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Illustrations of snow crystals that fell between 8 February – 10 March 1855, a hundred and sixty-one years ago, and photogenic drawings of ferns made in the 1850s are part of the unique body of work by Cecilia Louisa Glaisher (1828-1892), of which the Fitzwilliam Museum has the major holding.
Following a project to catalogue and digitise the material, her work is now accessible online, and can be seen in the exhibition SNOW LEAVES FERNS on the Fitzwilliam’s website.
Looking into Snow
Cecilia Glaisher was an amateur photographic artist and illustrator, active in the 1850s world of Victorian natural history and science. She worked with a variety of media and techniques, including drawing, painting, photography, and nature printing.
In the winters of 1854 and 1855 she collaborated with her husband, James Glaisher (1809-1903), superintendent of the Meteorological and Magnetic Department at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, on a study of the formation of snow crystals. She made very precise drawings of 151 different types, which were used to illustrate a paper, ‘On the Severe Weather at the beginning of the year 1855: and On Snow and Snow Crystals’, published by the British Meteorological Society.
What started as a scientific inquiry into the natural world evolved into artwork showing how the six-fold symmetry of snow crystals could be used as the basis for design. This resulted in a second paper, published in The Art Journal in 1857.
Several of the Glaishers’ images of snow crystals were published in Captain Sir Edward Belcher’s book, Last of the Arctic Voyages (1855). The images of them shown in the exhibition come from a copy in the archive at the Scott Polar Research Institute.
These publications, and the Fitzwilliam’s holding of background and preparatory material relating to them, are explored in the Snow section of the online exhibition.
Photogenic drawings of Ferns
Cecilia Glaisher’s photographs of ferns were intended for a publication, The British Ferns: Represented in a series of Photographs from Nature by Mrs Glaisher, with the fern expert and publisher Edward Newman (1801-1876).
These life-size images of ferns, made using the ‘photogenic drawing’ process invented by William Henry Fox Talbot (1800-1877), were both beautiful images and accurate aids with which to identify fern species. They were intended to appeal to the growing number of fern collectors whose passions were fuelled by increasingly informative and illustrated books during what has come to be known as the Victorian fern craze.
The publication never materialised, perhaps due to a lack of subscriptions to make it viable or difficulties in producing prints in sufficient and consistent quantities. As a result, Cecilia Glaisher’s work has remained relatively unknown. It came to the Fitzwilliam Museum following the death of the Glaishers’ eldest son, the Trinity College mathematician J.W.L. Glaisher (1848-1928), along with the bequest of his pottery and porcelain collection.
Now that Cecilia Glaisher’s photographic and other work has been catalogued, digitised, and put online, it can be safely seen and studied in close detail both by researchers and the general public. The online exhibition aims to give some context and background to the Fitzwilliam’s holding of her wonderful images of snow crystals, and an idea of what the unrealised 1855 fern publication with Edward Newman hoped to achieve. Discover more about the exhibition SNOW LEAVES FERNS on the Fitzwilliam’s website.
Caroline Marten, independent researcher, history of photography