Amongst the personal effects included in J.W.L. Glaisher’s 1928 bequest of pottery and porcelain to the Fitzwilliam Museum was some of his mother’s work, including 182 photogenic drawings and 106 salted paper prints of ferns. The Museum did not collect photography at the time, and the material has remained relatively unseen ever since.

Cecilia Glaisher (1828-92) created these images between approximately 1853 and 1856. Some of them were intended for a planned publication, The British Ferns: Represented in a Series of Photographs from Nature by Mrs Glaisher, with the publisher and fern expert Edward Newman during what has come to be known as the ‘Victorian fern craze’.1

The Athenaeum of June 16th, 1855, reported that a collection of photographs of British ferns, from specimens selected by Mr Newman, had been exhibited during a scientific conversazione at the Royal Society the previous week:

These beautiful copies, the size of life, and perfect in all their details, promise to be of value to the botanist, to whose requirements they are better adapted than any that have yet been placed at his command. Their effect is that of delicate sepia drawings, and at the same time that the venation of the leaves is displayed with the fidelity and delicacy of the original, it is, as in nature, only to be detected on near inspection. Our acquaintance with the natural history of the ferns, and their peculiar elegance of form, is likely to be much increased by this valuable and interesting series, which we understand, is in course of publication by Mr. Newman.

As a result of recent digital copying, the material can now be studied in detail for the first time. This online exhibition aims to introduce Cecilia Glaisher’s work and give an idea of what the unrealised publication with Newman hoped to achieve.

1. For more information on the Victorian Fern Craze, see The Victorian Fern Craze: A History of Pteridomania by David Elliston Allen (Hutchinsons, 1969) and Fern Fever: The Story of Pteridomania by Sarah Whittingham (Frances Lincoln, 2012)

Background to the British Ferns

Beech Fern page from Newman’s A History of British Ferns
Page from Newman’s A History of British Ferns
Cecilia Glaisher, pen and ink copy of Beech Fern
Cecilia Glaisher, pen and ink copy of Beech Fern

Edward Newman (1801-1876) was a lepidopterist and pteridologist, printer and publisher. He was regarded as a leading British expert on ferns following the appearance in 1840 of his book, A History of British Ferns. A second, much expanded edition was issued in 1844. Illustrated with precise wood engravings and filled with accurately observed detail, it was widely considered the best book on the subject. It introduced for the first time some of the abnormal variants of fern species which were to interest Victorian collectors so much.

The edition current at the time when Cecilia Glaisher was collaborating with Newman was the third edition published in 1854. It contained descriptions to aid identification, and sections on the characters of different species and where they were found, information supplied to him by a network of botanists and fern enthusiasts.

That Cecilia Glaisher knew it well can be seen from the pen and ink sketch (above right) that she copied from the page about the Beech Fern. Her handwritten notes consist of extracts from Newman’s text about the fern’s geographical range, and include this quote from J. Lloyd and K. M’Ennes, two of his fern correspondents: “In a somewhat shady portion of elevated ground, at a distance of about two miles from Balcombe, and near the line of the tunnel, we had the good fortune to find Polypodium Phegopteris in the most beautiful condition.” 2

P.12303-R Beech Fern
(Polypodium Phegopteris, current scientific name Phegopteris connectilis)

This image of a Beech Fern (44 x 28 cm) is one of the salted paper prints made for the publication planned with Newman, The British Ferns: Represented in a Series of Photographs from Nature by Mrs Glaisher. It has been captioned within the image by one of the printed labels Newman produced for fern collectors to identify their pressed specimens.

To be issued in a series, The British Ferns was intended to be more than just a set of beautiful images; as an accurate aid to identifying species, its aim was to appeal to the growing number of botanists and fern collectors by exceeding in exactness and surpassing in beauty all other illustrated publications available in an increasingly competitive field.3

In particular, Newman may have hoped to rival a magnificent work, The Ferns of Great Britain and Ireland, Nature-printed.4 With a preface by botanist John Lindley (1799-1865), text by fern expert Thomas Moore (1821-1887), and life-size coloured nature prints by Henry Bradbury 5 (1829-1860), it was issued in 1855-6 in 17 parts, in the form of loose plates, and cost 6 shillings per part, or 6 guineas for the complete volume, a huge amount of money at the time. (‘Nature printing’ covers a variety of techniques of making a print by impressing the surface of an object onto a medium such as paper or lead.) 6

