15F6 Nature on our doorstep: the art of British natural history | Natural History Museum
Wetland habitat illustration by Barbara Nicholson

Nature on our doorstep: the art of British natural history

17 March 2017

For more than 300 years, Britain's wildlife has captivated scientists and artists alike.

Their efforts to observe and document the nature on our doorstep inspired the Museum's latest art exhibition. 

Andrea Hart, Head of Library Special Collections, shares some highlights from the collection and points out a few intriguing details.

A haven for ecological diversity

A long and complex history of geological events in the British Isles not only laid the foundation for a wide range of economically valuable resources, such as metal ores and coal, but strongly influenced plant and animal diversity.

The distribution of species in the region was shaped by ice ages - episodes of extreme temperature that occasionally created land bridges between the British Isles and the European mainland. The Isles completely separated around 10,000 years ago.

As a result of the land bridges, few of the over 70,000 documented species in the British Isles are actually native. However, the temperate climate makes for an ideal home for a great diversity of wildlife and vegetation, and an important stopover for migratory birds due to its position at the edge of the continent.

Garden warbler illustration

The garden warbler is a spring and summer visitor to the British Isles. It spends its winters in sub-Saharan Africa. This original watercolour by John Cotton was published in The Song Birds of Great Britain in 1835.
 

Humans have also directly contributed to this variety of wildlife. During the age of exploration in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a search for new species both for science and economic benefit led to the introduction of a great number of plants from all over the world - including a number of pests and invasive species.

'Our goal with this exhibition is to open up the Museum Archives and showcase some of the immensely rich representations of British natural history that we have in our collections,' Andrea says.

'The exhibition is a reminder of just how much diversity exists right here on our doorstep.

'We may not have the larger, more impressive mammals such as giraffes or elephants, but there is a deep sense of attachment and familiarity to our own wildlife, like badgers, deer and hedgehogs.'

Red deer illustration

The red deer is the largest surviving indigenous land mammal in the British Isles. This illustration was completed by Antarctic explorer Edward Wilson in 1905-1910.

 

Seeing nature through time

Before photography, illustration was the only visual medium available to help scientists record and understand the details of the natural world. Much of the artwork produced was not for decorative purposes, but to aid in identification and classification.

The natural history illustrations at the Museum represent over 300 years of history in the British Isles. Behind each flourish of the illustrator's hand there are stories and meanings, easily overlooked by the casual observer.

Ordering the world

During the eighteenth century, accurate illustrations of the natural world became crucial to advancing scientific knowledge. It was ideal to have an image alongside descriptive text, to provide the fullest possible account of the subject.

One of the Museum's earliest artworks depicting British natural history is by German-born Johann Dillenius (1684-1747), Sherardian Chair of Botany at Oxford. He was a peer of Swedish scientist Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778), who devised a system of classification still used today to identify and name living things.

Dillenius created elegantly detailed, pen-and-ink and watercolour botanical illustrations, accompanied with annotations - though they were never published.

5B40

This illustration of Polypodum australe by Dillenius, dated 1720, is one of the earliest watercolours in the Museum's collections

 

Capturing elusive colours

Early zoological illustrations, particularly before the invention of the microscope, were similar to portraits in both composition and amount of detail. However, many artists were meticulous in their depiction of all elements visible to the human eye.

For her illustrations of British fishes, Sarah Bowditch (1791-1856) went to great lengths in the name of accuracy. She was known to sit at a river's edge and wait for live fish to be caught so she could capture and verify their true living colours, which fade quickly after death.

Tench illustration by Sarah Bowditch

Illustration of a tench (Tinca tinca), a fresh- and brackish-water fish, by Sarah Bowditch, about 1828

 

Augmented vision

Illustrations of nature changed noticeably when microscopes became widely available. Using a microscope allowed scientists to observe and draw the world in much greater detail, enhancing our understanding of a previously unobservable, microscopic world.

The illustration below is from a plate published in the Journal of the Quekett Microscopical Club in 1913. The accompanying text described a new species of water mite.

Water mite illustration

A water mite (Arrenurus scourfieldi) illustrated by Charles David Soar in 1913 with the aid of a microscope

 

Austrian botanical illustrator Franz Bauer (1758-1840) was well-known for his pioneering use of the microscope. It allowed him to achieve a level of detail in his illustrations that remains admired and studied by botanical illustrators today.

Illustrating for fieldwork

On the other hand, illustrating for field guides is different again. Pen-and-ink line drawings allow artists to create a detailed representation with strong areas of contrast that emphasise key features. This is important for scientists, naturalists and nature enthusiasts trying to accurately identify animals and plants.

Spider illustrations by Michael Roberts (born in 1945), such as the one below, are a notable example of this technique using coloured ink.

Ladybird spider pen-and-ink drawing

Illustration of the endangered ladybird spider (Eresus sandaliatus) by Michael Roberts, 1978

 

Ecological style

Changes in style of natural history illustration also reflect shifting understandings and priorities in science. From 1800s onwards, many artists followed what became known as the Linnaean style, named after Linnaeus, which separated out important anatomical features.

Artists working in an ecological style, however, shifted their focus from Linnaean style portraits of individual specimens to instead explore the relationships present in ecosystems.

In the 1970s the Museum commissioned Barbara Nicholson (1906-1978) to paint a series of educational posters to represent UK ecology and biodiversity.

'Barbara Nicholson was using her imagination to create the composition, but what she captures is both the detail of the species and the particular habitats in which they are to be found,' Andrea says.

'Nicholson undertook the commissions to share with us her conviction of the need to conserve wild plants in their habitats, with many of the habitats she depicted at the time already under threat. They therefore act as reminders of what we potentially could lose if measures are not taken to protect them.'

Capturing a fleeting moment

One of the first artists to illustrate butterflies in flight in their natural habitat was David Measures (1937-2011). He only drew an insect while he could observe it - if the creature flew away, he stopped drawing.

'His illustrations have an immediacy and fluidity that define his style,' Andrea explains. 'He would even put dates and times on his illustrations to capture them in that exact moment in time.'

Limited by fleeting interactions with his subjects, Measures's delicate paintings were done with ballpoint pen or marker and coloured with watercolour, mainly using his fingertips and spit.

Visit the free exhibition

From 11 March 2017 to summer 2018, four rotations of over 200 artworks and illustrations exploring the art of British natural history will be on display in the Images of Nature gallery. It is open and free to the public every day.

Art of British Natural History

Enjoy a free exhibition of artwork celebrating Britain's diverse wildlife.

Buy the book

The Art of British Natural History book features highlights from the Museum collection and traces 300 years of British wildlife illustration.

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