MARVELS: The Life of Clarence Bicknell
Botanist, Archaeologist, Artist.
By Valerie Lester.
A treasure trove of research discoveries enlightens Valerie Lester’s biography of the captivating scientist and artist, Clarence Bicknell. Over 5 years, Lester has pored over hundreds of newly-discovered letters, botanical watercolours and arts-and-crafts designs in archives including the Natural History Museum, the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, the Conservatoire Botanique in Geneva and Genoa University. Every letter and diary entry provides Lester with Clarence’s voice; and each of his vellum-bound albums reveals drawings, watercolours and whimsical creations. The biography’s text, supported by more than 200 images, gives remarkable insights into how and why this man strove for perfection in each subject he tackled.
Clarence was a product of the late-Victorian Enlightenment, of the desire to understand our world and the quest to express it all creatively. Having lived for forty years in Bordighera on the Italian coast and spent summers at Casterino by the Vallée des Merveilles, now in France, he is a respected historical figure on both the French and Italian sides of the Riviera and the Maritime Alps. The irrepressible former clergyman dedicated himself first to botany, then archaeology in the high mountains and, towards the end of his life, to botanical art tinged with the whimsy of humour, narrative, affection for his friends and arts-and-crafts originality.
Valerie Lester is an independent scholar, writer, and translator living near Boston. She is the author of Fasten Your Seat Belts! History and Heroism in the Pan Am Cabin (1995) and Phiz, The Man Who Drew Dickens (2004). She has also written a biography of the great Italian typographers: Giambattista Bodoni: His Life and His World and has translated Alain-Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes with the title: The Magnificent Meaulnes (2009).
Praise for Marvels: The Life of Clarence Bicknell
- Rich in information and unpublished sources that enhance our knowledge of the great Clarence Bicknell and the history of Bordighera. (Gisella Merello Folli)
Marvels – The Life of Clarence Bicknell is a fantastic book. The abundance of wealth in the text, the beautiful layout, the multitude of images; life’s very perfume rises from the pages. (Giuseppe Bessone)
- A hugely readable book and a wonderful vignette on Victorian life. (Carolyn Hanbury)
- Lester brings her marvellous energy and vision to life, and the copious beautiful illustrations vividly express Bicknell's wonder at the world’s riches. It all adds up to a superlatively exhilarating reading experience. (Robert L. Patten)
- Through its pages, rich in unpublished sources and documents, we rediscover the greatness of Clarence, his exceptional, empathetic and brilliant life and the current strength of his work. (Daniela Gandolfi)
- This is a delightful book, well-written and researched, copiously illustrated, drawing on family and museum archives and showing Clarence's beautiful botanical drawings. (Selby Whittingham)
- The book is in itself a vibrant watercolour of European culture at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries . . . a volume rich in information and ideas for reflections. (Mauro Mariotti)
- Valerie Lester once again brings to life an extraordinary figure from the past, the compelling Clarence Bicknell (1842–1918), whose lifelong curiosity and abundant energy carried him from religion and philosophy to botany, archaeology and the exploration of faraway places. An accomplished author and painter, Bicknell spent much of his adult life in Bordighera and the hills of the Italian Riviera. Lester describes Bicknell’s active life in vivid detail, giving her readers a sense of his sweet disposition and drive to discover, and a good taste of the places and time in which he lived. Filled with photographs and drawings that enrich the narrative, this is a wonderful book. (Bruce Kennett, author of W.A. Dwiggins: A Life in Design)
The team of researchers is thanked by Valerie Lester thus... "I owe my deepest debt to the team which helped me put this book together. We are six: Marcus Bicknell, the driving force; Susie Bicknell, researcher, specialising in Clarence’s art; Graham Avery, mountain walker, botanist, writer and researcher; Helen Blanc-Francard, landscape designer, writer, picture researcher; Christopher Chippindale, archaeologist, author and Clarence specialist; and myself, the principal writer. Biography is usually a lonely profession, but being a part of this team took care of that. Its members offered me encouragement when my spirits flagged and new material when I got stuck. I cannot imagine working with a kinder, more competent, more supportive group of people. The extraordinary work done by the book's editor, designer and production director, Sally Salvesen, along with maps by Martin Brown, the family tree by Gwyneth Hibbert and the index by Nick Humez, make the finished article a volume of which we can all be proud."
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