I was invited by the National Trust to create an Arts Council funded exhibition at Wray Castle, the former home of the Freshwater Biological Association until 1950, and chose the algal forms from their Fritsch Collection as my inspiration.
I have a fascination with small living things which I think started some years ago when I sat drawing an ancient and battered window with dirty strands of an old straggly spider’s web in one corner. Stuck in this still sticky mess was a newly dead fly. It seemed such a waste: the spider had long gone and the fly would remain to rot unused.
Work followed on spiders, dead flies, caddis flies and then smaller foraminifera and finally algae. A visit with a friend (whose parents Jack and Ida Talling worked at the FBA some years ago) inspired a return visit and then another one and so on. I looked at the cabinets containing thousands of drawings and photographs from the nineteenth century onwards. I loved the old writing, the early pictures which got clearer and more detailed as time went on, and the obvious signs of the people who worked here cutting and sticking the information onto the sheets of paper.
I particularly liked the spikey ones, fascinated that these forms lived in our lakes and pools but you can’t see most of them without a microscope. I enjoyed the unusual shapes and detail which you would never recognise as algae. Not that my biology was good enough even to know what questions to ask initially, I just enjoyed opening the cabinets and looking through the folders of something with a strange Latin name. Gradually I came to a little understanding of the huge number of varieties. I drew the ones I liked, it was not a scientific investigation.
Having chosen the algal forms from the FBA’s Fritsch Collection as my inspiration for my exhibition at Wray Castle, it seemed appropriate to use equipment that I knew the blind and partially sighted society in Penrith had. Lines could be made visible to those who had sight problems and make these lovely shapes visible to others who had no idea what was in the water around them. On swell paper, I drew the algal shapes, sometimes carefully and at other times a quick impression of the shapes. Passed through a heat machine, the lines raised, plaster of Paris poured over and the paper removed, sometimes with difficulty if I had let it set a moment too long. Shoe polish and graphite were rubbed in.
I had 60 plaster plates to make a strip in the room at Wray Castle. Raised on blocks to give a slight swell, I am sure they looked like stepping stones but only one got chipped in one corner as it hit the floor. I was there two days each week and found people were intrigued by the shapes, they were also interested in the time taken and the methods used. I also put up an exhibition of 18 photographs taken of small patches of fresh water to capture light and movement.
I think scientist and artist might see different things but both respond in their way. It has been good being part of the science community through the FBA for this short time and we will remain in touch.
Christine Hurford, Artist