Art History Research Seminar: Kathleen Davidson
‘Their Colours are Brilliant, but Fugitive’: Coral Concerns from Imperial Expeditions to the British Museum and Royal Academy
During the nineteenth century descriptions of corals and coral environments proliferated in scientific and popular publications, and in the press – propelled by contemporary theories about the geological and biological processes involved in coral reef formation and reports of observable changes in individual corals and coral colonies. Museums contributed materially to the public’s growing interest in coral though extensive displays of specimens brought back from successive government expeditions and by independent naturalists and collectors. Concurrently, a number of major paintings portraying coral collectors were exhibited at the Royal Academy, and tropical coral environments began to appear in spectacular stage sets in London and provincial theatre productions. Tracing the occurrence of coral reef studies and their public dissemination, this paper examines the complex roles of colour and form in nineteenth-century visual and written accounts of coral specimens and environments, the trade in bleached coral, and the representation of coral as a symbol of transformation.