Saturday 26 April 2014

Oilseed rape: evolution of a golden food

The early bloom of golden fields full of all seed rape has hit the news this year. Partly because it appears so ubiquitous, with the yellow sometimes reaching to the horizon. But the oil from oilseed rape was not so highly prized in the past. It has taken scientists, plant breeders and farmers working together to transform what used to be a lamp oil into a prized nutritional food.

Oilseed rape fields in Cambridgeshire
 Originally oilseed rape was grown as a break crop, that is, it was part of the farming rotation cycle. Growing rape for one year within the cycle resulted in soil improvement. The oil was primarily good for lamp oil and machinery use. In the previous century it could also be added to animal feed, but only to a certain degree because it had a bitter taste.

The bitter taste was due to glucosinolates, or mustard oils. Oilseed rape after all belongs to the mustard family. Rape varieties also had up to 50% erucic acid, a compound with suspected cardiac health risks, that led it to being banned for inclusion in human consumption in the US FDA back in 1956.

However in the 70s, Canadian agriculturalists developed a variety of oilseed rape that was low in both glucosinolates and erucic acid, which led to the other common name, Canola, for Canadian Oil Low Acid. Since then the cultivation and use of oil seed rape for human consumption has also increased, with coldpressed oils reaching a premium price. The health benefits were low levels of saturated fat (7%, compared to butter 52%) and the presence of omega-3 and omega-6.

American oilseed rape has become infamous in Europe, as 90% of that grown in the USA is now GM, with resistance to herbicides. Europe only grows GM free oilseed rape.

There is another current issue with growing oilseed rape, the oil-rich seeds are spread explosively when the ripe pods shatter. Current losses are estimated anywhere between 15 to 50%, with heavy rain and wind promoting shattering. Plant geneticists have therefore been searching for oilseed rape plants with more shatter resistant pods. A total resistance to shattering is actually undesirable, because otherwise it would be difficult to extract the seeds to propagate the plant! Work at the John Innes Institute in Norwich is amongst those that are making advances in this area. And last year Bayer released its first new increased shatter resistant variety, InVigor L140P, in Canada.

Flower, oilseed rape
Britain now produces over 3,000,000 t of rapeseed oil per year. The ubiquity of the plant in fields at this time of the year has also been associated with complaints by allergy sufferers. The plant is blamed for an increase in hayfever and irritation.

Oilseed rape pollen, like any flower pollen, can be highly allergenic. However the plant is insect pollinated and produces very sticky pollen that does not get into the air easily.

Furthermore, the flowering season coincides with mass pollen release by trees that RELY on wind dispersal, examples are Hazel, Yew, Alder, Elm, Poplar, Willow, Birch, Oak and Pine. Tree pollen is a major cause of hayfever from February through to May, after that the grass pollens hit us sufferers.

Dry pollen from flower
Pollen in liquid
However, oilseed rape fields can irritate sensitive noses on a warm sunny days, due to the distinctive slightly acrid scent and oils that they emit.

The vast fields of oilseed rape do provide a vital source of food for pollinating insects. Indeed without insect pollination, seed production would cease. Whilst natural hover flies, beetles of solitary bees and bumblebees are of great benefit here, honeybees can also make a contribution, producing a slightly peppery honey as a byproduct.

A few weeks still remain to either enjoy or curse the golden fields, before their seed production begins and later harvest beckons.

If you have an interesting story you would like to write up, let me help you.

Monday 14 April 2014

Moral Tales in publishing, old and new: Discovering an illustrated 1563 edition of Ovid's Metamorphoses

Be careful what you wish for! Ovid's Metamorphoses 1563

In an unthinking free moment at the Norris Museum, St Ives, UK last Friday, I offered to put something up on their facebook page. Curator Helen took me to the store to see what she could find. “You’re interested in books!” She enthused, as she brought out a small miscellany of the museum founder’s collection.

Chaos at the World's Beginning. Ovid Metamorphoses in Tetrastichs, 1563

I carefully opened one book and was immediately entranced. It was a mediaeval picture book from the era of Queen Elizabeth I, 1563, at a time when printing presses were gaining in influence across Europe.

The book was a pictorial version of Ovid’s Metamorphoses (1), called "In Tetrastichi Ovidii Metamorphoses". Each page had detailed woodcut. Above the picture were four lines of poetry in Latin. Below the picture, were four lines of descriptive poetry in German blackletter font. And below that were handwritten notes in old English, again interpreting the rhyme.

Pictures, old fonts, and ancient handwriting. I was caught; hook, line and sinker!

After 451 years, the paper was fragile. Fortunately I had my camera with me. Without fully opening the book, I carefully began photographing it page for page, with the help of the museum’s tripod.

Two hours later, my legs had almost seized up from standing in the same position. The raw image files were copied to the museums digital store. The book could now be studied from the images without subjecting the original to further risk.

Back home, I edited the images and compiled a PDF version on behalf of the Norris Museum. 

