Dodo slims down for new Museum gallery

24 November 2010

The iconic dodo has had a makeover in preparation for the opening of a new permanent gallery, Images of Nature, at the Natural History Museum next year.

A new painting of a slimline dodo, which is more realistic and based on scientific evidence, will be on display in the free Images of Nature gallery opening on 21 January 2011. The painting, Dodo Raphus cucullatus, is a new commission by Museum palaeontologist and artist Dr Julian Pender Hume.

The painting shows a different view of the extinct bird’s shape compared to the instantly recognisable plump bird in the world-famous dodo image from the 17th century oil painting by Roelandt Savery.

17th century oil painting of the dodo by Roelandt Savery

17th century oil painting of the dodo by Roelandt Savery

Julian explains how he painted the dodo in the video above, which is an extract from a film that will be shown in the Images of Nature gallery.

The 2 dodo paintings will be displayed alongside each other with many other artworks from the Museum’s important natural history art collection.

Scientific importance

Savery’s painting is of great scientific importance, since the Museum’s first Superintendent, Professor Richard Owen, used it to scientifically describe the bird. Owen placed bones over the painting and his interpretation, published in 1866, became the dodo’s recognised scientific description.

Julian says, ‘Unlike Owen, I used a number of fossil bones up to 4,000 years old, from the small marsh area of Mare aux Songes in Mauritius, as well as contemporary accounts and studies of the anatomy of other flightless birds. 

'By looking at the evidence I found that our idea of a plump, tubby bird as depicted in the Savery painting is incorrect. So I have tried to show it in its true glory, albeit a more svelte and slimline version.’

The dodo

A relative of the pigeon, the dodo was once found in plentiful numbers on the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean, and is now an icon of extinction. 

With no large predators and plenty of seeds, fruits and other plant food on the ground, the dodo had gradually lost the ability to fly. 

But its peaceful existence was shattered in the early 1600s when settlers arrived. They brought with them rats, cats and pigs, and the dodo’s ground nests became easy pickings. 

As people cut down the forests, the dodo’s food supply dwindled. And so by the end of the 17th century the last one had died and the species was extinct.

Museum natural history art collection

The new Images of Nature gallery will show artworks from the finest natural history art collection in the world, housed at the Museum. It will feature works by eminent artists, including the prolific bird illustrator John Gerrard Keulemans and lifelike botanical paintings by Georg Ehret. 

A temporary exhibition of Chinese botanical and zoological watercolours originally commissioned by the 19th-century East India Company tea inspector John Reeves forms the focus for the gallery’s first temporary exhibition programme, with displays changing every few months. 

Works by a Shanghai-based contemporary artist, inspired by the collections from China, will also feature in the gallery.

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