New slimline dodo reveals importance of world-class natural history art collections

Press release - 24 November 2010

Images of Nature gallery, Natural History Museum, opening on 21 January 2011

A painting of a slimline dodo showing a very different idea of the bird’s shape to the instantly recognisable round, plump bird we all know and love will be displayed in Images of Nature, a new permanent gallery at the Natural History Museum, London. Dodo Raphus cucullatus is a new commission from Museum palaeontologist Dr Julian Hume, and will be displayed alongside the world’s most famous image of the dodo from the seventeenth-century oil painting by Roelandt Savery.

Judith Magee, Curator at the Natural History Museum says, ‘From the earliest drawings to the latest digital photography, nature has inspired many artists, and natural history images are valuable for both artistic and scientific study, as Julian’s painting demonstrates. Here at the Museum we have the world’s largest collection of natural history artwork on paper, amounting to more than 500,000 pieces and the new gallery is the perfect place to showcase our highlights.’

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 the bones over the painting and his interpretation, published in 1866, became the dodo’s recognised scientific description.

Julian Hume 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.’

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 seventeenth century, the last one had died and the species was extinct.

The Museum holds the finest natural history art collection in the world, featuring works by some of the most 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 nineteenth-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.

Visitor information
Dates and times: opening on 21 January 2011
10.00–17.50 (last admission 17.30)
Visitor enquiries: 020 7942 5000 Monday–Friday
020 7942 5011 Saturday–Sunday


Notes for editors

  • Winner of Visit London’s 2009 Best London for Free Experience Award, the Natural History Museum is also a world-leading science research centre. Through its collections and scientific expertise, the Museum is helping to conserve the extraordinary richness and diversity of the natural world with groundbreaking projects in more than 68 countries.