Book Review - MARVELS in Huntia (Carnegie Mellon)

Scritto da Marcus Bicknell on .

marvels front cover smallWe were delighted that Charlotte Tancin, Librarian at the Hunt Institute in Pittsburgh, reviewed MARVELS and alerted us to its publication in their review Huntia.

The Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation, a research division of Carnegie Mellon University, specializes in the history of botany and all aspects of plant science and serves the international scientific community through research and documentation. To this end, the Institute acquires and maintains authoritative collections of books, plant images, manuscripts, portraits and data files, and provides publications and other modes of information service. The Institute meets the reference needs of botanists, biologists, historians, conservationists, librarians, bibliographers and the public at large, especially those concerned with any aspect of the North American flora.


Lester, Valerie. Marvels: The Life of Clarence Bicknell, Botanist, Archaeologist, Artist. Leicester: Matador, 2018. ix, 245, [1] p., port., maps, ill. (mostly color). £25.00. ISBN 978-1-7890-1494-5 (hardback).

Here at Hunt Institute we primarily know of Clarence Bicknell (1842–1918) as a botanist who wrote about the flora around the Maritime Alps and the Italian Riviera coast and as a botanical artist. In this biography by Valerie Lester we have a fuller picture of him as also being an Anglican clergyman, archaeologist, Esperantist and a socially engaged British expatriate who lived for 40 years in Bordighera, a vacation spot and Italian home to a number of Britons and Europeans.

Botanically, Bicknell was an enthusiastic explorer, cataloger, classifier and artist. By 1884 he had made more than 1,000 watercolor drawings of local wildflowers from the Riviera and the Maritime Alps. His publications from this period include Flowering Plants and Ferns of the Riviera and Neighbouring Mountains (1885) and Flora of Bordighera and San Remo (1896). He was a highly skilled amateur in the best sense of that term. He became friends with Swiss botanist Emile Burnat (1828–1920) in the mid-1880s, and they corresponded for 31 years, also visiting each other and sharing knowledge and specimens, and “bonded in personality, interests, and collections” (p. 83). Bicknell contributed hundreds of specimens to Burnat’s herbarium — now at Geneva along with their correspondence — and many descriptions to Burnat’s Flore des Alpes Maritimes (1892–1931), co-written with John Briquet (1870–1931) and François Cavillier (1868–1953).

Bicknell discovered several new plant species, including two later named for him: Pimpinella bicknellii Briquet and Euphrasia bicknellii Wettstein. He also became friends with Florentine botanist Stefano Sommier (1848–1922), who was writing a book on the wildflowers of the Tuscan archipelago. He and Bicknell exchanged plant lists and specimens and remained in correspondence. Another connection was H. Stuart Thompson (1870–1940), whose Flowering Plants of the Riviera (1914) contains 112 Bicknell watercolors. Beyond these botanical friendships he had numerous others, maintaining a vigorous correspondence and plant exchange throughout his life.

His other scientific focus was ancient rock carvings. in 1881 Bicknell found petroglyphs in Vallée des Merveilles / Valle delle Meraviglie, and beginning in 1885 he located, copied and cataloged more than 10,000 stone carvings. He published several works on them, including Guide to the Prehistoric Rock Engravings of the Italian Maritime Alps (1913). He had a summer retreat built in Casterino from which to sojourn on botanizing and petroglyph-hunting trips. At a 1905 congress on archaeology in Monaco, Bicknell made another new friend, Émile Cartailhac (1845–1921), who was exploring for petroglyphs in caves. the two corresponded intensively and traveled together to Ariège and the Pyrenees to look for petroglyphs.

Beyond Bicknell’s scientific interests, this biography lays out his whole life story, giving greater context and a colorful view of a full life. He was an active part of the expatriate community in Bordighera and to some extent also of the local community. in the mid-1880s he commissioned a new building for his herbarium, library and paintings and for a community center, and the displays and events were open to all.

In 1887 and 1908 two catastrophic earthquakes hit this area of Italy. Bordighera escaped severe damage, but Bicknell aided others by taking provisions to villages by mulecart. His philanthropy included working with Father Giacomo Viale (1830–1912) to create St. Joseph’s Home for the Aged Poor in 1912 and working with the Red Cross during World War I, visiting the sick and turning his museum over to convalescing soldiers. Throughout his life in Italy, Bicknell was helped in his domestic, travel-related and research activities by Giacomo Pollini and his son Luigi, assistants who became dear friends, and several other loyal assistants.

Other interests also filled his life. Intrigued by the idea of a universal language as a possible key to world peace, from 1897 Bicknell developed an active interest in Esperanto and attended congresses including one in Boulogne in 1905. Also around that time, Bicknell explored making creative plant drawings in less portraitist and more Arts and Crafts-inspired styles, producing albums of brilliant and inventive artworks; seven of these are now at the Fitzwilliam Museum at Cambridge.

Bicknell died suddenly on 17 July, 1918 while resting on a balcony in full view of the mountains he loved. Lester’s engaging tribute to him includes notes, bibliography and index.

— Charlotte Tancin, Librarian

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