Clarence Bicknell expressed himself in many ways; in his disciplines like botany and archaeology, in his collecting and recording which underpinned those two disciplines, his art (especially botanical), his beliefs (Christianity, Esperanto and pacifism in that order), his friends (the visitors’ book at the Casa Fontanalba and his activities in Bordighera bear witness) and his writing.
In much of his work, writing is used to record; to record items in a collection, to record details of a rock engraving, to record the events of a day cruising up the Nile or to annotate a botanical find. Writing is therefore a discipline for Clarence, more the product of a graduate in maths than a romantic. Even in his long-form works, those published as books, the bulk of the material is in list form. There are exceptions, such as his poems in the Esperanto language, but examples of writing from within his heart are rare.
The childhood influences on Clarence, around the house of his father Elhanan Bicknell, patron of great artists like Turner, Landseer and Roberts, were primarily artistic. But he cannot have been unaware of the great importance attached to fiction writing in the middle of the 19th century in London. His cousin was Phiz, Charles Dickens’ illustrator, his celebrated brother Herman wrote history and translations, and his brother Sidney hobnobbed with Irving, Thackeray, Trollope, Dickens and other writers.
If Clarence wrote much at Cambridge or during his years as a priest in England, we are not aware of it. But when he settled in 1878-9, aged thirty six, in Bordighera, on the Italian Riviera, he was writing quite profusely, in addition to his botanising and drawing. By 1884 Clarence had completed over a thousand botanical drawings. A few years later he found his drawings and written descriptions of plants complete enough to proceed to their publication and in 1885 Clarence’s first oeuvre Flowering Plants and Ferns of the Riviera and Neighbouring Mountains was published.
Although he had visited the Valleé des Merveilles already, he was more occupied in Bordighera. In 1888 his Museo Bicknell opened. He was travelling, for fun; the family collection contains his diaries from his mini Grand Tours such as his cruise up the Nile in December 1889 to January 1890 (reproduction, right). This diary is mostly in text form; description of the individuals on the boat with him (but referred to as a, b, c rather than by their names – how frustrating for a researcher), the daily pattern and visiting key sites. The text is delightfully adorned with a multitude of little water-colours, framed by the text. It seems clear that he drew the images during the day and then wrote the text around them later in the evening. The images are not of the temple of Abu Simbel or the Pyramids of Gaza but of other aspects of the backdrop to the Nile which caught his fancy … and I can only describe these items as “collections”. Not content to draw one Nile fisherman’s boat, he drew 26 in the one boat. He picked up the theme of sheep and blessed us with even more. In each case he is developing on the shape and angles of the subject to better understand their function and their form. This regrouping of many similar items when he’s drawing comes to define Clarence’s botanical and archaeological work… the painstaking recording by drawing of every example of the items he was working on.
During the late 80s and early 90s, evidence suggests Clarence found the plants around him as the principal interest. His Bordighera excursion notebooks of 1893 are listings of flower species and his "Flora of Bordighera and San Remo" published in 1896 is an unillustrated list of species written by hand.
Clarence had made his second visit to the Vallée des Merveilles as early as 1885 and sketched about 50 rock engravings; this is the date at which Clarence’s interest was first captivated by the mysterious marks on the rock. In 1897 Clarence made the third visits and made enough rubbing to be able to report to the Society of Antiquarians of London (published in its proceedings) and read a paper to the Societa Ligusticà in Genoa. But it was not until 1902 that he was able to spend several months in the high mountains. Between the end of the summer and November 1902 he had researched an written his first substantive report on the rock engravings in “A Guide to the Prehistoric Rock Engravings in the Italian Maritime Alps”. One cannot imagine getting a book written and published in hard form today, even with our electronic aids. Indeed, Clarence continued the work on the rock engravings for a decade and the last edition of this book was published in 1913.
In 1897 Clarence had joined the Esperanto movement and had started writing poems in this universal language and translating church hymns from English. Some of this work is undated but it’s evident that he fitted his Esperanto in between his multiple other activities. In the years before he died he was producing Esperanto texts in Brail for the blind.
The seven vellum-bound albums rediscovered in the Fitzwilliam Museum, University of Cambridge, in 2017 include several of Clarence's fairy tales of Victorian whimsy, illustrated by him with botanical motifs, illuminated initials and humourful watercolours. For example, The Triumph of the Dandelion (1914) is an elaborate fantasy in which flowers compete to win The Order of the Golden Lion. Because Clarence championed the simple wild flowers, not cultivated garden flowers, the common dandelion won the contest. In the bottom right hand corner of the final piece of the album (Image right) the stalk, leaves and flower of the dandelion are shaped into the body, legs and head of the lion.
In conclusion, Clarence was not a great writer. But he was a prolific writer. And he used it as a means of recording his passions, his works, his travels and his collections.
Marcus Bicknell April 2013