On May 2nd, 1855, Edward Newman wrote to his brother Henry: "I am engaged on two new works on ferns one a blaze of beauty at about 4 guineas a copy in reply to Lindley & Moore… I send an advertisement of the big work which contains all the information I am at present able to give." 7

Glaisher (C) 7/8

This ‘advertisement’ is likely to have been the handbill to promote The British Ferns seen here, in which Newman wrote:

The process of photography is admirably adapted to making faithful copies of Botanical Specimens, more especially to illustrating the graceful and beautiful class of Ferns: it possesses the advantage over all others hitherto employed of displaying, with incomparable exactness, the most minute characters; producing absolute fac-similes of the objects, perfect both in artistic effect and structure details.

The desire for very precise and accurate detail necessary to the classification and identification of plants posed problems for illustrators. Both nature printing and photogenic drawing were claimed to be more exact because they produced images made directly from actual specimens. In fact there were limitations to what each process could achieve. The difficulties of getting the thicker parts of plants to reproduce clearly on a two-dimensional surface were common to both.

In September 1855 twelve of Cecilia Glaisher’s prints of ferns were included in the Glasgow Photographic Exhibition, held to coincide with the meeting there of the British Association. This placed the twenty-seven year old Cecilia Glaisher’s work alongside that of some of the most respected photographers of the day. In December that year, Newman presented a set of ten positive prints, on mounts embossed with his publishing details, to the Linnean Society in London, giving potential subscribers to The British Ferns an idea of the quality, accuracy, and beauty of the work.

The publication was never fully realised, however, and appears to have been abandoned by 1856. Whether this was due to problems in raising enough subscriptions to make it viable, or down to difficulties in producing sufficient prints in consistent quantities, or for other reasons is not known.

The images in the gallery below give an idea of how The British Ferns might have looked had it been completed. They are a selection from the 47 mounted prints in the holding, which have ‘Glaisher’ and a number written in pencil on the back of the mounts, and may have been among those exhibited and discussed at learned society meetings and other gatherings during the nineteenth century. Two similar prints are in the collection of the Royal Photographic Society, of which James Glaisher was President in 1869-1874 and 1875-1892.


2. A History of British Ferns, 3rd edition, by Edward Newman (John van Voorst, 1854, p. 52)

3. The Quarterly Review in January 1857 listed the followings works:
1) The Ferns of Great Britain &c Nature-printed by Henry Bradbury, with full descriptions of their different species and varieties, by Thomas Moore, FLS. Edited by Dr Lindley, FRS &c. London, 1856. Imp. Folio. 51 plates.
2) Species Filicum, being descriptions of all Known Ferns, &c, &c, accompanied with numerous figures, by Sir W.J. Hooker, K.H., D.C.L., &c. London, 1846-56. 8 vo.
3) An Analysis of the British Ferns and their Allies, by G.W. Francis, F.L.S. 5th edition. With engravings. Revised and enlarged by Arthur Henfrey, F.R.S., Professor of Botany, Kings College. London, 1855. 8 vo.
4) The Handbook of British Ferns, by Thomas Moore, F.L.S., &c. 2nd edition. London, 1853.
5) A History of British Ferns, by Edward Newman, F.L.S., &c. 3rd edition. London, 1854. 8 vo.
6) An Introduction to Cryptogamic Botany by the Rev. M.J. Berkely, M.A., F.L.S. London,1857. 8vo.
7) Nature-Printing, its Origin and Objects. A lecture delivered at the Royal Institution, May 11, 1855, by Henry Bradbury. London. 1856.
8) Physiotypa Plantarum Austriacrum, by Prof. von Ettigshausen and A. Pokorny, with 500 plates Nature-printed. Vienna, 1856. Folio.

4. The Ferns of Great Britain and Ireland by Thomas Moore and John Lindley (Bradbury and Evans, 1855)

5. For information about Henry Bradbury, see ‘Henry Bradbury’s first nature-prints of ferns’ by A.F. Dyer in Fern Gazette (17: 2, pp. 59-77, 2004) and ‘The Life and Craft of William and Henry Bradbury, Masters of Nature Printing in Britainby A.F. Dyer in Huntia (Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation, Carnegie Mellon University, 2015)

6. For more information on nature printing, see Typographia Naturalis by Roderick Cave and Geoffrey Wakeman (Brewhouse Press, 1967), Impressions of Nature: A History of Nature Printing by Roderick Cave (British Library, 2010), and The subjective nature of Nature Printing by Pia Ostlund (MA thesis, University of Reading, 2013)

7. Pritchard Letters, Society of Friends Library. MS 161 371 Folder No. II. Loose letters collected from pages 40-86. Item 86/3. The "advertisement" referred to is no longer with the letter.


