There is a willow grows aslant a brook,
That shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream;
There with fantastic garlands did she come
Of crow-flowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples
That liberal shepherds give a grosser name,
But our cold maids do dead men’s fingers call them:
There, on the pendent boughs her coronet weeds
Clambering to hang, an envious sliver broke;
When down her weedy trophies and herself
Fell in the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide;
And, mermaid-like, awhile they bore her up:
Which time she chanted snatches of old tunes;
As one incapable of her own distress,
Or like a creature native and indued
Unto that element: but long it could not be
Till that her garments, heavy with their drink,
Pull’d the poor wretch from her melodious lay
To muddy death.
Hamlet, Queen Gertrude, Act IV, Scene VII
The words above end Ophelia’s tale in Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, in which the female character, driven out of her mind when her father is murdered by her lover Hamlet, drowns herself in a stream. These very words inspired Sir John Everett Millais’ pre-Raphaelite depiction of the drowning Ophelia which is one of the most visited works at Tate Britain and perhaps the most famous painting ever inspired by Shakespeare. Ten years ago the same painting became a living portal, which for the first time, introduced me to the interface where art and science meet. I’ve now worked at this fertile intersection since 2006, and during this period, I’ve collaborated with nearly fifty artists and now also produce my own work. The outcomes of these many projects have featured at such venues as The Natural History Museum, The Science Museum, The Royal Institution, The Science Gallery (Dublin), The Wellcome Collection, The Eden Project, in many news sites and on the BBC One Show.
Millais’ famous painting was basis of a SciArt project, funded by The Wellcome Trust, that was a collaboration between myself (a bacteriologist) and JoWonder, an artist. Our idea was to paint an interpretation of Ophelia, but rather than using traditional paints, to use living and brightly pigmented bacteria as the paints. By making a striking and beautiful painting from life forms which are usually viewed with repugnance and which generally evoke disgust, our aim was to challenge the public perception of bacteria. There is also a powerful dichotomy in this work, that is, in the fact that a character that is so famously dead, is represented by usually invisible life forms that are so vibrantly alive and which also underpin all other visible life on our planet.
The palette of pigmented bacteria used to paint Ophelia can be seen below.