‘They were rather like the fossils I had found, images somehow conveying the spirit of the object they recorded.’
In Search of the Blue Flower: Alexander Hamilton and The Art of Cyanotype
By Alexander Hamilton
Published by Studies in Photography
Leaving a mark; seeking to leave a trace. My earliest serious attempts at art were to observe an object, and to place it onto a prepared surface and to use chemicals and light to reveal and to leave a mark, a trace of its unique existence.
Photography as the artform of the 20th century; in its beginning, the early practitioners used chemical processes to reveal glimpses of the world they saw around them. The early British pioneers John Herschel (1792-1871) and Fox Talbot (1800-1877) called it “photogenic drawing”, using writing paper coated in chemicals to allow them to fix and to hold an image. As a young artist this was what fascinated me. I wanted this direct engagement with the object and the surface I was working with. As an artist it was the action of light on the surface of an object that held my fascination, the excitement of revealing an image.
Where did this all begin? Nothing in my early childhood seems connected to this awakening. I was born of Scottish parents in Chapel Brampton in England. My early years were spent in a simple hut-like building, surrounded by fields and a vegetable garden, until we moved to the urban environment of Northampton. My strongest memories were of yearning to get back to the countryside, making cycle trips back to my childhood home, until one day it disappeared, possibly a consequence of the farmer seeking more land to grow his crops. It was the move to the very north of Scotland, to Caithness in 1962, that that this sense of an artistic awakening began. At the age of twelve, I suddenly felt I was in my correct skin. I was born at last. My life could begin. The world around me appeared familiar and natural. I loved to feel as though I was held between the land and the sky. Anyone who has experienced the Caithness landscape, known as the Flow Country, will recognise the sense of a sublime feeling, of enormous skies and the endless flat land.
The landscape of Caithness became my source of inspiration, and led me to use my Sixth Year art studies to take long walks along the course of Thurso river, to hunt out plants near Dunnet Head and to spend hours in the disused flagstone quarries at Achanarras, a perfect place to seek out good examples of fossilised fishes. The joy of finding a fossil which had laid undiscovered for thousands, if not millions of years had a profound impact on me. This emotional connection to the past and the feeling of seeing something suspended intime and space was at the core of what I would hope to convey in my own creative practice.
I was already certain that this was my path, namely, to enter art college. When I reached my final school year, I applied to various art colleges and was accepted by Edinburgh College of Art (ECA).
My arrival in Edinburgh before starting art college involved a few part-time jobs all to pay the rent on a flat at the top of Leith Walk. Through lack of funds, I discovered a new cheap food, a dessert called Angel Delight. The strawberry flavour was the best one and that became my new diet. This continued until through lack of nutrition, and the detrimental health risks of living in a damp flat, I quickly went down with pleurisy. My choice if I was to be ready for art college was to return home to recover and then start again.
Having recovered, I was back in Edinburgh at the beginning of October 1968, to meet my new fellow travellers on the journey into the world of art. During my first year at ECA a student sit-in started before Christmas 1969, in which classes were disrupted and parts of buildings occupied. The main push was to shift the very outdated curriculum to embrace more experimental artforms. The challenge was a teaching staff that had predominately been selected from past students, thereby perpetuating what you might call the ‘Edinburgh style’, or more broadly, the style of the Scottish Colourists. The idea that you could mix photography on your canvas with paint was viewed with deep suspicion. Out of this flurry of unrest, some minor concessions were made, but generally ECA settled back into its well-trodden ways. The art of Paris had made some gains within the Scottish establishment, but the world of American art, and especially the international Fluxus, was held firmly at bay.
In my second year at ECA, I moved into a flat on Howard Place, opposite the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE). With this move, the botanic gardens were to become my second home. At RBGE I became acquainted with the world of plants, the glasshouses, and the staff. I found a library on the site, one which was unexpectedly open to the public. The librarian suggested I investigate the work of Anna Atkins (1799- 1871), a Victorian woman who recorded seaweed via the medium of cyanotype. This was like a window into a world I had been seeking. I stumbled, with her help, into the world of early photographic processes. Up until the moment of discovering the work of Atkins, I understood all photography as camera-based images, but these were created without a camera. They were rather like the fossils I had found, images somehow conveying the spirit of the object they recorded. These small A4 size images with the deepest blue I had ever seen, the seaweed forms, in white against the blue background, brought memories of the Caithness walks of my childhood flooding back.
This discovery of the work of Atkins did not immediately push me in a new direction, but the window that had opened made me reflect that it might be a potential pathway. Throughout my second year at ECA I was racing around trying to work out what medium to use. As I came to the end of my second year at ECA in 1970, a vital event was to occur, a total work of art experience, an exhibition known as Strategy: Get Arts(SGA). At the time, I did not fully realise that this event would shape my future engagement with the world of art.
In Search of the Blue Flower: Alexander Hamilton and The Art of Cyanotype by Alexander Hamilton is published by Studies in Photography, priced £30.
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