>P.12232-R  Hard Fern (Blechnum spicant)
P.12232-R Hard Fern (Blechnum spicant)
P.12233-R  Beech Fern (Phegopteris connectilis)
P.12233-R Beech Fern (Phegopteris connectilis)

P.12234-R  Oak Fern (Gymnocarpium Dryopteris)
P.12234-R Oak Fern (Gymnocarpium Dryopteris)
Cecilia Glaisher, pen and ink copy of Beech Fern
P.12235-R Dickie’s Fern (Cystopteris dickieana)

>P.12238-R  Willdenow’s Fern (Polystichum setiferum)
P.12238-R Willdenow’s Fern (Polystichum setiferum)
P.12241-R  Mountain Fern (Oreopteris limbosperma)
P.12241-R Mountain Fern (Oreopteris limbosperma)

P.12242-R  Bree’s Fern (Dryopteris aemula)
P.12242-R Bree’s Fern (Dryopteris aemula)
P.12245-R  Roth’s Fern (Dryopteris dilatata)
P.12245-R Roth’s Fern (Dryopteris dilatata)

>P.12251-R  Withering’s Fern (Dryopteris carthusiana)
P.12251-R Withering’s Fern (Dryopteris carthusiana)
P.12257-R  Flexile Lady Fern (Athyrium flexile)
P.12257-R Flexile Lady Fern (Athyrium flexile)

P.12264-R  Bory’s Spleenwort (Asplenium onopteris)
P.12264-R Bory’s Spleenwort (Asplenium onopteris)
P.12265-R  Sea Spleenwort (Asplenium marinum)
P.12265-R Sea Spleenwort (Asplenium marinum)

>P.12266-R  Maidenhair Spleenwort (Asplenium trichomanes)
P.12266-R Maidenhair Spleenwort (Asplenium trichomanes)
P.12269-R  Rue-leaved Spleenwort (Asplenium ruta-muraria)
P.12269-R Rue-leaved Spleenwort (Asplenium ruta-muraria)

P.12273-R  Hart’s Tongue Fern (Asplenium scolopendrium)
P.12273-R Hart’s Tongue Fern (Asplenium scolopendrium)
P.12274-R  Flowering Fern (Osmunda regalis)
P.12274-R Flowering Fern (Osmunda regalis)


P.12357-R  Photogenic drawing (negative) of Wilson’s Fern (Cystopeteris montana)
P.12357-R Photogenic drawing (negative) of Wilson’s Fern (Cystopeteris montana)
P.12356-R  Positive print of Wilson’s Fern (Cystopeteris montana
P.12356-R Positive print of Wilson’s Fern (Cystopeteris montana)

To create her images of ferns Cecilia Glaisher used William Henry Fox Talbot’s 1839 invention, the photogenic drawing process.8 This produced a negative image from which positive prints could be made by contact-printing. The fern fronds were placed directly on the photogenic drawing paper so the prints are life size, approximately 18 by 12 inches (45 x 30 cm). Paper prints allowed her where necessary to retouch the negatives or overwork the positives with artist’s materials she had to hand, including ink, carbon black, and red watercolour. The paper used to make the photogenic drawings (negatives) was Canson Frères 50 gsm, a thin, lightweight, starch-sized, French paper; the salted paper prints (positives) were made on 90-100 gsm B.F.K. Rives.9

The images above show a photogenic drawing (negative) of Wilson’s Fern, and a salted paper print (positive) that has been contact printed from it.

In the photogenic drawing process,10 good quality writing or drawing paper was prepared by being washed to remove as many impurities as possible and then soaked for a minute or two in a solution of common salt. Blotted and allowed to dry, it was pinned to a board and, in subdued light, brushed, or coated by other means, on one side with silver nitrate solution. The salt and the silver nitrate combine to form silver chloride which blackens on exposure to light.

