Oceans of Learning

The extraordinary image used to encapsulate this exhibition is taken from Phillip Gosse’s Actinologia Britannica: a History of the British Sea Anemones and Corals. While they lack the wide cultural presence of Robinson Crusoe, or the direct human interest of shipwreck narratives, these illustrations were richly suggestive in refining the focus of this exhibition. In their vivid colours and delicate complexity, they portray a wholly alien environment, where even the most fundamental classificatory divisions, such as that of plant from animal, are unclear. The book, however, aspires not to beauty but to scientific description, and the remarkably immersive power of these images is a shadow of its drive to accuracy. Gosse himself painted these images, and his son Edmund insisted that his father’s ‘very absence of imagination aided him in this work.’

To the viewer, however, these are irresistible spurs to the imagination, as they were to young Edmund, for whom such illustrations became part of a private magical landscape, where he believed that ‘if I could only discover the proper words to say’, he could induce them ‘to come to life, and fly out of the book, leaving holes behind them’. (2004, p. 26). In this disjunction between the illustrative intention and the effect on the observer, there lies a shadow of the elusive character of the sea in the human imagination that is the centre of this exhibition. There is simultaneously a drive to objectively know the marine environment, its creatures and structures, with an attendant will to mastery, and yet a metaphorical yearning for the sea’s beauty and mystery, tinged with mysticism and terror in the face of its unknown and unknowable depths.


By the time Gosse published his remarkable work, lavishly coloured printed depictions of sea life were by no means new. However, his arrangement of such images in a realistic setting – albeit a stylised, overpopulated one – was a radical departure from eighteenth century natural history. The images of Marcus Bloch’s Icthyologie are supremely, objectively beautiful. Each of the 400 or so fish is captured not only in rich detail but also with characterful expressions on faces that are inexplicably still resolutely accurate. The lesser rough-hound, for example, seems to sneer at the reader with a pained and world-weary cynicism.

The drive for rigorously accurate depiction drove the author and printer to remarkable lengths, including washing the scales of some fish with powdered silver to replicate sheen, and yet the most immediate reaction is of aesthetic satisfaction. This work would have been prohibitively expensive for all but very few readers due to its massive size and exacting printing standards, and it forms a link between a gentleman’s cabinet of curiosities and the public dissemination of rigorous scientific knowledge that Gosse would attempt.

Design and attractiveness are far more consciously employed for a specific purpose in this pamphlet, arguing strongly for the importance and sustainability of the British fishing fleets. Such confidence sounds hollow today, but here the sea is a smooth, bountiful surface across which a well-equipped, professional workforce moves unimpeded. As seen here, figures are given for the slow withdrawal of coal powered vessels in favour of diesel, but there is no mention of vessels lost at sea. It is also notable that the map emphasises the sea as a quasi-British dominion, the British Isles at the heart of a map where careful arrangement minimises the vast territorial bulk of Asia and North America. The waves and all of the creatures they sustain are here being efficiently, and rightfully, ruled in a manner which demonstrates that knowledge of the sea is by no means a purely scientific drive.Robinson Crusoe

Peril at sea is edited out of the pamphlet, but perhaps its archetypal figure, Robinson Crusoe, takes a prominent position in the exhibition, with the Library holding many early and scarce editions. Marooned ultimately on a desert island, it should not be forgotten that this is the second shipwreck of Crusoe’s brief nautical career, the two separated by a voyage where he was captured by pirates and enslaved for two years; as Crusoe himself says, ‘it is true I had been very unfortunate by sea’.

The enduring image of Crusoe is of a castaway trapped on land, wearing an elaborate hat and sporting a goatskin umbrella. However, the sea is the truly inescapable prison of the novel, directly in that it prevents his escape from his island, but also in that it fundamentally dominates his mind and enthusiasms as it has since his youth, so he ‘would be satisfied with nothing but going to sea’. This oppressive relationship is captured beautifully in this unusual frontispiece to an 1824 edition (one of only two known copies in the UK). The stricken Crusoe is poised hopelessly between the sea that threatens his life and the rocky outcrop of the island that will ensnare him, and from which the only escape will be yet another sea voyage. Crusoe considers that he has partially engineered his ill-fate by ignoring his father’s wishes, with the sea as the instrument of divine vengeance. In a work in which religion and superstition intermingle, to more experienced seamen Crusoe’s misery is explained by ignoring the warning of a shipwreck on his maiden voyage, ‘you ought never to go to sea any more; you ought to take this for a plain and visible token that you are not to be a seafaring man’.Letter to Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovell’s widow

The exhibition also features many tales of shipwreck where the causes are more mundane but catastrophic, from spilled rum catching fire to navigational errors. One of the most horrific, and also one of the more historically significant in its effects, was the loss of the HMS Association and two other Royal Naval vessels off the Scilly Isles in 1707, when over 1,300 men died. Amongst the dead was Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovell, a celebrated figure and hero of the War of the Spanish Succession and many of the naval engagements of the late seventeenth century. Shovell was a powerful and successful man, as can be seen from this receipt where the Admiralty pays interest to its officer on a loan he has advanced the British state in order that it might wage war. His death was widely blamed on an inability to calculate longitude, and is regarded as being a major cause for the establishment of the Board of Longitude. Shovell’s death was also publicly and elaborately mourned, with the hero lying in state for two months at the Queen’s expense before being buried in Westminster Abbey. The national grief is seen in a now rare published letter to his widow held in the Library, celebrating his successes and character.

However, apocryphal stories abound about Shovell, and he was portrayed in Dava Sobell’s history of the search for longitude (1995) as a culpable dictator aboard his ship, who hanged a local sailor who recognised his native waters and warned the Admiral of his error in judgment and the impending disaster. The origins of this narrative are lost, its details impossible to verify in that every possible witness drowned, and it is perhaps best regarded as folklore rather than fact. However, its appearance in a bestselling work nearly three hundred years later is fascinating testament to the persistent yearning in the public imagination for simple explanations for maritime disasters; the spurned local knowledge of the hanged sailor becomes symbolic of the learning depicted throughout the exhibition which we strive to believe makes the oceans safely navigable. The obliteration of the evidence, meanwhile, is one more forceful reminder of the sea’s power to effortlessly frustrate all human endeavour.

Blog post details