Rosamond Purcell, Field of the Cloth of Gold, 2010

A group of pictures in the Folger Shakespeare Library’s exhibition this past fall, Very Like A Whale, fooled me.  I thought artist Rosamond Purcell’s medium was some inventive watercolor, ink or acrylic technique.  Was the room too dark, or are my eyes are going bad?  To my surprise these pictures were photographs!

It was an imaginative way to portray Shakespeare, and artist whose myriads of visions who give us such a breadth of humanity.  Very Like a Whale took its exhibition name from a quote in Hamlet showing the human ability of interpreting single objects in multiple ways.  (Hamlet and Polonius saw different images in the same cloud.) Purcell curated the show, along with Shakespeare scholar and Folger Director Michael Witmore. This pair also collaborated on a book, Landscapes of the Passing Strange, using her photographic images with evocative quotations from Shakespeare. This great review is by an English teacher.
Rosamond Purcell, Twenty Shadows
The exhibition covered scientific knowledge in Shakespeare’s time using objects and prints created during the Renaissance.  Quotes from various Shakespeare plays and Purcell’s color photographs were interspersed with these more scientific images in a suggestive and imaginative display. For example, Twenty Shadows, above, was one way of seeing Shakespeare, and the graphic presentation of viewing instruments is another. Near the demonstrations of refracting light and perspective was a quote:
“Each substance of grief hath twenty shadows
Which shows like grief itself but is not so;
For sorrow’s eyes, glazed with blinding tears,
Divides one thing entire to many objects
Like perspectives, which rightly gazed up
Show nothing but confusion, eyed awry
Distinguish form”   — Richard II, Act 2, scene, lines 14-20
Rosamond Purcell, Awake Your Faith, 2010
Purcell’s photos make me think of change and of flux, but they also can be enjoyed as abstract compositions without the quotes from Shakespeare.  Does she have a unique developing technique with strange chemical solutions?  Probably not, but she takes her photographs from images reflected on antique mercury glass jars.  The colors are beautiful, and the forms as they mesh and flow together are evocative.  Surreal has been a word used to describe some of these works.   Awake Your Faith, right, is a photo of a statue in The Winter’s Tale.
We may see something today and it could be gone tomorrow.  What seems to be real may in fact not be real. That’s how nature works.   And, as a quote from Shakespeare that was in the exhibition, says: 
“Fortune is painted blind……….she is turning and inconstant, and mutability and variation;  and her foot, look you, is fixed upon a spherical stone, which rolls and rolls and rolls.” — Henry V, Act 3, scene 6, lines 29-36  (The Folger used one of their Library’s images for this quote, but Durer also made an engraving of Fortune in the current National Gallery show.)
Purcell’s interest in science is a constant, though. She is a collector of objects found in nature and has always combined science with her art.  She is especially known for her photographic documentation of natural history collections. As an author, illustrator and/or photographer, Rosamond Purcell has written or illustrated 17 books.
Copyright Julie Schauer 2010-2016