If you asked me to nominate one invention that changed the world irrevocably for the better it would be the lens. My friend Chris Lee uses a telescope lens and some pretty fancy software to make the most thought provoking images of space. Most of us use cameras of one sort or another and they’re dependent on lenses of course, but today I was using nothing more sophisticated than a clip-on macro lens attached to my Pixel 6a to reveal some of the secrets of the Common Polypody fern. Those are the pictures at the top and I ran out of magnifying power at the last one which really needs at least a x100 microscope.
The others are all photos I’ve taken in the last ten days and as we looked at them we were both excited by their capacity to surprise and inspire us – not as botanical specimens at all but as objects of beauty. So the fern makes me think instantly of the Victorian fashion for the terrarium and the wonderful images of ferns made by botanical artists across the centuries. The middle row has an impenetrable blackthorn bush at Kynance Cove today which surely must have influenced Graham Sunderland in his tapestry of the crucifixion in Coventry Cathedral, but equally seems uncannily close to Jackson Pollock. The stonecrops could be models for the roof bosses of a thousand churches and if ever William Morris needed inspiration for his wallpaper designs surely the Buckshorn Plantain and the leaves of Mugwort would have served him well. The little Sea Campion has an uncanny resemblance to Tiffany glass; the rosettes of emerging Hedge Mustard are a glorious reminder of symmetry and the catkins – well I just love the colour. Nature’s palette is incredibly restrained and yet limitless in its applications. Whilst I was learning some botanical illustration, we did an exercise of limiting ourselves to three colours and I never subsequently saw the point of using more.
Almost exactly seven years ago I set myself the challenge of painting a Hyacinth in flower. I took hundreds of photos and practiced drawing the flowers from every angle; above, below and from the side and with light falling on them from different directions. I still have the practice drawings and paintings but I abandoned the painting because it was just too complex.
The take home point for me was that minute attention to the detail of a plant, whether flower or leaf was both meditation and scientific exploration and linked deeply with the creative process. Hard, then, not to attribute natural form to some benign guiding hand. But these days I think that’s a shortcut and a cop-out. I’m happy with not knowing because for me, doubt was always the beginning of faith. The lens takes us to places we never even suspected to exist and that’s why it’s my nomination for the world’s greatest invention.
- and a postscript to this piece. As we walked up the valley from Kynance Cove we spotted what looked like a (too) small buzzard sitting high on the crest of the rocks. We tracked up the footpath and came level and behind it and we could see from its beautiful chestnut brown back that it was actually a kestrel as it set off in a zigzag hunting flight across the valley. There was a bitterly cold northwest wind and it must have been puffed out viewed from below, but there was no mistaking its colour as it set out with what Gerard Manley Hopkins described as its “wimpling wing”. Cue “Windhover” – one of his finest poems.