ART BREAK: Mary Anning

Sources:
 Book Cover
Sketch of Mary Anning
Mary Anning letter and drawing
Brass Token
Lyme Regis cliffs

I've been fascinated by Mary Anning since learning about her a decade or so ago—she's one of the women who made significant but overlooked contributions to 19th-century science. The digital collage above, one of a series of portrait pieces I've made over the past year, is my homage to her. A working class woman with minimal schooling who spent her life in Lyme Regis on Britain's Dorset coast, Anning is the subject of Tracey Chevalier's novel Remarkable Creatures and the 2020 film Ammonite. Though both based on her character and life, both take fictional liberties in different ways with the historical record, which is admittedly rather minimal.

I originally began this piece using a full-length frontal portrait of Anning, but (much as I love the inclusion of her dog, rock hammer and collecting basket) it just seemed too static, too ladylike, to be right. Instead, I used a sketch then believed to be her by the paleontologist Henry de la Beche. It looks the way I imagine Anning: sturdy, practical, searching, unpretentious, and entirely unconcerned with anything resembling fashion, though its identification as Anning has more recently been questioned.

The book image is the cover of Oliver Pike's 1907 Adventures in Bird-Land. I replaced the title and side blocks but let the central image—of a figure climbing a cliff—show through the Anning drawing. Anning did her collecting and made her discoveries on the blue lias cliffs of Lyme, and an avalanche of rock from the cliffs killed her beloved dog; an echo of a perilous cliffside moment felt somehow apt. The skeleton images that flank the central panel are cropped and recolored from an 1823 letter in which Anning discusses her discovery of a fossil of the creature now known as Plesiosaurus dolichodeirus. The panels on either side of my title block are the two sides of a brass token stamped with Anning's name, "Lyme Regis," and the year 1810 in Roman numerals. Discovered in 2014, it's thought that it might have been an 11th birthday gift to Anning from her father or brother. 

I was set on using a rock pick like the one in the sketch somewhere in my collage and spent a ridiculous amount of time looking for one that seemed sturdy and beat-up enough (Anning's own doesn't seem to be extant). The background layers the text from one of Anning's letters, a photograph of the blue lias cliffs, and a stock photograph of beachside shells and stones. 

In addition to being Anning's home, Lyme Regis figures prominently in two of my very favorite books: John Fowles' The French Lieutenant's Woman and Jane Austen's Persuasion. One day I hope to see its "Cobb" and cliffs in person.