A contemporary description of the technique Cecilia Glaisher may have used can be found in the 1860 edition of Dr Golding Bird's Elements of Natural Philosophy. Describing how photography can be applied to copying lace patterns, leaves, or engravings, he wrote:

The class of objects best adapted to this mode of treatment is the fern tribe: the delicacy and artistic beauty with which the fronds of ferns have been photographed by Mrs Glaisher and others is truly surprising.

The method was described as follows:

... a piece of paper properly prepared should be placed upon a smooth surface, and the object laid upon it ... a plate of glass should then be placed on the whole, and pressed down with a moderate weight. A pressure frame, similar to those containing the plates of ground glass used by children to trace drawings, is very convenient for this purpose…
By a short exposure to the sun, or a longer one to diffused day-light, all that part of the paper uncovered by the object will be darkened in colour, or even blackened; the remainder being protected from the action of light, retains its primitive whiteness. On removing the paper, an exact copy of the object placed upon it will be found. This drawing will, however, soon vanish by the blackening of the whole impression, unless it is preserved by the removal of the unchanged chloride from the paper. For this purpose, after soaking for a few seconds in water, the paper should be washed in a solution of hyposulphite of soda, containing two or three drachms of the salt in a fluid-ounce of pure water, which by dissolving the unchanged chloride, renders the image of the object permanent; this is called fixing the impression.11

The images of Wilson’s Fern above were captioned with a printed identification label. The label was included at the photogenic drawing stage, placed face down beside the fern on the paper so that the type was back-to-front, as shown in the negative image on the left. When a positive print was made the text was reversed and became readable.

As can be seen in this close-up, the addition of labels appears to have caused difficulties. In both this case and others, the fern – or the label – has slipped. In other cases thicker parts of ferns appear to have prevented the labels being held flat under the glass, creating shadows on some sides.

07 p,12356-r detail
07 p,12356-r detail

In the examples below, the labels have been inserted at the side of the composition, nearer the edge of the printing frame, to help keep them flat and in one place.
Oak Fern (Gymnocarpium Dryopteris)</em>
Oak Fern (Gymnocarpium Dryopteris)
P.12519-R  Weiss’ Spleenwort (Asplenium x alternifolium)</em>
P.12519-R Weiss’ Spleenwort (Asplenium x alternifolium)

Two of the mounted salted paper prints in the portfolio Newman presented to the Linnean Society have labels glued directly onto their mounts, which may have proved a more practical and reliable method of getting them right.


8. For more information on Talbot, see Out of the Shadows: Herschel, Talbot, & the Invention of Photography by Larry J. Schaaf (Yale University Press, 1992)

9. Conservation Report on a collection of early photographs by Cecilia Glaisher for and on behalf of the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge by Ian and Angela Moor (The Centre for Photographic Conservation, 1996)

10. Referring to Plate VII, ‘Leaf of a plant’, in The Pencil of Nature, Talbot gave the following description of his process:

A leaf of a plant, or any similar object which is thin and delicate, is laid flat upon a sheet of prepared paper which is moderately sensitive. It is then covered with a glass, which is pressed down tight upon it by means of screws.
This done, it is placed in the sunshine for a few minutes, until the exposed parts of the paper have turned dark brown or nearly black. It is then removed into a shady place, and when the leaf is taken up, it is found to have left its impression or picture on the paper. This image is of a pale brown tint if the leaf is semi-transparent, or it is quite white if the leaf is opaque.
The leaves of plants thus represented in white upon a dark background, make very pleasing pictures, and I shall probably introduce a few specimens of them in the sequel of this work: but the present plate shews one pictured in the contrary manner, viz. dark upon a white ground: or, speaking in the language of photography, it is a positive and not a negative image of it. The change is accomplished by simply repeating the first process. For, that process, as above described, gives a white image on a darkened sheet of paper: this sheet is then taken and washed with a fixing liquid to destroy the sensibility of the paper and fix the image on it.
This done, the paper is dried, and then it is laid upon a second sheet of sensitive paper, being pressed into close contact with it, and placed in the sunshine: this second process is evidently only a repetition of the first. When finished, the second paper is found to have received an image of a contrary kind to the first; the ground being white, and the image upon it dark.

