A modern response to the John Reeves collection

The Natural History Museum invited a contemporary Chinese artist from Shanghai to be its first international artist-in-residence for the Images of Nature gallery.

The focus of the residency was to research the John Reeves collection and, in response to it, create new artwork to be displayed in the gallery.


View examples of the artwork produced by the contemporary artist during his residency. He wishes to remain unnamed, like the draughtsmen who created the works commissioned by Reeves.

Four tomatoes drawing by the Museum's Chinese artist in residence

Four Tomatoes 
Watercolour on paper, 2010. 

Inspired by a drawing of a lizard from the John Reeves collection, the contemporary Chinese artist has transformed this tomato stalk into a dynamic, reptilian form.

Contemporary artwork by the Museum's first artist in residence for Images of Nature

Colour pencil on paper, 2010. 

This drawing is the first that the Chinese artist in residence created in London. The work features objects found in a supermarket and refers to the underlying economic interests behind European collecting in China during the 1800s. 

Memorialise Memory

Memorialise Memory
Video projection, 2010

The installation commemorates John Reeves and the Chinese draughtsmen he commissioned. It includes 2 handmade cherry-wood boxes and acknowledges the process and collaboration between Reeves and the Chinese artisans, known and unknown.

The original draughtsmen, Akut, Akam, Akew and Asung, named by Reeves in his notebook, and others that remain anonymous, worked under his instructions in the studios near the foreign factories in Canton.

About the residency

Bergit Arends, Curator of Contemporary Art at the Museum explains that working with an artist really means engaging with the cultural scene around Reeves’ work.

As part of his residency, the artist ‘… spends time here at the Museum, then he goes back to the studio and produces drawings,’ Bergit tells us. ‘What he’s drawn can be inspired by either the Reeves collection, or by any objects he finds on his way to the studio, or while going shopping.’

It is clear to the contemporary Chinese artist that, although Reeves commissioned local Chinese artisans to record what animal and plants looked like accurately, the images are unmistakably works of art as well as valuable natural history documents. He points to the style, the colours, shapes, details and arrangements of specimens in the images.

Working with the collection, the artist also became interested in how the artisans who created the images were acknowledged. Because nothing other than a short list of nicknames is known about them, he decided ‘to make [a] memorial, to help people to remember something. Not only Reeves, also the unknown artisans.’

The Museum’s international artist research residency programme was delivered in partnership with Gasworks, a contemporary art organisation in London.