Review of MARVELS and preview of the USA book launch on September 12th... in the Hingham Journal, clearly one of Boston's leading, and best-informed, newspapers!
Hingham author Valerie Browne Lester’s recently-published biography about the life of the multi-talented botanist/archaeologist/artist Clarence Bicknell coincides with the 2018 centenary of his death, but it is also the captivating story of his remarkable life.
“Bicknell was absolutely charming, witty, and genial -- devoting his life to the enrichment of knowledge,” she said.
Hingham Public Library will host an “Evening with the Author” event Wednesday, Sept. 12, at 7 p.m., when Lester will present “Marvels: The Life of Clarence Bicknell,” featuring a film screening of a movie about Bicknell’s life introduced by his great-grand nephew -- London-based Marcus Bicknell. Both will be available to answer questions at the end of the presentation. Lester, who does much of her writing at the Hingham library, was in the United Kingdom in June for a similar launch of the book at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge University. She was born in England.
“I think Hingham Public Library and its programs are stellar,” she said. “I also love living in Hingham because of its proximity to the water, the beach, its historic architecture, and World’s End.”
Lester spent five years researching Bicknell’s life, poring over hundreds of newly-discovered letters, diary entries, arts-and-crafts designs, and botanical watercolors in a number of archives, including the Fitzwilliam Museum, the Natural History Museum, Genoa University, and the Conservatoire Botanique in Geneva.
“Marcus had inherited lots and lots of material about Bicknell -- photos, sketchbooks, stories, and correspondence,” which were invaluable in her research, Lester said.
The book, which features more than 200 images (photographs and drawings), provides valuable insights into how and why Bicknell -- a product of the late-Victorian Enlightenment -- strove for perfection in every subject he tackled. He desired to understand the world and to express what it’s all about in a creative way. Bicknell’s time in Bordighera on the Italian Riviera and Casterino in the Maritime Alps near the Vallee des Merveilles, now in France, provides a compelling backdrop for the story of this life and achievements. Interestingly, after graduating in mathematics from Cambridge University, Bicknell decided to enter the Church of England to become a priest.
“After about 12 years in the church he lost his faith and moved to the Italian Riviera, where his religious energy was turned toward nature,” Lester said. “Then he became a botanist, and like so many Victorians, a list-maker.”
Thousands of watercolors ...
Bicknell went on to write two books about the flora of Liguria, “painting literally thousands of watercolors of flowers and also creating designs which he made into albums,” Lester said.
Then he started going to the mountains -- becoming an archaeologist and writing about the rock carvings he discovered there.
“Bicknell copied the carvings by doing rubbings and also wrote a definitive book about the rock carvings of the Maritime Alps,” she said.
Lester, an independent scholar, writer, and translator, is descended from Bicknell’s grandparents. She is also the author of “Fasten Your Seat Belts!”; “Heroism in the Pan Am Cabin,” (she is a former Pan Am stewardess); “Phiz, The Man Who Drew Dickens,” a biography of Hablot Knight Browne, Dickens’ main illustrator, who was also Bicknell’s uncle and Lester’s great-great-grandfather; as well as other books, poetry, plays, and articles -- with more to come!
“I always wrote letters, but I started writing seriously at the age of 40 -- poetry at first, then a couple of plays and an as-yet-unpublished novel that I’m still working on, the Pan Am book, and then I started writing biographies,” Lester recalled.
For the Bicknell biography, Marcus Bicknell assembled “Team Bicknell” composed of an amateur botanist, an archaeologist, a landscape architect, and an arts and crafts specialist.
“Marcus was the driving force and I was the principal writer,” Lester said. “They would all feed me information on their subjects and also material to incorporate into the book.”
Amazing discovery ...
For instance, the botanist discovered a cache of 690 letters in a botanical museum in Geneva written by Clarence to another botanist. The two men became friends over time. One of Lester’s favorite parts of writing a book is traveling to other countries to gather information. “I love doing research,” she said.
“Bicknell was quite a combination of talents,” according to Lester. Not only was he an archaeologist, botanist, and artist (sometimes his botanic art was tinged with whimsy), he was also an author, traveler, Anglican priest, humanist, philanthropist, and Esperantist. (Esperanto is constructed language based on roots from the main European languages, devised in the late 1880s as an international medium of communication.) “Clarence Bicknell was a man of peace, becoming an Esperantist shortly before World War I. He believed that people who spoke a common language would be less likely to wage war against each other.”
‘A wonderful book’ ...
Bruce Kennett, author of W.A. Dwiggins: A Life in Design” -- who recently introduced this fascinating book about the late longtime Hingham resident during an earlier “Evening with the Author” -- has high praises for “Marvels.” “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,” Kennett said in a review of the book. “In addition to the fine narrative, the book is filled with photographs and drawings that enrich the story. A wonderful book.”
Lester says she hopes readers of “Marvels” will have a “really pleasant armchair travel experience and come to understand the life of this talented Victorian bachelor. We know all the big Victorian names such as Darwin, but there are so many [unknown] people like Bicknell who led fascinating lives while contributing so much to the general [good],” Lester said. “Because he was wealthy he could lead a life devoted to the enrichment of knowledge.”
Copies of “Marvels” will be available for signing at the event and may also be purchased through Amazon and at clarencebicknell.com, which commemorates the life and work of Bicknell.
“Clarence might be the forgotten genius of 19th-Century science, arts, and crafts,” the website states. “Our activities aim to put that right.”