The Pencil of Nature
by W.H.F. Talbot (Longmans, Brown, Green & Longmans, 1844-46; facsimile reprint: Da Capo Press, New York, 1969). See also The Art of Photogenic Drawing (Fox Talbot Museum, Data Sheet Number 1, 1994)

11. The Elements of Natural Philosophy: or an introduction to the study of the physical sciences by Golding Bird, M.A., M.D., F.R.S., F.L.S., and Charles Brooke, M.A.,M.B., F.R.S., the fifth edition, revised and enlarged. (John Churchill, 1860, p. 623)


Smith’s Fern (Gymnocarpium robertianum)
Smith’s Fern (Gymnocarpium robertianum)
Smith’s Fern (Gymnocarpium robertianum)
Smith’s Fern (Gymnocarpium robertianum)

Dickie’s Fern (Cystopteris dickiana)
Dickie’s Fern (Cystopteris dickiana)
Dickie’s Fern (Cystopteris dickiana)
Dickie’s Fern (Cystopteris dickiana)

Wilson’s Fern (Cystopteris montana)
Wilson’s Fern (Cystopteris montana)
Wilson’s Fern (Cystopteris montana)
Wilson’s Fern (Cystopteris montana)

Holly Fern (Polystichum lonchitis)
Holly Fern (Polystichum lonchitis)
Holly Fern (Polystichum lonchitis)
Holly Fern (Polystichum lonchitis)

Withering’s Fern (Dryopteris carthusiana)
Withering’s Fern (Dryopteris carthusiana)
Withering’s Fern (Dryopteris carthusiana)
Withering’s Fern (Dryopteris carthusiana)

Sea Spleenwort (Asplenium marinum)
Sea Spleenwort (Asplenium marinum)
Sea Spleenwort (Asplenium marinum)
Sea Spleenwort (Asplenium marinum)


Hart’s Tongue Fern (Asplenium scolopendrium)
Hart’s Tongue Fern (Asplenium scolopendrium)

Unlike Newman’s earlier books, the images for The British Ferns show actual fern specimens life-size. As well as being beautiful illustrations, they needed to be examples that fern enthusiasts could compare with their own specimens to help identify them.

Species identification requires an image of the way a plant appears (called its 'habit': whether upright or creeping, stiff frond or drooping, etc.). It also requires details of the shape and size of fronds, surface features such as hairs, and details of the reproductive structures. Most ferns produce some sterile fronds, concerned only with photosynthesis, and some 'fertile' ones which, as well as being photosynthetic, have sporangia arranged in groups called ‘sori’. The sori often have a characteristic shape (for instance linear or round) and position on the frond.

In the Hart's Tongue Fern (above) they are linear and form a more or less herring-bone pattern over most of the underside of the frond. This composition shows ten mature fronds, all of which appear to be fertile ones with linear sori. Juvenile plants can be seen at the top of the image.

In another composition of the Hart’s Tongue fern (far right below) an abnormal frond with a forked end has been included.12 Variants such as these greatly interested Victorian fern collectors and were highly sought after, causing some species to be 'hunted' almost to extinction.

Hart’s Tongue Fern
Hart’s Tongue Fern
Hart’s Tongue Fern

P.12547-R, P.12546-R, P12538-R Hart’s Tongue Fern (Asplenium scolopendrium)

The photogenic drawing below shows mature fertile fronds of a Maidenhair Fern. The small pale specks around the margins of the leaf segments are the sori.

P.12279-R  True Maidenhair Fern (Adiantum capillus-veneris)</em>
P.12279-R True Maidenhair Fern (Adiantum capillus-veneris)

In the Hard Fern below the sori are restricted to a particular type of frond. The species is ‘dimorphic’, with a ‘division of labour’ between fronds adapted for spore dispersal and those adapted for photosynthesis. In this salted paper print there are two fertile fronds to the right, and two sterile photosynthetic fronds to the left.13

P.12286-R  Hard Fern (Blechnum spicant)</em>
P.12286-R Hard Fern (Blechnum spicant)


12. An early depiction of the Hart's Tongue fern, dating from 1446-90, and including a frond with a forked end, can be found as a life-size carving on a pillar in a chapel in Scotland. See 'A botanist looks at the medieval plant carvings at Rosslyn Chapel’ by A.F. Dyer in BSS News: The Newsletter of the Botanical Society of Scotland (78, pp. 31-40, 2002)

13. Thanks to Dr Adrian Dyer, Research Associate, Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh, for providing botanical information for this section. Any mistakes in interpretation or other errors are all mine.



arrangement of stems in fern images
Left: P.12288-R Hard Fern (Blechnum spicant)
Centre: P.12502-R Sea Spleenwort (Asplenium marinum)
Right: P.12489-R Black-leaved Spleenwort (Asplenium adiantum-nigrum)

The images of the Hard Fern (above left) and the Sea Spleenwort (above centre) are typical of the way Cecilia Glaisher often arranges stems in her compositions: more angular V-shapes in the Hard Fern, and curved over each other in the Sea Spleenwort to give a sense of movement to the fronds. Where the stems of ferns were too long to fit, they have been bent up, and sometimes back over themselves, as in the Black-leaved Spleenwort (above right), making a pattern of intersecting lines that resembles calligraphy.

