Next Thing to Life: Nature Printing of Ferns and Sea-Weeds
In the middle of the nineteenth century, while a passion for botany was sweeping Victorian England, an ambitious London printer named Henry Bradbury unveiled a new technique that could produce images of plants so life-like that they were nearly indistinguishable from the specimen itself. Bradbury’s two masterpieces, The Ferns of Great Britain and Ireland and The Nature-Printed British Sea-weeds, were lauded by scientists and sent as gifts to Royal houses throughout Europe. However, their publication had an unhappy sequel for the young printer, and afterwards the technique that he had championed quickly sank into obscurity.
Bradbury worked for his father in the printing firm Bradbury & Evans which, among other notable publications, produced the magazine Punch, as well as most of Charles Dickens’s novels during the 1850s. They also printed an illustrated catalogue of the 1851 Crystal Palace Exhibition, and it was at this event, showcasing industrial design from around the world, that Bradbury encountered the work of Alois Auer, director of the Austrian Imperial State Printing House in Vienna. This organisation, which had originally been established to print state documents, was on the verge of financial collapse when Auer took charge, resurrecting it with a strong focus on technological innovation. Under his leadership it expanded its capacity to print in dozens of alphabets, including Turkish, Arabic, Tibetan, and Braille, and began to branch into scientific texts. It was this latter work which impressed Bradbury, particularly a technique that Auer called Naturselbstdruck, or nature-printing.
The simplest form of nature-printing would be to dab ink on a leaf and then press it against a page (a craft that I did in primary school). Lace manufacturers in Nottingham used a similar technique to create sample cards for prospective purchasers, and one of these cards apparently inspired Auer to develop his far more sophisticated method. The specimen was placed between two plates, one of steel and the other of lead, and pressed between rollers. The soft lead readily took an impression but would be damaged if it was used to print directly, so an additional step created a copper plate using the recently invented technology of electrotyping. The technique proved especially well-adapted for natural subjects such as fossils, plants, and even some animals, including one rather disturbing print which the Vienna workshop made from a bat.
With Auer’s permission, Bradbury travelled to Vienna to study the nature-printing technique. Unfortunately, friction developed once Bradbury returned to England. Bradbury immediately filed for, and obtained, a patent based on a supposed improvement that he had made, smoothing irregularities in the surface of the lead plate. Auer, who had reportedly chosen not to patent nature-printing in Austria so that the technique would remain as widely available as possible, was disgusted by what he saw as a self-serving action. Their wrangling went on for years, and since both men had a printing press with which to disseminate their grievances, it was also highly public. In May 1855, Bradbury gave a pointed lecture to the Royal Institution in which he characterised himself as a David pitted against the Goliath of the Imperial Printing Office of Vienna. He argued that Auer could not expect to receive sole credit for an idea that was so intuitively obvious, and cited historical examples of methods that could be considered nature-printing. Even Nature Herself, Bradbury declared, used a version of the technique in the beautiful impressions of fossil ferns found in coal deposits.
By 1855, Bradbury also had enough grasp of the nature-printing technique to put out a pamphlet, testing the waters to see whether a book of nature prints would sell. The pamphlet included many prints of flowering plants, but the results were not completely satisfactory: structures with any three-dimensional complexity had to be squashed when pressed into the lead plate. But Bradbury was not discouraged. Feeling ready to embark on a full-length book project, he chose two groups of organisms that are are already practically flat and thus ideal for the printing process — ferns and sea-weeds.
In the 1850s botany was enjoying a heyday as a genteel pastime for the upper classes, but ferns in particular were so popular that historians of the period speak of a “pteridomania.” The invention of the “Wardian case,” or sealed terrarium, allowed enthusiasts to grow ferns indoors. Bradbury & Evans had already capitalised on the botanical trend by publishing a treatise on the classification of plants by the noted botanist John Lindley, and Henry Bradbury was able to use this connection to recruit other scientists to his project. His first collaborator was the fern expert Thomas Moore. Their book, The Ferns of Great Britain and Ireland, began to be released as individual folios in late 1855, and was reissued as a single volume in 1857. It included not only the colour plates and notes on the ferns’ identification and geographic distribution, but instruction for fern lovers seeking to transplant the most attractive species into pots and gardens (or “ferneries,” as they were known).
While it is possible to buy photographic reproductions of Bradbury’s nature-printed books, since they are in the public domain I felt no compunction about seeking out the digital versions to read for free on the Internet Archive. Even on my tiny laptop, the images are breathtaking. If reports can be believed, the original books are still more incredible. Nature-printing is an intaglio process, meaning that the ink fills the sunken part of the plate. This produces images that are raised from the page to a greater or lesser extent, an embossed quality that enhances the illusion that the plants themselves lie in front of you.
