’s father. In 1878, perhaps inspired by Corbet’s own visits to the Italian Riviera, Bicknell accepted a one year appointment as deacon of the Anglican church in Bordighera.
Clarence came from an artistic family: his father Elhanan Bicknell, whale oil magnate and art patron, collected works of art by renowned British artists such as Turner, Gainsborough and Landseer, while his mother, Lucinda Browne, was the aunt of Phiz, the illustrator of Charles Dickens’s books. In 1878 Clarence gave up his role in the church to concentrate on botany. He developed considerable skill as a botanical artist: within five years he had painted over 1,100 botanical watercolours and had published Flowering Plants and Ferns of the Riviera. He donated over 3,300 of his botanical plates to Genoa University and another 1,100 are in other museums and collections. Clarence was a driving force in a network of many of the leading botanists of the day such as Emile Burnat in Switzerland, Augusto Béguinot in Genoa and Harold Stuart Thompson in the UK, with whom he exchanged samples and correspondence.
Clarence started going up into the Maritime Alps behind Bordighera in the 1890s to extend his botanical research from coastal specimens, and also perhaps to escape from the stifling atmosphere of the summer heat and the vie mondaine of the summer visitors on the coast. From 1897 onwards he became more and more absorbed by the study of the prehistoric rock engravings that he had been told existed in the Mont Bégo area, now in the Parc du Mercantour, a French national Park about an hour’s drive north of Nice. He and his helper Luigi Pollini discovered, logged and made rubbings of 11,000 rock engravings and published in 1902 The Prehistoric Rock Engravings in the Italian Maritime Alps.
Clarence’s artistic talents flourished when he could let his creative and design skills come to the fore, when he was not restricted by doing meticulous botanical and archaeological recording. This manifested itself in the creation of hand-painted vellum-bound albums that he did for friends and relations. His niece Margaret Berry gave him a blank album every year which he then returned to her completed. The albums represent the height of Clarence’s artistic talent with a delightful blend of Victorian whimsy and design skill, clearly influenced by the Arts and Crafts Movement. At least fourteen are known to exist, seven of which were donated to the Fitzwilliam Museum in 1980 and two of which are on display in the Wren Library.
A Children’s Picture Book of Wild Plants is carefully designed and colour-coordinated, with four plants illustrated on the right often with a frame, and on the left a description of each plant. Clarence, in this and many of the albums, delighted in taking the colours and details of flowers as motifs for the frame and for decorative capital letters.
The Book of Guests in Esperanto provides potted biographies of several of Clarence’s friends in Esperanto. His notes are on the left page with their initials illuminated and a flower in a matching border on the right. Clarence was a great believer in the universal language Esperanto and felt it could be a formula for world peace. He attended international congresses, taught it to friends and wrote poems and hymns. There are pages ranging from eminent botanists and archaeologists to three dogs in the family. This page is for his nephew Arthur Berry, lecturer in mathematics at Cambridge and sometime Vice-Provost of King’s College.
The Casa Fontanalba Visitors’ Book was created for Bicknell’s home in the mountains, the Casa Fontanalba, which he built in 1906, adorning it with frescoes of mountain scenes, wild flowers, friezes, initials of visitors and proverbs in Esperanto. The visitors’ book has a wild flower in an arts-and-crafts border on the right and signatures of about 250 visitors, including famous archaeologists, botanists, writers, Esperantists, soldiers and politicians.
A new film about Clarence Bicknell is available here
See more of Clarence Bicknell’s paintings in the exhibition ‘Floral Fantasies’ at the Fitzwilliam Museum until 9 September 2018
Marvels: The Life of Clarence Bicknell by Valerie Lester, a new biography, is published in June 2018. For more information see www.clarencebicknell.com.