The bluest roses and violets of the rainbow are called beauty.
“To be a flower,” Emily Dickinson wrote in one of her finest poems, “is profound responsibility.”
When Dickinson was a teenager, across the Atlantic, the self-taught botanist Anna Atkins pioneered another art-form for celebrating nature — visual poetry of a kind the world had never before encountered. She is remembered for her stunning photographs of blue algae and was the first photographer to use photos to illustrate books.
Beauty, too, is profound responsibility — to notice it, to cherish it, to magnify it in our art as we search for meaning, which might be the supreme human responsibility.
Two centuries hence, London-based artist Rosalind Hobley unites our twin responsibilities to nature and human nature, to beauty and wonder, in her cyanotype portraits of flowers, immortalized with ravishing fidelity to a long-ago printing process developed in the golden age of chemistry and wonder, in a world far less impatient than ours and far more reverent of the artist’s work, which is the work of noticing and reverencing.
Hobley draws on an extensive lineage of wonders at the border of science and arts. In 1839, the polymathic astronomer John Herschel coined the word “photography” to name the process his friend Henry Fox Talbot had developed, not yet knowing he was naming a revolution in our way of seeing and our way of being. Herschel sensed that something vast and beautiful lay hidden beyond this new horizon of photochemical reactions — something that would reveal to the human eye forms of light to which we are born blind, those wondrous unseen extremes bookending the visible spectrum: the luxurious wavelengths of infrared light, which his own father — William Herschel, discoverer of Uranus and brother to the world’s first professional female astronomer — had detected when John was eight, and the petite band of ultraviolet light, which the German chemist Johann Ritter had discovered a year later.
So began Herschel’s devotion to our species’ consciousness-defining history of pondering the nature of light. His three-year research effort focused on understanding how light affects the different elements. His experiments were constantly derailed by bad English weather, beginning with an uncommon spell of “extreme deficiency of sunshine during the summer and autumn of the year 1839” and nearly ending with an “almost unprecedented continuance of bad weather during the whole of the  summer and autumn.”
Finally, in 1842, he arrived at an economical printing process to capture the light of the world, the light that gives form and substance to everything we see, in otherworldly blueprints — a slow-reacting solution of equal parts potassium ferricyanide and ferric ammonium citrate, sensitive to the blue portion of the spectrum spilling into ultraviolet, developed and fixed by only water and sunlight.
Herschel, a man who spent years weather-deferred in his experiments, presented his findings to the Royal Society with touching Ambivalence.
These causes are the reason I cannot present my results in any kind of systematic or regular connection. I also shouldn’t have dared to present them to the Royal Society. I hope they may still be of enough interest, despite being somewhat stale, that their continued suppression will prove unwise and that it might encourage others to pursue the matter.
It only takes one or two visionaries per generation to keep an idea alive, to sustain “sufficient interest” in something of quiet, unexampled promise. Generations after Herschel, Hobley’s cyanotypes live as a lovely antidote to photography’s fate in the age of smartphones and the visual culture of selfing — a fate Virginia Woolf anticipated a century ago, for she knew that it is the fate of every technology to be “killed by kindness”: to grow so easy and readily available as to become a cultural compulsion requiring no skill or sensibility. Of course the art is always about technology. It’s its ability to be used as a way of finding meaning, care and joy. You can create a beautifully layered email that is almost like a prose poetry.
Florence Nightingale, who championed beauty’s healing powers a century before medical science could confirm it, emphasized two of the most important forms: flowers and art. Hobley’s tender, haunting cyanotypes unite the two in a single rapture of beauty that feels nothing less than medicinal. Two of her dahlias live in my home and I look at them often from my writing table for a refreshing dose of joy.
If you too would like to live with these time-traveling beauties cross-pollinating the ephemeral and the eternal, many of Hobley’s flowers are available as prints. Complement them with Lia Halloran’s cyanotype celebration of trailblazing women in astronomy, then revisit the stunning botanical art of Herschel’s contemporary Clarissa Munger Badger, who inspired Emily Dickinson, and this epochs-wide meditation on flowers and the meaning of life.
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