Friday, February 26, 2010

Framing tiny things

Seed Magazine showcases some of the most beautiful things I've seen in a long time: Howard Lynk's collection of Antique Microscope Slides from the Victorian Era c. 1830s - 1890s.

In the early 1800s, as optical instruments like the microscope became more refined, there was a corresponding demand for things to look at and a commercial industry in prepared or mounted slides emerged. Not only did these slides gather and portray an astounding array of natural objects, but the actual mountings are beautifully crafted.

"Many of the slides...use a method of construction wherein the mounting slide (usually a 1" x 3" piece of glass or wood) is covered either wholly or in part with colourful gilt decorated lithographed papers. This practice of using paper covers originated as a necessary means to mechanically fasten the mica or thin glass covers that were placed over the specimens, to the main slide. However, the paper covers quickly became more of an expression of decoration and individual presentation than need, as the use of Canada Balsam and other mounting media became widespread. Much of the best early preparers work is immediately recognizable, as they each settled on standard paper colours and graphic designs, which became their trademark of sorts."

Individual craftsmen - and they do appear to have been men - became known by their particular styles, and slides often bore the name of both the mounter and the optician who sold the slides. I was quite taken by the arranged slides - where many small objects were placed to form designs or patterns. Some of this work was so delicate that it required the use of boar bristles or cat whiskers to manoeuver the tiny objects or pieces into place.

Diatoms (Ernst Thum)

Radiolarians (Amos Topping)


Diatoms, Butterfly Scales, and Spicules (Mounter Unknown)

"A variation on the 'Arranged Object' mounts, Exhibition slides [1st and 3rd above] were often considered to be the pinnacle of the commercial mounters art, considering the degree of difficulty in their preparation. Combining various objects, often many 100s (or 1000s!) of individual butterfly or insect scales, diatoms, spicules, etc.; each piece was individually selected and assembled to create pictures or complex geometric arrangements."
I was also really impressed to learn about microphotos, or those photographic images of "famous people, art works, buildings, geographic landmarks, etc." that are only visible through a microscope.

There's just something really astonishing about seeing the moon through a microscope; it messes with everything I understand about scale!

But I think that, most of all, I just love the attention to detail and the value placed on materiality. And I wonder: is there any contemporary or digital equivalent?

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Vegetable sheep

I'm doing some historial research right now on human-animal relations, especially those among sheep herders, their flocks and their dogs, and I've been completely charmed by New Zealand's vegetable sheep.

Not to be confused with the Vegetable Lamb of Tartary, vegetable sheep are actual plants of the Raoulia species. This "densely compacted, rounded cushion plant grow to several feet across and sometimes two feet high ... and the white colour of its flowers and also of the hairy covered leaves gives it the appearance, from a distance, of sheep."


Figure 108 Large cushion of the Marlborough vegetable sheep, Haastia pulvinaris.
Mt. Cupola, Nelson Lakes National Park. Photo: J. W. Dawson.


Figure 109 Close view of a portion of a Haastia pulvinaris cushion showing the
branchlet tips closely invested by woolly leaves. Photo: J. W. Dawson.

"On the shingle-slips the wonderful vegetable-sheep are encountered. These grow not on the shingle, but on the rocks which the stones have nearly buried. Large examples form great hummocks, 6 ft. long by 3 ft. across, or even more. Really they are shrubs of the daisy family, and are provided with a thick, stout, woody main stem and strong roots, which pass far into the rock-crevices. Above, the stems branch again, and again, and towards their extremities are covered with small woolly leaves, packed as tightly as possible. Finally, stems, leaves, and all are pressed into a dense, hard, convex mass, making an excellent and appropriate seat for a wearied botanist ... The vegetable-sheep are not inaptly named, for at a distance a shepherd might be misled."

-- L. Cockayne, New Zealand Plants and Their Story, Wellington: Government Printer, 1910 



"Though singular and interesting to the botanist, these plants are of no value economically, but, on the contrary, as we have shown, certain species of them are a plague to the shepherds, inasmuch as they give them much trouble and annoyance to discern between an animal sheep and a vegetable sheep."

-- John R. Jackson, "The Vegetable Sheep of New Zealand," The Intellectural Observer: Review of Natural History, Microscopic Research and Recreative Science, Volume XI, pp. 128-135, London: Groombridge and Sons, 1867.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

In search of elegance

Walking along Oriental Parade on the way to work this morning I saw an old man watching the tugs bring in a container ship. I stopped and said "Aren't those ships impressive?" He smiled at me and replied, "Aye. But not very elegant." We watched in silence for a few moments before his smile faded. "Young people today don't see elegance, just function," he proclaimed. I thought for a moment and replied, "I wonder how many values are lost because we don't get exposed to them?" After another moment I added, "But I sure do like the tugboats. They seem strong and happy." He smiled broadly and said, "Aye. They do have a rugged elegance."

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