The only disorienting aspect is the translucent quality of the coloured ink, which makes many of the ferns appear almost ghostly. Heavier inking would have looked more realistic, but it would have obscured delicate structures like the venation of the fronds and the sori (the spore-containing bodies that dot the fronds’ underside). Indeed, inking was the part of the process least amenable to automation. For each impression, two or three colours had to be applied to the copper plate by hand, usually green and brown for the fronds, roots and sori. This was a major barrier to making nature-printing commercially viable: a consideration that did not worry Auer, in his state-sponsored institution in Vienna. The rivalry between the two printers was still alive and well, and when W. J. Hooker, the director of Kew Gardens, wrote a review comparing the first folio of The Ferns of Great Britain and Ireland to Auer’s Observations of the Cryptogamic Flora of the Valley of Arpasch, he was at pains to declare that he found both equally beautiful, noting only that a few of the fungi and mosses in Auer’s book had been visibly squashed by the printing process.
In the summer of 1859 Bradbury began to publish The Nature-Printed British Sea-weeds, with a text by two Scottish scientists, William Grosart Johnstone and Alexander Croall. This massive work was organised into four volumes using the colour-based classification system that remains current into the twenty-first century: two volumes for the red algae, and one each for the brown and green algae. (Nowadays scientists recognise the red-green divide as a fundamental crossroads in the evolution of photosynthesis, while the brown algae evolved via some rather complicated steps out of the reds). The final volume concludes with some short essays on the history of algae science in Britain, as well as their usefulness for various human industries (including livestock fodder, iodine, and, historically, soda ash), and finally offers instructions for making your own algae herbarium. The writers describe the pleasures of “filling the bottle with sea-water, dropping therein a specimen attached to a small pebble or portion of an old shell... there it grew and flourished for months and years, till it completely filled the bottle.”
The translucent effect that made the ferns look so odd is perfectly appropriate for sea-weeds, and the crimson lakes, rich purples, and olive browns in the volume of red algae are particularly beautiful. Unfortunately, the colours in the fourth volume of green algae that I saw are flat and garish. It’s worth remembering that not only were the plates not all inked by the same person, the scientists who had originally collected the specimens were not in charge of mixing the colours. The sea-weeds were sent to the printers dried, and the workers probably never saw them in their living state. That they guessed their natural colour to any degree of accuracy is in itself remarkable.
The series was well received. The reviewer for the Athenaeum magazine, though he found the scientific jargon heavy going, rhapsodised over the number of feminine names listed among the collectors who had contributed specimens. “O, for a weed-walk and a weed-talk this very day with ... any and all of the spinster phycologists! How would we speed to meet them on a far stretching beach, and under steep chalk cliffs, hard by the friendly old lighthouse! What a pleasure to be guided by bright eyes and tripping steps ... What are sea-nymphs of Hesiod to sea-nymphs of Britain?” (The Athenaeum, 30 July 1859).
Indeed, the study of sea-weeds was perhaps a unique space for women scientists. This is evident in the dedication of the first volume of Nature-Printed British Sea-Weeds to Amelia Griffiths, a renowned naturalist living in Torquay who had died the previous year at the venerable age of ninety. William Henry Harvey, a celebrity researcher of sea-weeds, frequently deferred to her advice in identifying difficult specimens, and she was supposed to be particularly gifted at finding the cryptic reproductive structures. In some ways, Nature-Printed British Sea-Weeds built on the work of Welsh naturalist Isabella Gifford, who in 1848 had published a manual of algae identification titled The Marine Biologist. While lacking the numerous lavish illustrations of Bradbury’s set, her book had the advantage of being inexpensive, and helped to popularise the field.
After Nature-Printed British Sea-Weeds was published, Bradbury had a number of other projects in the works. These included a book displaying the leaves of all the trees found in Great Britain, as well as volumes on mosses and liverworts. Meanwhile, scientific texts were not his only field of interest. With his father’s support, he had started a new printing house specialising in security documents, which would eventually grow into a highly successful firm producing bank notes, postage stamps, and travellers’ cheques until the twenty-first century. However, Bradbury would not be there to see it —or any of his other plans— come to fruition. A few months after Nature-Printed British Sea-weeds was published he committed suicide by drinking prussic acid, for reasons that remain unclear, although overwork, the dispute with Auer, and an unhappy love affair have all been suggested.
Another tragedy followed rapidly on the heels of the first. Johnstone, amateur naturalist and co-author of Nature-Printed British Sea-Weeds, had moved from Scotland to London to work as a clerk. Shortly after publication he was convicted of embezzlement and, in a strange twist, the money that he was alleged to have taken actually belonged to the wife of Thomas Moore, the author of The Ferns of Great Britain and Ireland. Already in declining health, Johnstone was convicted and died in Millbank Prison mere weeks after the death of Henry Bradbury.
Following Bradbury’s death, any effort to turn nature-printing into a commercially profitable venture was abandoned. For scientific illustration, engravings were still the cheapest and most practical option, and even photography, another newly developing technology with aspirations of hyper-realism, would never completely displace the importance of a simple line drawing. The enduring value of nature-printing proved to be less as an aid to identification than as art. Even today, it can evoke the same sense of wonder as the shady ferneries or glittering tide-pools from which its subjects came.--Mary Thaler Note: the author acknowledges a debt to A. F. Dyer’s meticulously researched 2015 article, “The Life and Craft of William and Henry Bradbury, Masters of Nature Printing in Britain," Huntia Vol. 15 (2), pp. 115-214.