The Art of the Natural World

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© The Trustees of The Natural History Museum, London

When visiting the Natural History Museum in London South Kensington, visitors already have some idea of what to expect. For starters, the recently erected skeleton of a blue whale hanging from the ceiling of Hintze Hall has been the talk of the public for some time. Whilst many tourists have flocked to view this giant, they are also expecting dinosaurs, fossils, extinct animals, creepy crawlies and volcanoes. People have not come with the hopes of looking at artworks.

To the casual observer, the exhibitions at the museum are exactly what they expected: bones, stuffed animals, more bones, ancient rocks, bones, fossils, dead things, and a wealth of information. On the other hand, looking past the scientific and factual details is a plethora of art waiting patiently to be acknowledged.

Before entering the museum, the original building screams out for attention, demonstrating Romanesque-style features, making it one of the finest Victorian buildings in Britain. Alfred Waterhouse (1830-1905) was an English architect who became greatly associated with the Victorian Gothic Revival Style. The Liverpudlian designer was only 36, thus still in the beginning stages of his career, when he inherited the task of designing the building for the Natural History Museum.

Influenced by German Cathedrals, Waterhouse developed the first building to be decorated both inside and out with intricate designs. Using honey and pale blue terracotta, beautiful decorations were modelled from Waterhouse’s drawings, representing fossils, birds, animals and fish – many of the items in the museum’s collection. After its completion in 1881, critics from The Times exclaimed, “The walls and ceiling are decorated as befits a Palace of Nature.”

Although it has been extended in recent years, the original building looks much the same as when it was first constructed. Many visitors wonder whether it was formerly a cathedral or monastery due to its phenomenal beauty, however, it was built especially for the museum.

The Natural History Museum would not have existed at all if it were not for the proficient naturalist and collector, Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753). Although his initial claim to fame was introducing drinking chocolate to England, his collecting skills, which narrowly bordered on hoarding, provided scientists with the opportunity to learn the secrets of the natural world. By his death at the age of 92, Sloane had stockpiled over 80,000 objects and books from all over the world. The collection was crammed into his own home, however, his will stipulated that he wished to leave it to the nation. As a result, the British Museum in Bloomsbury was born.

The collection was rapidly added to over the following century and a decision was made to split the artefacts into sections. Thus, a new building was commissioned and by 1881, the natural history section was gradually relocated to its new home. As scientists learn more about the world, the collection continues to grow. It is estimated that the museum currently houses over 22 million items preserved in methylated spirits alone.

Looking at ancient dead things may seem like a long way from looking at art, however, there is a specific section of the museum that begs to differ. Within the blue section on the map supplied by the museum (actually, just ask someone to direct you; the map is not all that helpful) is an exhibition titled Images of Nature. Unlike the majority of the museum where reconstructed skeletons and educational models are in abundance, this long room works more like an art gallery with most items hung up on the bare walls.

Nowadays, a simple click of a button can eternally save evidence of nature, but, before the development of the camera, artists were relied upon to produce highly detailed illustrations. Although some of these artworks were produced to be enjoyed, scientists found them extremely valuable. Specimens were often collected by explorers, but after a while, colours would fade and plants would dry and shrivel up, making it impossible to demonstrate what it originally looked like. A watercolour study produced by an adept artist recorded an accurate image that visually explained the appearance of the foreign objects.

The museum has 500,000 natural history artworks within its collection, but only a handful of them are on display. Due to the fragility of many of the older drawings and paintings, the collection is rotated as curators periodically change the exhibit in order to limit any light damage.

Presently (July/August 2017), examples of illustrations can be seen by several different artists. Edward Wilson (1872-1912), for example, was a polar explorer who also enjoyed painting and drawing. In a glass cabinet alongside stuffed versions, his illustrations of the British hedgehog are on view. This is just one of the many iconic mammals he drew in the early 1900s. In cabinets nearby are more illustrations such as British birds by Phyllida Lumsden (c.1940), Nautilus by George Brettingham Sowerby (1788-1854) and Eggs of British birds by the Dutch artist Henrik Grönvold (1858-1940).