In the series of photogenic drawings of the Holly Fern below it can be seen how she experimented with small variations to the arrangement of fronds to get the specimens and compositions looking exactly as she wanted.

Holly Fern
Holly Fern
Holly Fern

P.12367-R, P.12368-R, P.12372-R Holly Fern (Polystichum lonchitis)
Holly Fern
Holly Fern
Holly Fern

P.12373-R, P.12369-R, P.12374-R Holly Fern (Polystichum lonchitis)


At first glance the two images below appear to show different specimens of the same species, but when you look more closely you can see that they are in fact not individual plants. Cecilia Glaisher has composed each of them out of parts.

Limestone Oak Fern
Limestone Oak Fern

P.12346-R and P.12343-R Limestone Oak Fern (Gymnocarpium robertianum)

In the picture on the left above, the white object lying horizontally at the bottom of the negative is the thicker part of the root system – the same object that has been placed vertically in the picture on the right.

Looking closely at the fronds shows that the same three have been used in both images, but arranged in different ways. The lower frond in each image is the same, the one in the picture on the left with a curved stem placed sideways, the one at right with a V-shaped stem placed upright. The tallest frond in the picture on the left (P.12346-R) is also the tallest in the image on the right (P.12343-R), but has been placed in reverse (flipped left to right) on the paper.

In both images, starting from the root systems, you can see how the fern stems have been arranged to emerge in different ways; and how the stems are in fact made up from pieces – like making figures out of matchsticks.

In a letter to Edward Newman, George Maw, who was a subscriber to the complete series of The British Ferns and had lent some specimens for the project, wrote that he was fully prepared to hear that his specimens had been “mutilated in order to make them useful to the Photographic Process & can only say how truly glad I am that Mrs Glaisher has been able to make use of them for her beautiful publication – & when they are quite done with I shall replace them “disjecta membra” [in disjointed parts] in my herbarium with additional interest.” 14


Some of the difficulties Cecilia Glaisher experienced in getting the thicker parts of ferns to be rendered accurately by the photogenic drawing process can be seen in this sequence showing Bory’s Spleenwort. When arranging fern parts of different thicknesses it was not possible to get all the elements to lie flat and in direct contact with the paper, even when placed under glass, so not all of the specimen would register clearly.

Bory’s Spleenwort
Bory’s Spleenwort
Bory’s Spleenwort

P.12492-R, P.12493-R, P.12494-R Borys Spleenwort (Asplenium onopteris)

On the photogenic drawing at right above (P.12494-R), red has been added at the top left corner and down the edge of the paper to block light from passing through, thereby creating more white space around the tips of the fronds in any subsequent positive prints. Also, in this image and the one at centre (P.12493-R), retouching has been carried out along the sides of some stems to make their lines print more cleanly.

Bory’s Spleenwort
Bory’s Spleenwort
Bory’s Spleenwort

P.12496-R, P.12497-R, P.12498-R Bory’s Spleenwort (Asplenium onopteris)

Another problem was that light could not pass through the more solid parts of the root system, leaving the paper underneath unexposed and white as in the images above. To overcome this, it was necessary for her to draw or paint in details to these areas, as seen in the slight variations and close-up below.

P.12497-R detail

A resulting negative and positive pair shows a root system with apparently realistic detail, even if it appears slightly ‘un-photographic’ when looked at closely.
Bory’s Spleenwort
Bory’s Spleenwort

P.12498-R and P.12499-R Bory’s Spleenwort (Asplenium onopteris)

All this attention to detail and experimenting with small variations show how painstaking Cecilia Glaisher was in her attempts to get the compositions of her images and the information they conveyed as realistic and precise as possible. From preparing the photogenic drawing paper to arriving at a finished print with which she was satisfied would have been a laborious and skilful process.