The whole book is now available and accessible to all online, in the Internet Archive, at (2).

A small suggestion had grown into a larger project.

A book like a Swan, Serene on the water, paddling furiously below

The book is “In Tetrastichi Ovidii Metamorphoses”,a popularisation of Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” or tales of change.

Further investigation on its creation revealed an involvement of people and places not expected from an apparently simple picture book.

In Tetrastichi Ovidii Metamorphoses was published in 1563 by Georg Coruinus, Sigismund Feyerabent, & haeredes VVygandi Galli. 

In the same year, they also published a prose version of Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” (3).

Both books include woodcuts by the engraver Virgil Solis. However, in the Norris picture book, the original engravings are framed by additional elaborate woodcut borders (4). Solis was a prolific Nuremberg engraver who had died in 1562. His woodcuts would grace 25 further editions for another 90 years after his death.

Since the pages contain both printed text and illustration, it is most likely that the inked set type and the woodcuts were placed together on the pages, to be printed simultaneously (5).

There are tetrastich poems (poems in 4 lines, also known as quatrains) in Latin and in German, written by Johannes Posthius of Germersheim, Germany, above and below each image. At this point in his career, he was destined to become the personal physician to the Duke of Alba and then later the Prince Bishop of Wurzburg. In later life he became a poet laureate (6).

Johannes Posthius’ dual interests in poetry and medicine are already apparent in the Latin introductory dedications for the book. The first was by Karl Hugelius (Latinized as Carolus Hugelius), a German physician, with meagre known references dating from 1598 to 1613 (7). The second introduction was co-authored with the Viennese poet laureate of the day, Johann Lauterbach (8).

Mystery surrounds the English handwriting that graces most of the pages of the book. We do not know the author or how the book came to England. However, such illustrated works were very popular in the 16th century and the German presses were very prolific. Presumably the subject matter was also relatively safe in an era where the printed word was under strict control and needed to avoid the jaundiced eye of both the rulers and the printing guilds.

Grappling for control of the written word

Since the invention of the Gutenberg press with movable type, around 1452, printing had flourished throughout Europe. Germany and Italy were major printing countries with hundreds of presses printing millions of pages. (9).

It was astute of Gutenberg to ensure that the first printed book was the Bible! Both the clergy and secular rulers could see the advantage of printing, not only for educational purposes but also to spread their message. The printers themselves wanted to protect their trade too and formed their own guilds.

The printed word also had the capability of spreading new ideas, as seen by the Reformation spreading like wildfire throughout Europe.

Germany was now a hodgepodge of Dukedoms, kingdoms and free city states (10). This did seem to permit a lively variety of opinion, dissent, if not freedom for the printed word, as long as was printed in the appropriate place.

After William Caxton had learned his trade in Bruges and printed several English works there, he came to a slightly different environment when granted an indulgence to print in England in 1476.

The state ensured considerable control of what could be printed and by whom in England either directly or through the Stationers Company. Typically, 20 printers were permitted within London. The universities Cambridge and Oxford were also granted a licence to print certain works, although Cambridge did not begin printing until it gained a master printer in 1584.

Imprisonment and fines were the consequences of non-compliance (the first executions did not occur to the 17th century)(11).

There are remarkable similarities with the current information revolution and its effects on developed and developing nations and governments via the World Wide Web. Now as 450 years ago, rival ideas, opinions and ideologies wage battles in print and pictures for the hearts and minds of the readers.

Overall, printing was a great liberator and educator - hopefully that will be the legacy of the internet too.


I hope that this has given you a brief glimpse of the information strands and potential for research initiated by a chance comment and find in the Norris Museum, St Ives, UK.


1. Publius Ovidius Naso (20 March 43 BC – AD 17/18), known as Ovid

2.  Ovid Metamorphoses, Illustrated, 1563, Latin & German, The Internet Archive,

3. Ovid Illustrated: The Reception of Ovid's Metamorphoses in Image and Text,

4. Ovid: Metamorphoses Illustrated by Virgil Solis, University of Glasgow (1999),

5.  The Printed Image in the West: Woodcut

6.  Johannes Posthius, Wikipedia,

7. Karl Hugelius, Consortium of European Research Libraries

8. Johannes Lauterbach, Wikipedia,

9. Global spread of the printing press, Wikipedia,

10. Political Borders of Europe from 1519 to 2006, YouTube,

11. Henry R Plomer (1900). A short history of English printing 1476 – 1898,

Sunday 6 April 2014

Images from a Photography workshop for the Eastern Region Textile Forum

As a textile artist, you want to take photographs to do your work justice. I was privileged to be invited by the Eastern Region Textile Forum ( to give a talk and workshop - on how best to photograph their creative efforts.

