Sketches from Hastings

I’ve lived in Hastings for nearly eight months now, and I am still continually struck by how beautiful it can be. Travelling around, and coming home, I welcome the sight of the sea, and the rise and swell of the East and West hills.

Not had much time to do anything but work and catch up with life, but here are a couple of quick drawings I did months ago and have just got round to finishing off. The first is Pelham Crescent, the street where I live, and the second is what used to be Broomham Hall, now Buckswood School, where I work. More to come, hopefully.

Pelham Crescent, Hastings. Leila Battison, 2013.

Pelham Crescent, Hastings. Leila Battison, 2013.

Buckswood School, Guestling. Leila Battison, 2013

Buckswood School, Guestling. Leila Battison, 2013

Radcliffe Camera in Pen and Ink – A tribute…

… to the last eight years of my life.  And it has taken me nearly a year to get round to finishing it, what with that pesky thesis getting in the way.  Anyway, in the vacuum-like calm of the post-thesis lull, I finally got round to tuning back into Radio 4 and picking up my Stabilo again.

Radcliffe Camera, Pen and Ink on paper

Radcliffe Camera, Pen and Ink on paper


The Radcliffe Camera, affectionately known as the ‘Rad Cam’, is one of the most iconic buildings of Oxford University.  It is a reading room of the Bodleian Library, being chiefly the home of antiquated law and sociological texts as far as I know.  As a result, I, as a scientist, was treated only to the subterranean delights of the Racliffe Science Library, and none so internally or externally picturesque as the Rad Cam.  Nevertheless, as an undergraduate I found several excuses to work in there whilst revising for finals.  The silence in there is oppressive, and personally not conducive to concentration, as I contemplated the changing pitch in readers’ footsteps as the perused the shelf.  At least I went there, and I spent many more hours working on it, than I ever spent working in it.



Anglesey, Portmeirion, and a new artwork

A few weeks ago, after coming back from my journalistic summer, I embarked on
hopefully the final piece of fieldwork I will have to carry out for my thesis.

My three-year-and-two-month (and counting) doctoral research has been very heavily field based, and I have had the opportunity to scour the rocks in northwest Scotland, south Wales, northern Ontario, and eastern Newfoundland.  My latest trip was to one of the less glamorous locations – Anglesey.  My intended destination was the happening town of Cemaes and its nearby bay, where I hoped to find some excitingly ancient evidence of continents colliding and crumbling.  The fossil-bearing rocks I was in search for formed before the first animals and were once attached to part of South America.

I organised it at pretty short notice, and didn’t have time to organise a proper field assistant.  So I took… my mummy. Here she is:

Mummy admiring some rocks

She was a very good field assistant, quite apart from the trendy fieldworking handbag.  She didn’t answer back, provide any ‘outsider insight’.  She did a spectacular job in sitting on rocks, showing mild interest and making sure I didn’t fall in the sea and drown.

As we were such an efficient fieldworking team, we finished everything I needed to do in minimum time.  We had a spare day, and we decided to spend it at the nearby Portmeirion village on the mainland.

Portmeirion, known to most as the setting for 1960s psychological thriller The Prisoner,  was the brainchild of the absurdly wealthy and deliciously eccentric Clough Williams-Ellis, who supposedly built it to resemble an Italian village.  The setting certainly suits, and if you ignore the biting wind and harsh north-Welsh accents, the hillside settlement is truly idyllic.  But the village is not entirely Italian in its design.  Alongside the traditionally brightly coloured Italian townhouses and belvederes, the Town Hall has a gothic-art and crafts feel, owing to many of its architectural elements being scavenged from an abandoned manor house.  There is a soft-plaster roundhouse that is only missing a thatch roof to set it apart form its Cotswold counterparts, and the main ‘piazza’ is dominated by a grand Bristol Colonnade that features its namesake in style and stone. Williams-Ellis should be given extra credit for creating an image with so many individual style elements, but which still fit seamlessly and harmoniously alongside each other and the dramatic setting.

If I was left wanting at any juncture, it was that the village presented a perfect facade, but that was all it was.  The majority of the buildings that had not been turned into shops or resaurants were roped off. The Town Hall apparently boasts an impressive plaster barrel ceiling, but visitors get no further than the doorway.  Most of the individual cottages are rented out to holiday makers, and I am sure this is a valuable and much0needed source of income, necessary for the upkeep of the village.  But to the day-visitor, it can make for a slightly frustrating barrier.

Regardless, my mummy and I had a lovely day, and we had lovely lunch and coffee overlooking the lovely estuary. It was a beautiful day in early November, and one of those golden days that stick in the memory.

So being a lowly journalist-in-training and particularly strapped for cash, I decided to make her a birthday present that reflected that perfect day.  I gave her this:

Portmeirion (c) Leila Battison 2011

Portmeirion (c) Leila Battison 2011. Pen and Ink on Paper

You can see the Bristol Colonnade centre left, and the roundhouse bottom centre.  I am pretty pleased with the result, I really enjoyed doing it, and it was a new experiment with a chinese caligraphy brush and indian ink. Completely different to my usual style, but I’m pleased with how it turned out.  I will be doing more like this just as soon as I find some time!

Mummy was delighted with it and showed all the neighbors.  I am just happy to have been able to record my marvellous trip in my own special way.



