Discovering the art of Clarence Bicknell

11 June 2018

“Here is someone with great talent totally ignored because he didn’t live in Britain or seek publicity but just created art for the pleasure of doing it.” Artist, botanist, archaeologist, humanitarian, Esperanto enthusiast, Clarence Bicknell remains another story of Victorian genius needing to be told. This is certainly the view of Marcus Bicknell, the great-grand nephew of Clarence who has been devoted to uncovering the mysteries of his ancestor since 2012, a view more recently shared by the Fitzwilliam Museum Cambridge who have included a selection of his art in their upcoming collection Floral Fantasies running from the 5th June to the 9th September 2018.  We interviewed Marcus Bicknell, head of the Association Clarence Bicknell to gain a unique perspective on the life of Clarence and why it is important to reflect on his legacy.

Clarence, Marcus tells us, was immersed in art from a young age. His mother Lucinda was his main source of artistic inspiration, taking Clarence for walks, botanising and painting the flowers they saw. Despite choosing to study Mathematics at Trinity College, Cambridge, and entering the clergy for 15 years, art and his mother’s legacy was to again become a central part of his life. Clarence moved to Bordighera on the Italian Riviera and it was here he began his life’s work drawing and cataloguing the local flora, landscape and rock engravings. Clarence’s rich and varied life is detailed in the documentary produced by members of the Bicknell family, which will be screened as part of the exhibit in the Fitzwilliam on the 20th of June 2018.

The works Clarence produced are fascinating in a number of ways. Marcus Bicknell believed Clarence saw himself primarily as a scientist, striving to record the world around him. These early watercolours appeal to the senses, demonstrating Bicknell’s artistic skill. Clarence’s work fed into the botanical curiosity of the fin de siècle, and he produced over 5000 botanical drawings while in Italy. But Clarence’s art has a more personal, softer element too.  A lot of his work is recorded in Vellum bound albums given to him by his niece, which would return to her filled with his drawings. As time went on, his work became more light-hearted, such as Marcus Bicknell’s favourite piece in the exhibition, an album describing a fantastical competition between the flowers. Bicknell described the piece to us a “competition organised like a royal procession where each floral competitor is displayed in the book, describing why they should win”. Bicknell argues that the fact that Clarence’s chosen winner was the common dandelion reflects Clarence’s humility and how “he was not one for airs and graces”.

One of the aims of Marcus Bicknell is to find links between Clarence’s work and the Arts and Crafts movement. Clarence’s work is full of the floral whimsy that can be seen in the patterns of Morris and Co. Clarence’s passion for Esperanto meant he spent his life travelling around Europe so he was not in London. He was therefore unlikely to have met William Morris or Walter Crane meaning we cannot be sure whether the connections between Clarence’s work and the movement were accidental or a product of direct influence. Regardless, Clarence can be seen as having contributed to the distinctly Victorian interest in fanciful depictions of the floral world.

Clarence’s work and life extended greatly beyond the artistic. One interesting passion of his was Esperanto. He believed this pan-European language held the key to universal peace. Clarence not only wrote sermons, poems and prose in Esperanto and taught the language in Italy but also incorporated it into his art. Marcus Bicknell described two works of pottery that have English sayings in Esperanto engraved into them, such as ‘many hands make light work’.

The works of Bicknell displayed in the Fitzwilliam exhibition give an insight into the creative genius of this Victorian polymath. It is also testament to the hard work of Marcus and the rest of the Bicknell family in bringing light to the legacy of their ancestor.