 

Slightly more graphic images are included in this gallery. Scientists are not only interested in what a specimen looks like on the outside, they are also intrigued by the inner workings of the plant or animal they are studying. One example is of the innards of a loggerhead turtle produced by Cesare Ferreri (1802-1859). Interestingly, developments have been made since 1833 when this image was produced. Originally it was labelled a spur-thigh tortoise, but today’s scientists, with their extensive knowledge, have identified it as the loggerhead.

Although cameras are available to most people, some scientists still prefer to capture their findings on paper. Bryan Kneale (1930-) provides a great example of modern illustration with a blue chalk drawing of a giant tortoise, which stands out amongst the other artworks surrounding it.

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Giant Tortoise, Bryan Kneale, 1986

The most interesting aspect of Images of Nature is the analysis of a 17th-century oil painting by the Flemish artist Roelandt Savery (1576-1639). The painting of a dodo may be recognisable by many and is the go to image when looking for representations of the extinct bird. Hung next to the initial painting is a modern version painted by the talented scientist, Dr Julian Pender Hume. Apart from the choice of artistic medium (oil/acrylic), there are a number of alterations to the plump, flightless bird.

When Savery painted the comical looking bird, dodos had mostly succumbed to extinction. The artist relied on limited fragments of a dodo skeleton to come up with this representation. Pender Hume, with his knowledge of avifaunal anatomy, explains in an accompanying video that, due to its inability to fly, the dodo would not have had such a bulky body; it would not have needed as much muscle as the Flemish artist gave it.

 

Images of Nature is one of the more quiet sections of the museum and may not appeal to younger children. However, there is an interactive game of sorts that allows the player to learn about the basic process of drawing a beetle specimen. The game goes through the stages an artist may look at, beginning with the initial shape of the insect and ending with a close look at adding appropriate colour. There is also the opportunity for visitors to draw their own picture based on any of the specimens seen around the museum. These can be posted in a box in the gallery for the chance of it being displayed for all to see.

 

Despite the fact that the purpose of the Natural History Museum is to store and display the collected specimens of past and present explorers and scientists, it does host an exhibition devoted to the art form photography. The Wildlife Photographer of the Year is the museum’s most popular exhibition that takes place once a year. Currently, the finalists and winners of the 2016 entries to the annual competition are being showcased in the East Pavillion.

The Wildlife Photographer of the Year is the most highly regarded as well as the largest photography competition in the world, often attracting over 42,000 professional and amateur artists each year. This figure also includes an exceptional number of teenagers who submit their nature photographs to the junior section.

The competition is now in its 52nd year and has expanded significantly. When it first ran in 1965, only three categories were provided. Today there are more than five times the amount of categories including animal portraits, underwater photographs, plants and fungi, and black and white images.

Set in a dimly lit display room, the finalists and winners from each category are arranged on the walls on digital screens. This enables the museum to display all the photographs without needing to print them out on sizeable photo paper or worry about light damage. On each screen are details about the photographer and the image itself.

Unlike the rest of the museum, which is full of over excited children and their parents, the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition is a peaceful environment. Its silence and subdued lighting allow visitors to contemplate each photograph in their own time and appreciate the splendour and variety of nature.

As well as being displayed at the museum, the exhibition goes on tour around all six continents, therefore it is only viewable in London for a limited time. The current exhibition is open until 17th September and costs £10.50 (£6.50 for under 17s) to enter. Of course, the photographs can be found online, but there is something special about being able to see them all in one place.

For whatever reasons you decide to visit the Natural History Museum, be it the blue whale or a fascination with dinosaurs, be on the look out for examples of art. The fact that a science-oriented museum can display such artistry is proof that art can be found in the most unexpected of places. If you do not believe me, go to the museum yourself and witness the beauty and ornamentation of nature.

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4 thoughts on “The Art of the Natural World

  1. Love this take on the Natural History Museum, the illustrations and paintings are so often overlooked. Thanks for highlighting them, I’ll definitely pay closer attention when I visit next!

  2. Pingback: Portraits at the Mall | Hazel Stainer

  3. Hey fantastic website! Does running a blog like this require a large amount of work?
    I have absolutely no understanding of computer programming
    but I was hoping to start my own blog soon. Anyways, should you have any suggestions
    or tips for new blog owners please share. I understand this is off
    topic however I just wanted to ask. Kudos!

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