A Hidden Legacy of Robert Hooke

Oxford is well known for its exceptional copyright Library – the Bodleian.  But some of the better kept secrets of the university are the individual college libraries, often the first port of call for fresher undergraduates, and the preferred final resting place of finalists.  Owing to the antiquity of many of the colleges, many of these libraries contain hidden, ancient bibliographic secrets.  This week, I was lucky enough to lay my hands on one such secret – a first edition of Robert Hooke’s Micrographia.

St Edmund Hall, dating back to the 13th Century, houses one of the first private college libraries in a small room above the chapel.  The construction of the old library (the new library occupies a Norman church in the grounds) was completed in 1685, and was used to hold the collection amassed by the then Principal, Dr Thomas Tullie.  It is a small and unassuming room, with enclosed bookcases lining the four walls of the main floor and an upper gallery.  Small windows with heavy yellow velvet curtains allowed the spring light to fill the room.  The collection is large and varied.  Among the many eclesiastical tomes are books on natural history, travel in the Empire, even an instructional guide to Witches.  Some books are chained.  But of greatest interest to our little group of palaeontologists, was a rare first edition folio of Robert Hooke’s study of tiny objects through the microscope – ‘Micrographia: or, Some physiological descriptions of minute bodies made by magnifying glasses’.  Handling the book with white cotton gloves and weighted ‘snakes’ to hold down the pages, it was a magical experience, and one that I hope I can share with a few photographs, courtesy of my colleague Jack Matthews.

Robert Hooke's Micrographia, first edition

Micrographia was the first published book of the newly established Royal Society (founded just around the corner at Wadham College), appearing in 1665.  Robert Hooke, who studied at Wadham, developed his own compound microscopes with which to study microscopic objects, and he figured them in Micrographia as exquisite copperplate engravings, some as large fold-outs.  Micrographia is best known for studies of biological objects, and it was here that the word ‘cell’ was first used to describe living biological units, alongside intricate drawings of cork.  Pollen grains, seeds, and many insects are figured, and the large illustration of a flea has become and iconic image for science in this golden age.

Flea illustration from Hooke's Micrographia

But Hooke was a true polymath.  His work strayed well outside the biological.  Just like everyone does when given a microscope and some free time, he put everything he could find under there.  Textiles, the point of a needle, the edge of a blade, a lump of oolitic limestone, hair (complete with hair louse).  It is a wonder he didn’t draw his own fingernails, only it was probably too gross.  And his drawings weren’t just limited to things he saw down the microscope.  He included schematics of the microscope itself, light refraction and reflection in different systems, as well as a view of craters of the moon along with discussion of whether they were caused by impacts, or by volcanoes.  He came to the conclusion that they were volcanoes, but we can forgive him just this time.

The book itself is beautiful.  You can pick up a recent printing of it for barely anything these days, but there is something special about this fragile first edition.  Leather bound, with cord binding, and marks to show it had once been chained,  the pages gently discoloured, with mysterious bequeathements and catalogue numbers handrwitten – testament to its arrival in the very earliest days of the Library.


Record of Hooke’s Micrographia in the catalogue of St Edmund Hall’s Old Library

The library had many more secrets to give up – including a second edition print of Newton’s Principia, and an early geological and palaeontological tome by Corpus Christi geologist Dr William Buckland.


Illustration of a Crinoid fossil by William Buckland

It is wonderful to know that these treasures are there to be found on our own doorstep, and are being preserved just as they always have been.  Long may their presence be preserve to the deep scientific legacy of the University as a seat of learning.

Many thanks to Jack Matthews for the photographs, and to Vicky and Blanca for showing us the collections.  Martin Brasier, Alex Liu, Linhao Fang, Jack Matthews and Jonny Baker-Brian shared the magical experience.


Yours truly with Micrographia in the Old Library, St Edmund Hall

In some corner of a foreign museum…

Wow.  So, I know, its been ages.  But that doesn’t matter.  I’m back now.  Woo!

Here is something I have had sitting on my desk for a while.  When I was in Washington DC for the NASA Exobiology 50th Anniversary symposium last year (blogged about here), I also spent some time poking around the Smithsonian Natural History museum’s collections.  I was actually poking for a reason – to look for referenced type material that I could image.

However, beyond discovering how fantastically cryptic the museum collections are, and how very few people have any clue to the whereabouts of these valuable scientific materials, my researches didn’t turn up much.  Except this:

Rifling through a drawer, looking through examples of likely algal carbonaceous fossils Chuaria and Beltina, I found an envelope marked ‘Unpublished Drawings, Beltina danai.  Walcott’.  The Walcott is Charles Doolittle Walcott, who is widely credited for discovering  and bringing into the scientific spotlight, one of the most famous Cambrian lagerstatte, the Burgess Shale.

Inside the envelope were twelve small pieces of paper, each with an intricate pencil drawing of a single unique fossil of Beltina.  They are beautiful.  As someone who appreciates the power of good illustration in science, and good illustration as good art itself, it was like opening an envelope to find a bottomless supply of gold.  These drawings, as well as being impeccably implememented, are a piece of history.  Here, tucked away in a corner of some forgotten drawer in a rarely visited corner of the museum, are the fruits of a great scientist’s labour.  The pencil strokes, the careful shading – I would love to know what Charles Doolittle Walcott was thinking when he drew them.  Did his mind wander to shreds of memory, reliving fieldwork, discussions, romantic liasons?  Or did every new stroke focus a theory on these fossils themselves.

No longer will they be hidden, unpublished and forgotten.  Beltina, still unresolved to this day, deserves this artistic outing at the least.

That’s probably enough dramatic and romantic prose.  I hope you enjoy these beautiful drawings as much as I did, and still do.