If you cannot see the slideshow, all images can be found in the online album at

I chatted with several attendees in the coffee break before giving the talk and was amazed at the wide variety of skills and techniques that the 17 participants represented. I had naïvely come with the perception of simply patchwork. I met felters, embroiderers, modern knitters and experiment lace workers. Their materials ranged from smooth silks and metallic fibres to textured fabrics and 3-D artwork.

They brought with them a range of photographic equipment, from smart phones, via compact cameras to SLRs. The audience also had a range of photographic experience and knowledge of photo editing. What they were looking for was some very practical advice on getting the basics right for taking a photograph and editing it.

I hope that I fulfilled this objective (and thank you for the favourable comments, dear audience). The next step, after a good buffet lunch, was to put the new-found knowledge into practice in a workshop.

The noise level rose perceptibly within the meeting room as they scattered in groups of threes and fours. They first ensured that each camera had been adjusted to the optimum settings and that the lighting was right. The groups then chose which of the many works of textile art to photograph first.

After 75 minutes, I collected the images from a miscellany of memory cards and loaded them up onto the laptop to show on the projection screen. Each of the participants then shared what they had learned from the practical and resultant photographs.

We looked at the successes and the not so successful; everyone contributed to the learning curve!

However, as you can see from the slideshow above, they achieved some beautiful pictures of their brilliant textile artwork.

Thanks too to the Cambridge Golf and Conference centre near Hemmingford Abbots ( for the great venue and looking after us for the day’s event.

If you are an artist who works in 2-D, 3-D or with reflective materials, would like some straightforward guidance on photography and photo editing, whatever your camera, you can always get my:

Quick Reference Guide on Photographing Your Own Artwork here from for only £3.33

Buy this on Selz Sell digital downloads on Selz

Tuesday 1 April 2014

My modern portrait taken with a 150 year old photography

Yvette Bessels and her camera
It’s a cold March day and I’m sitting in a graveyard. No, this is not a sudden onset of existential angst, I’m having my photo taken!

This may seem like just desserts by those HBNers who took part in the portrait Photoshoot that I organised a couple of weeks ago. There, they had to pose, smile, answer my every whim as I lorded it behind the camera.

The activity aroused in me a desire to have my portrait taken too. But not just any portrait! No, I had set it in my mind to have mine taken using a technique that would have been familiar to Isambard Kingdom Brunel in the late 1800s, wet plate colloidon photography.

The idea had become ingrained in my mind when I met Yvette Bessels at a Cambridge Bloggers meeting and heard that this was her photography interest. We arranged to meet up for a photo shoot on a sunny day and the graveyard on Histon Road, near her house, was a convenient location.

The set in Histon Road graveyard
Wet plate collodion photography is pretty descriptive of the process. A glass plate is coated in a colloidon/halide solution. Collodion is an early type of plastic. The plate is immersed into a silver nitrate solution in the dark to activate it. The wet plate is then removed, still in the dark, placed inside a light-tight box and taken to a positively enormous box camera. Once the subject is posed and absolutely still, the lens cap is removed, the shutter opened and the plate is exposed for at least a couple of seconds. The plate then has to be developed and fixed before it dries out.

With our HBN photoshoot, I took hundreds of pictures over two hours. There are subtle nuances and emotions flashing across the faces of the sitters. You want to capture the best one.

We spent 3h in the graveyard and exposed 5 plates, of which three were exposure tests as we moved around. The most difficult aspect is posing absolutely still. Ideally, Yvette would like to have a head brace to keep the sitter still. The longest time I posed was 20 seconds in the shade. The final picture was taken deliberately as the sun when behind cloud – it was bright enough for a “short” 6 second exposure, but not too bright to make me squint.

Composition was far more important with these photos that in the studio shots. I wanted to make this photograph count! So I reverted to the 19th century still pose with some items that are of importance to me and my work.

Even when we had finished and obtained a well exposed and developed plate, the process was not over. I waited three days as Yvette carefully dried the plate and varnished the plate.

I collected the photograph on Saturday and was pleased with the final result. The plate can be viewed as a negative with light shining through it. Alternatively, if backed by a black glass plate, it gives a positive image.

Showing how the plate can appear both as a positive on a dark background and a negative on a light background. Middle image is plate placed over white and black card simultaneously.

I photographed both negative and positive views. Glass can break, so I also created a digital positive from the negative plate, the final image in my online album.

The final portrait after digital capture and editing.
I leave you with a final note of something that can only happen in Cambridge.

Thirsty after our photoshoot, we wandered to the nearby pub, The Grapes, as the friendly publican Sandy had let me park there.

Coincidence 1: I plonked my box on the ground near the bar and a man seated there turned round and asked “What sort of microscope is that?”. I answered Bob, after we were introduced, that it was a Watson.

Coincidence 2: We explained that we had been doing some old style photography. “Oh, glass plates? I used to do that at school”, was his reply and a discussion on photography ensued.

Coincidence 3: I asked Bob what he did. “I’m in life sciences”,  – something that I had been working in for over two decades before my present business.

That’s Cambridge!