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From newly-discovered species to common wildlife, a new free exhbiition showing the work of women artists over four centuries, opens at the Museum in the Images of Nature gallery. These women painted for pleasure, to generate income, and as Museum employees or scientists. The exhibition's unveiling on 8 March marks International Women's Day.


Today there are probably just as many women natural history artists as men, and they particularly dominate the contemporary botanical art scene. But in the past their contributions went largely unnoticed.



This watercolour of owls, possibly spotted owlets, is by Olivia Tonge, c1908-1913, the daughter of an explorer who filled her sketchbooks with illustrations of flora and fauna on their travels. On show in the Women artists exhibition in the Images of Nature gallery.


'Women artists deserve to be celebrated in their own right, and this exhibiton seeks to do so. Even when they drew for pleasure, these women understood the importance of depicting their subjects with scientific accuracy. This has given us an incredibly rich collecton of artwork that is still used by contemprary scientists,' says Fiona Cole-Hamilton, Museum interpretation developer for the exhbition.



Left: Mandarin duck by Sarah Stone, watercolour on paper c1788. Stone depicted specimens unknown to science and her works are important scientific records. Right: fried egg jellyfish, barrel jellyfish and moon jellyfish by G W Dalby, watercolour on board c1960.


More than 60 female illustrators are featured in the exhibition, from different periods, backgrounds and social classes. Are there any differences in subject or style between the male and the female visions of nature, I wonder? Some of the illustrations I've had a sneak peek at are executed with such intense pattern-like finesse.


Various British seaweeds by Barbara Nicholson, watercolour on board c1970-1977. The image portrays the UK's ecology and biodiversity of the time. About 650 species of seaweed live in British waters.


Andrea Hart, Special Collections Librarian, who helped create the exhibition and the accompanying book, gives some background:


'Many of the artworks that we hold in the Museum collections by men were carried out on voyages of discovery or for scientific purposes and so to some extent there is quite a set way of drawing these. The Dutch floral painters were very similar in style regardless of their sex. So no, I don’t actually I think there is a visible difference (not with our Museum artworks) to say that they were completed by a male or female.



Heathland by Barbara Nicholson (1906-1978). Watercolour on board c1970-1977. On show in the gallery's second rotation.


'It's also to do with what is required from the artist. Barbara Nicholson’s Heathland, pictured above, is beautifully intricate. But it was specifically commissioned by the Museum to show different types of ecosystems and habitats and not to focus on an individual subject like with most of the other artworks held.


'I'd say it's true that women did find it harder to achieve success or get their work recognised in the scientific arena especially during the 18th and 19th centuries. But others chose to work in obscurity or just draw for their own pleasure.



Horse fly, c1906, by Grace Edwards. Watercolour and ink on paper. Edwards' work is part of the Museum library's collection of more than 100 illustrations of blood-sucking flies.


'My favourite is probably Grace Edwards' blood-sucking fly, which will be in a forthcoming rotation. Her watercolour has surprising detail and for such a small, but pain-inducing subject! We have more than 100 illustrations of African and oriental blood-sucking flies which Grace drew with immaculate precision on card no larger than 7 x 9 centimetres. I'm looking forward to the challenge of mounting 16 of them to go into the gallery for the fourth and final rotation to show in early 2015.'


The exhibition of women artists has four rotations in the Images of Nature gallery. The current pieces are displayed until the end of June when they will be replaced by new illustrations. Over the next 12 months the gallery will showcase more than 60 female illustrators. You can gain more insights into this collection in the accompanying book.


The Images of Nature gallery is located in the Blue Zone off Dinosaur Way.


Find out about the Women artists exhibition in Images of Nature


See more images from the first rotation in our highlights slideshow


Women Artists book


International Women's Day official website