A ‘Secrets’ Pioneer? Rina Scott’s early films

Successive images showing the opening of a Fuchsia flower, taken by Rina Scott. Journal of the Royal Horticultural Society of London, 32 (1907), pp. 48-51. Image from the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

Histories of film, and especially nature and wildlife film, often begin by repeating a common origin story. They start, usually, with Edweard Muybridge’s chronophotography experiments from the 1870s, which recorded sequential images of a horse’s gallop. The Secrets producers, however, drew a different genealogy when speaking of the historical origins of their filmmaking practice. In their book See How They Grow (1952), J.V. Durden, Mary Field and Percy Smith mentioned Mubridge, but they viewed an unnamed woman as their earliest predecessor:

“The wife of an official of Kew Gardens set up her cumbersome plate camera, and made successive exposures of the growth of the flowers of the crocus. But it was left to a future generation to think of projecting such photographs as a motion picture. Nevertheless, we consider that to this lady should go the honour of being the first Ciné-biologist.

It took me a while to work out who this woman might be. At first, I wondered whether it might be a reference to Anna Atkins, whose pioneering blue-white photographic images of algae are now well-known. But Atkins’ work, to my knowledge, never involved sequential images of plant growth, and she certainly wasn’t married to an ‘official’ at Kew or anything similar.

Anna Atkins, Polypodium vulgare (c.1850),
Staatsgalerie Stuttgart.

A more fitting contender is the botanist Henderina Victoria Scott, a.k.a Rina Scott. Scott ocassionally published as “Mrs. D. H. Scott”, in reference to her husband Dukinfield Henry Scott who, among other things, worked at the Jodrell Laboratory in Kew Gardens. Rina Scott was, arguably, one of the first scientists to appreciate the potential of cinema in the scientific study of botany. Like many women of her time, Scott’s research, including work she completed alongside her husband, often went unacknowledged and remains so in the historical record today.

Between 1900 and 1907, Rina Scott made a series of “animated photographs” of different plants and their growth – essentially, these were early time-lapse films. She showed them to various learned societies, including the British Association for the Advancement of Science and the Royal Society. She also published several academic papers about her images, including in Annals of Botany and the Journal of the Royal Horticultural Society of London. Crucially, in March 1905 she showed a series of these images at the Linnean Society, including one of the life-cycle of a crocus, possibly the series that the Secrets producers were referring to. Earlier that year, Scott had became one of the first women to be elected as Fellow of the Linnean Society. Her obituary, published in Nature in 1929, called her “a keen and loyal supporter” of botanica science.

Journal of the Royal Horticultural Society of London, 32 (1907), pp. 48-51. Image from the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

Scott used a machine called a Kammatograph to make her films. This was developed in 1898 by Leonard Ulrich Kamm, and used a spiral glass plate to expose a series of images, instead of a roll of films, as in ordinary cinematograph cameras. Before her, the German plant physiologist Wilhelm Pfeffer had made several cinematograph films of plant growth, but Scott appears to have been one of the first to use the process in Britain. Explaining her method in the Journal of the Royal Horticultural Society of London in 1907, she wrote:

An ordinary cinematograph reproduces rapid movements of living objects. The purpose of my pictures is to show at an accelerated speed slow movements which cannot be watched by the eye, such as the growth of the young plant from the seed, the opening of a flower and development of the fruit, the movements of a climbing plant, etc.” (emphasis in the original)

Illustration from Rina Scott’s article in the Annals of Botany (1903). From the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

Amy Bethel has written a much more comprehensive and enlightening account of Rina Scott than I could hope to cover in this blog post, remarking that that “To date she has been little more than a footnote in motion picture history”, in spite of her significant contributions.

If Scott was the “wife of an official of Kew Gardens” that the Secrets producers had mind, then she wouldn’t be an earlier precursor to Muybridge, as they claimed. However – and more importantly – their reference to her work, even if uncredited, shows that the later exhibition of stop-motion plant films for entertainment owed their success at least in part to a woman whose pioneering work has since fallen largely into obscurity.

Sources

Amy Bethel, ‘Henderina Victoria Scott‘, in Jane Gaines, Radha Vatsal, and Monica Dall’Asta, eds. Women Film Pioneers Project, 2013.

Amy Bethel, ‘Henderina (Mrs D. H.) Victoria Scott‘, Women and Silent British Cinema.

Joanna Durant, ‘Passionate pioneers – increasing access to botanical artwork by women artists‘, Biodiversity Heritage Library Blog.

Claire G. Jones, ‘The Tensions of Homemade Science in the Work of Henderina Scott and Hertha Ayrton’, in Domesticity in the Making of Modern Science, ed. Donald L. Opitz, Staffan Bergwik, and Brigitte Van Tiggelen (2016), 84–104, doi:10.1057/9781137492739_5.

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