The Botanical Cabinet

‘The Botanical Cabinet’ is an ongoing project. The works shown here formed part of ‘The Botanical Cabinet’ exhibition, at 195 Mare Street, Hackney, London, in which artists Marcia Teusink, Tulika Ladsariya and I responded directly and indirectly to the legacy of the Loddiges Botanical Nursery.

The once famous and now nearly forgotten plant business on Mare Street, in the late 1700s and early 1800s, was started by a German emigre called Conrad Johan Loddiges, who began with a small seed shop and went on to become a major importer of plants from around the world. Their nursery pre-dated Kew Gardens, and had the largest greenhouse in the world, at that time. 

Both the Loddiges family and their botanical nursery had their origins in Germany. I researched and created some of my work there, as well as in the UK.

The Loddiges advertised their plants through a series of publications called ‘The Botanical Cabinet’, documenting their awe-inspiring range of plants. They are responsible for introducing many species that are now common in the UK, including types of rhododendrons, camellias, orchids, palms and ferns. 

The Loddiges participated in, and benefited from, a colonial empire and an ‘Enlightenment approach’ to nature, which entailed taking natural species and materials from around the world, with scant attention to the interconnectedness of natural habitats, unaware of the many unintended consequences that would result from moving species from their original ecosystems into new ones, the legacy of which is often an imbalance of ‘invasive’ species and native ones, which affects biodiversity overall.

My work in ‘The Botanical Cabinet’ responded to the Loddiges Nursery both through the theme of its plants and its  architecture. I engaged with living plants in the creation of the works, and with glass through the photographic process. I took on the book ‘The Botanical Cabinet’ by questioning how and why we identify, label, use and depict plants. Choosing to ignore conventionally ‘decorative’ plants, and deliberately avoiding the ‘exotic’, I instead gathered urban plants, including weeds and overly familiar flowers. I wanted to return agency to plants, including those which had been overlooked, or commodified. Researching these, I found conceptual links between the now disappeared botanical nursery and my analogue photographic work, which I could never have foreseen.

Ferns ( (Polypodiopsida or Polypodiophyta, first appearing in the fossil record about 360 million years ago) feature in a popular 1700s myth claiming that they can make people invisible. This is linked to the fact that 18th century scientists did not understand how ferns reproduced, as they have no seeds, and a myth evolved that ferns have invisible seeds and therefore also properties to confer invisibility upon humans.  

Daffodils (Narcissus, a genus of the amaryllis family, native to southern Europe and North Africa) were recognised in ancient civilisation, both medicinally and botanically, and this year they are being scientifically researched for anti-cancer medicine, as they provide the natural extract hemanthamine, which, through a particular molecular mechanism, could trigger cancer cell death.

Gypsophila (a genus of the carnation family, Caryophyllaceae, native to Eurasia, Africa, Australia, and the Pacific Islands) is a source of saponins, a substance which is used in the production of photographic film.

In a sphere suspended

‘In a sphere suspended’ encompasses an ever-increasing array of alternative processes and analogue photographic techniques. In using these, I am also looking to find ways of making my practice more sustainable in environmental terms.

Light, transparency, nature and photo-sensitive chemistry are key components.

This section of my website gives an insight into my experimentation, and documents some of the work in progress as well as completed pieces. For me, sharing the processes and results — whether ‘successes’ or ‘failures’ in conventional terms — is a way of opening up conversations, and I greatly appreciate the exchanges I have had with others in this field.

‘In a sphere suspended’ has been generously supported by an Arts Council England ‘Developing Your Creative Practice’ Grant 2021-22.

‘Life Lines’

‘Life Lines’ is an ongoing, international series, in which I actively engage plants in the creation of works around nature and architecture, through their reaction with light. The series includes photographs, films, prints and mixed-media installations.

Photosynthesis in plants and photosensitivity in photography are key to the work. So is glass, which is used in both the making of photographic prints and in the cultivation of plants. Architecturally, I am researching the history of glasshouses, but also modernist ‘glass curtain’ walls, and windows, and their interaction with nature. 

To ‘embody’ plants in the very material of the work, I am using the technique of phytography, as well as my own plant-based photographic developer and toner. I am looking into environmentally friendly substrates for photography and film, such as ‘SCOBY’ (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast) as alternatives to plastic, to make the whole process more environmentally friendly and nature-based. 

35mm phytograms using leaves from a domestic garden on film shot at the Botanic Garden, both in Oxford, July 2021

This is my first attempt at phytograms on pre-exposed film, layered over images, rather than on unexposed film.

Using a 1950s Voigtlander camera and Ilford PanF Plus 50 35mm film, I took pictures of the plants and glasshouses at the Oxford Botanic Garden & Arboretum.

I then used bindweed from a domestic garden to create phytograms on top of the photographic image.

The resulting phytographic/photographic film strip records the push and pull of intention and chance, of technology and nature, of representation and abstraction.

Documentation of the process, or a sunny day in July experimenting

The inventor and pioneer of phytography, Karel Doing, generously shared his expertise and taught me how to do the reversal process on exposed film, before creating the phytogram on top. In addition to using plant developer, I am researching eco-friendly ways to bleach the film for the reversal process in future.

Marine phytography on film, July 2021

Film grain and sand grains: a few notes on creating textured marinescapes on Ilford HP5 35mm film in St. Ives, Cornwall

Who needs a drying cabinet when you have the warm breeze?

This elemental way of experimenting in and with nature is very different to processing and printing in a darkroom. Relinquishing control to allow the plant to work its magic is precisely the appeal phytography holds for me.

I was exhilarated to see how the emerging marks on the film echo the jaggedness of the landscape, despite the seaweed itself being soft and malleable. The ‘image’ is created when sunlight activates a reaction between the phenolic compounds in the seaweed and the film emulsion.

This experiment relates to work I am doing with expert guidance from Karel Doing and Andres Pardo (aka General Treegan).

Flower phytography on 4 x 5 sheet film, March 2021

Tazetta daffodil phytogram — using daffodil developer on Ilford HP5 Plus film

I used homemade daffodil ascorbate developer to create phytograms of the same daffodils on 5 x 4 film.

The phytographic ‘negative’ was then placed in a darkroom enlarger to create a print on paper.