Oh! Call us not weeds, but flowers
of the sea,
For lovely, and gay and bright-
tinted are we!
Our blush is as deep as the rose
of thy bowers –
Then call us not weeds, we are
Ocean’s gay flowers.
from Mary Matilda Howard’s, “Ocean flowers and their teachings” (1846)
Pink and green feathery branches and floating tendrils spin from a central arrangement of coral, periwinkle and seaweed to form the central motif of William Kilburn’s classic textile designs for frocks of the 18th century. Weaving organic forms of foliage, flowers and roots his courtly compositions presaged the naturalistic designs of William Morris by a century, but are oddly familiar to those of us who delight in early Laura Ashley and Cath Kidston.
Kilburn (1745-1818), born in Dublin, worked as a botanical illustrator for William Curtis on the Flora Londiniensis, his adherence to authenticity rooted in the new science of botany just at the moment when Linnaeus was devising his monumental classification system. Kilburn later started his own printing company creating fabrics that captured the growing fascination for natural history and craze for gathering and collecting seaweeds. In fact more than twenty of his textile designs in the V&A’s archives have British seaweeds at the centre of his compositions.
A generation later, Anna Atkins (1799 – 1871), a trained botanist, explored the use of photography to create her exquisite cyanotype photogenic ‘drawings’ of seaweeds, using a cameraless technique introduced to her by William Henry Fox Talbot and Sir John Herschel. She published three volumes Photographs of British Algae starting in 1843 and completing the set in 1853, leading the way for photography in scientific illustration. She was one of several well-known Victorian women seaweed collectors, together with Amelia Griffiths (1768-1858) and Margaret Gatty (1809-1873) – whose work is still treasured in the collection of the University of St Andrews.
In 1941 Henri Matisse (born 1869) started his “vie seconde” and his celebrated artistic period of painting with scissors – cutting freeform shapes of colourful painted paper into organic shapes and composing rhythmic improvisations. He was “taking a closed space of reduced proportions and, through a play of light and colours alone, conferring infinite dimensions on it”. In 1947 he began the design for the beautiful stained glass window of La Chapelle du Rosaire in Vence, based on motifs of seaweed and coral In this vibrant late period of his life he created over 20 collages, many now on view in the masterful show at the Tate Modern.
More recently, Julia Lohmann, a German designer became head of the Department of Seaweed at the V&A, exploring new techniques of crafting objects from kelps. Her stunning pieces are both art and product design, from huge installations to elegant benches and lamp shades.
Lastly, I recently visited the stunning stained glass show ‘Beyond the Object’, by Dale Chihuly (American, 1941), at the Halcyon Gallery on New Bond Street. The light and shadow effects are mesmerising, a dreamlike sensation of floating beneath stilled chromatic waves of organic forms diffusing the colour and light of a electric rockpool.