Last week, Tamara and I went to the Fashion and Nature exhibition at the V&A in London.
I was in London a couple of weeks before, and Tamara asked me to go and scout out the exhibition, which I did. I thought it was a fashion exhibition, not realising that the thrust of it was the damage that fashion does to the natural world.
The lower floor of the exhibition was about days gone by – about ostrich feathers, and tortoiseshell, humming bird wings, and bear fur.
The upper floor was about the damage that modern processes do, from plastic fibres leaching into the waterways, to the chemicals used to manufacture clothes.
I think we are all inured to the damage done to the living world in days gone by, but the sight of a line of tiny, dead humming birds lying there in the exhibit, got to us.
They were killed many years ago to decorate hats.
So tiny, so defenceless.
The photo here (excuse the phone camera quality in poor lighting) is of a dress decorated with over 5,000 beetle wings and parts of wings from the Indian beetle Stemocera aeqisignata.
Can you see the iridescent green of the decoration? The man in the accompanying video explained that the colour comes from tiny prisms in the wings.
That is why, unlike dyes that fade, the colour is as fresh as the day the wings were plucked from the beetles in the 1860s.
A while ago Tamara bought me a book, ‘As Kingfishers Catch Fire‘, and I opened it and started reading where it fell open, at the chapter on the skylark.
You can see the words spes phthisica near the end of the text that I have quoted here, and I wondered whether the authors were being figurative or whether it was a real medical condition.
RICHARD JEFFERIES AUTOBIOGRAPHY, The Story of My Heart, tells us almost nothing of its author’s short, sad life. It was written in 1883, as the tuberculosis that would kill Jefferies began to show itself in bloodspotted handkerchiefs and digestive complaints. He would live for four more years, long enough to see his third child die of meningitis, long enough to write his mesmerising post-apocalyptic masterpiece, After London. He was thirty-eight when he died, the age I will be when these words are published, and he’s buried in Broadwater Cemetery, Worthing, not ten minutes’ walk from where I grew up, on the rim of land between the chalky South Downs and the sea. The Story of My Heart is the record of Jefferies’ spiritual development, of the way that, through nature, he accessed his ‘strong inspiration of soul thought’. It is a lavish, joyful book, some passages coming close to madness, touched perhaps by the spes phthisica that is said to induce a kind of euphoria in consumptives…
I looked up spes phthisica and found that it is a medical term that means a state of euphoria occurring in patients with pulmonary tuberculosis.
The phrase is pronounced SPACE THIZICA.
I also found an article that suggested that the Romantic poets and artists were romantic precisely because they suffered from TB and were given to romantic euphoria because of spes phthisica.
As we know, TB causes anaemia and worse symptoms. And anaemia is characterised by a deathly pallor to the skin.
Because of that effect, the article also suggested that various pale and ghostly figures that appeared in Romantic books and paintings were the deadly embrace of TB.