Updated: Apr 15
This piece was originally a piece written for The British Fern Society.
In Lincolnshire, on a former WWII airfield, a once dairy farm, (now arable) the corn is ripening, so golden ripples wave in the breeze.
This is the domain of botanical print maker and nature inspired metalsmith Su France, whose Victorian barn is her home and studio- a place where bulls were once kept, potato pickers stayed, and tractors used to be stored.
There are names in stonework, with workmen’s lines on the beams, showing that humans have regularly, across the ages, shown a need to leave their mark. Su leaves her unique marks too.
In the summer, a carrot flower covers the front paddock, but if you go through an entrance to her garden you’ll find the ferns, many of this diverse species – nestled in corners and garden borders creating the inspiration for much of her work. Su finds these spaces in her garden the most exciting.
‘’I love it in Spring when the fiddleheads start to unfurl, emerging from their light
brown, parchment like covers. It’s this time of the year I go out with my camera taking its macro lens, capturing some of
the verdant magic of this special, awakening time. I have also recently started experimenting with pressing ferns at this stage, so tightly spiralled heads, will then be available for printing use later in the year.’’
Su keeps these pressed ferns in a practical and organised space, with shelves of tools and boxes of other raw materials labelled nearby, in her shed.
Some of her fern pieces- photos, oxidised silver sculptures, silver jewellery have been shown at a National Trust Property, Gunby Hall and Su was recently thrilled to be awarded a grant from The Arts Council England – a chance to develop her practice for a year, as she embraces sustainability at the heart of both her printmaking process and the use of eco silver in her jewellery. Taking inspiration from her ferns, Su creates silver pieces and prints which evoke memories from childhood; that make links to people’s relationships with their own special visited woodlands or gardens.
‘’I had a ‘now or never’ moment at the age of 51 as I had been a teacher for 30 years and pivoted to become a full-time artist.’’
Although silver fern pieces go through many processes preserving the ferns and thickening leaves (they need to be a few mm thick for a viable jewellery component), lost wax casting, the use of formers (tools and mould to help form and shape items), soldering, filing, polishing, it’s the tactile quality and beauty of nature’s own art which Su finds fascinating to work with. These also provide tangible links to the places she adores.
She has a much-loved collection of hammers, found at autojumbles, gifted by family and a few bought from specialist makers. She also uses steel blocks, various sizes of blow torch, charcoal blocks (which keep the heat retained while pieces are soldered).
Many people share with Su that their jewellery, bought from her, remind them of their favourite woodland walks or fairy tale childhood reads. She finds interest in ferns as they’re tough complex characters, part of an evolutionary success story, with astounding diversity.
The silver is transformed from unremarkable grain or sheet to covetable wearable art, while pressed fern leaves have their impressions preserved, to be closely examined and admired in the form of her prints.
Ostrich ferns, woodwardia, holly, button and leatherleaf, and Japanese painted ferns all welcome new varieties Su and her husband, Andy select for their garden.
“Neil Timm, from Binbrook Nursery is the place I return to for expert advice and plants are my favourite form of shopping. It was at his till where I first noted the elongated, vintage trowel, which I must have enthusiastically described, as my brother then gifted me a much used one, on my birthday, with a worn handle which might tell many a tale.’’
Printing On The Gunning Press
Ferns have also gradually crept inside the home she shares with Andy, including footed ferns and maidenhair (which she still hasn’t quite mastered growing). It is inside her home studio, where a very special lodger resides. It is an etching press, a Gunning, with a large wheel which turns rollers, reminiscent of a Victorian industrial machine.
For this area of her creative practice, she takes heavy weight FSC approved dampened papers, blotting them so they are not ‘over wet’. Having hand inked the ferns, which have been picked and pressed – weeks or even months before. The plate is then placed onto the bed of her etching press, a rectangular steel slab. The dampened sheet of paper is placed on top. It is dampened to help create an embossed impression. Felt blankets are placed on top of the paper to help make the impression. She then turns the wheel to move the bed through the rollers. With the pressure just right, the outcome is a finely crafted fern print, showing artistry of composition and crisp details.
These are intaglio prints. Originating in Italy, the word “intaglio,” refers to prints made from plates in which the areas that carry the ink are recessed below the surface. The image, created using the pressed fern, is produced by incising into the printing plate – the incised line holds the ink then creates the image.
“The look of the final print is affected by many factors, including the choice and amount of ink, the composition, whether it’s a ‘first pull’, the first image, or a ‘ghost print; the second pull I take from a print which sometimes has a gentle graphite, more whispered or ghostly quality. The prints I make are varied. Some are deep and textured monoprints, while others are more translucent, fossilised, with embossed monoprints. My press was originally made in Ironbridge by a family-owned company; however, I bought it from a well-known auction site and was thrilled to give it a second, new working life.”
Su has taken commissions, where she works directly with the client’s own plant material, therefore creating a direct link to a special garden, place, or time.
Su says “Much of my colour palette is somewhat muted. I currently use dark inks, burnt umber, navy, black or khaki hues linking to the places the ferns enjoy, while also employing some sepia and vintage gold or bronze inks which hint of the ‘golden hour’, when I finally get to sit or walk among these intricately beautiful, captivating plants.
Su also prints using a modern gelli plate (made from non-toxic, synthetic gelatin) where colours used are a little more vibrant and the pieces created, using a roller, are experimental. Su will shortly be running courses on this process from her workshop.
I’m still not adept at knowing the names of ferns and I’m keen to learn from experts, so I very recently joined the British Pteridological Society and hope to attend some ‘in person’ events. I take my waterproof colour fern guide on walks with me, so I am gradually learning, but I’m taking my time to develop this knowledge, which seems quite apt, when you think of the subject matter and its longevity.’
Do get in touch if you'd like to know more about my process or any fern related/ nature products.