14. See Fitzwilliam Museum holding Glaisher (C) 1/3, letter from George Maw to Edward Newman


The reasons why the planned publication with Edward Newman, The British Ferns: Represented in a Series of Photographs from Nature by Mrs Glaisher, was never realised are not known. After Newman’s presentation of ten mounted prints to the Linnean Society in December 1855, no further references to it have yet been found and the project appears to have been abandoned in 1856.

How many photographs The British Ferns was intended to consist of is uncertain. In the 1854 edition of A History of British Ferns, Newman listed 50 species. Producing this quantity of good positive prints for even a relatively small number of copies would have been a huge undertaking. There may have been difficulties in producing prints of consistent quality, or potential subscribers may have had doubts about the longevity of prints produced by the photographic process.

Life-size photogravure of Ehrhart’s Fern
P.13864-R Life-size photogravure of Ehrhart’s Fern (Dryopteris cristata)

The Museum’s holding includes three engravings made from Cecilia Glaisher’s photographs, one of which is seen above. Engravings would have been thought more permanent and might indicate that reproducing her images in this way was being considered.

Another possibility is that there were problems in raising enough subscriptions to make the project financially viable. The first part of Moore and Lindley’s The Ferns of Great Britain and Ireland, illustrated by Henry Bradbury’s nature prints, appeared in April 1855 and the last in August 1856 – at exactly the same time as Cecilia Glaisher’s work was being made and promoted. Perhaps enthusiastic fern collectors preferred Bradbury’s nature-prints because they were coloured, or were unwilling to pay for another very expensive publication.

Cecilia Glaisher also made nature prints. Using methods different to Bradbury’s, she produced over two hundred impressions of leaves to which she added colour by hand.

These loose prints were collected and pasted into an album titled Leaves of the British Forest Trees 1857 Nature-printed CJ Glaisher. They include leaves of beech, elm, maple, lime, sycamore, oak, horse chestnut, oriental and occidental plane, alder, birch, poplar, guelder rose, and hazel.

Some, shown as they appear at different seasons, appear so life-like and their colours remain so vibrant they can still easily be mistaken for the living things.

Hazel and Horse Chesnut leaves
Left: Hazel leaf in Leaves of the British Forest Trees album, 4162-L1
Right: Horse-chestnut leaves in Leaves of the British Forest Trees album, 4162-121 to -124

With nature prints, as with photogenic drawings, however, it was difficult to get the thicker parts of plants to reproduce clearly. In several prints of oak leaves she resorted to painting in the branches and acorns which, unlike the leaves themselves, were not flat enough to be impressed directly onto paper.

The album also includes some small coloured nature-prints of ferns.

The initials CJ Glaisher embossed on the spine of the album appear to be those of both Cecilia and James Glaisher.

Fern leaf
Fern leaf in Leaves of the British Forest Trees album,
4162-50 (detail)


Working in many different media during the 1850s, Cecilia Glaisher created a beautiful and unique body of work. Her images of ferns, made using William Henry Fox Talbot’s 1839 photogenic drawing process, form a record of fern species growing in mid-Victorian Britain which can now, with twenty-first century digital technology, be explored in new ways.

For example, the two photogenic drawings below appear to show the top and bottom halves of the same frond of a Soft-Shield Fern.

Soft Shield-Fern
Soft Shield-Fern

P.12392-R and P.12391-R Soft Shield-Fern (Polystichum angulare)

Combined in Photoshop (below) they re-become a very old giant fern!
giant fern negative
giant fern positive

Giant fern negative and posative

Never having been glued onto mounts or pasted into albums her photogenic drawings and salted paper prints hold valuable information for research purposes. The retouching and overworking she carried out on the images provides insights into early photographic printing problems and the ways found to overcome them.

Digital copies mean the images can be studied closely and safely for long periods of time, which is not advisable with the light-sensitive originals. The technology makes it feasible to zoom in on details and convert negatives into positives or vice-versa, possibilities which would surely have interested – and greatly intrigued – the Glaishers.

And it gives us now, some 160 years after Cecilia Glaisher made them, a sense of what The British Ferns: Represented in a Series of Photographs from Nature by Mrs Glaisher might have shown had it been completed.15


15. For more information on Cecilia Glaisher’s ferns, see Photographed from Nature by Mrs Glaisher by Caroline Marten (MA dissertation, University of the Arts, London, 2002).