Pacific Ocean flowers: colonial seaweed albums
Seaweed in the Victorian era was far more imaginatively conceptualised than it is today. Rarely associated with the humble weed, it was elevated to the status of an ocean flower, a vibrant, floating marine bloom, part of what was believed to be the God-written poetry of nature. Emerging from a romantic envisioning of the seashore as wild and wondrous and its evolution as a site of repose and leisure, the collection and display of seaweed in the nineteenth century encompassed the rituals associated with aesthetic sensibility, the empirical rigour of natural history, the moralising benefits of rational amusement, and the material voluptas of the decorative arts. 1 Travelling through the fluid conduits of empire, practices of collecting and displaying seaweed were largely disseminated through the medium of the album. Affordable and portable, albums played a significant, although often under-valued, role in the transmission of popular natural history pursuits, collecting patterns, aesthetic tendencies, domesticating initiatives, and performances of civility throughout the British colonies and, indeed, farther afield, circulating physically through global maritime networks and socially through gifting and exchange. 2
Culled from the coasts of Ireland, the Cape of Good Hope, and Southeastern Australia, the seaweed specimens arranged in a trio of albums housed in the National Herbarium of New South Wales, Sydney, suggest the centrality of the seascape to the British Empire as embodied in the widespread practices of nineteenth-century seaweed collection and display. 3 Gifts from “Grandpa” Charles Morrison to his granddaughters, Jessie Morrison Magee (1876-1930) and Jane Augusta Magee (1886-1951), and niece, Georgina Thomasina Maxwell (1848-1923), as signalled in a dedicatory inscription at the beginning of each album, they reveal a fascination with seaweed spanning half the globe and half a century, with specimens collected between the 1850s and 1901-02. 4 Married to Margaret Bell from County Tyrone, Northern Ireland, who died in Victoria in 1864, Morrison settled near Melbourne, residing for a period at Ascot Vale, where he lived with one of his daughters into his nineties. 5 Gathered from Lough Foyle and Lough Swilly in the mid-1850s, the Irish specimens in the gift albums possibly relate to Morrison’s or his wife’s Irish heritage, while those collected
emigrant journey to Victoria in the wake of the 1850s gold-rush. The prevalence of Victorian specimens, in particular, reveal an extended familiarity with the coasts of Port Phillip Bay, a popular seaside district in the mid-tolate nineteenth century.