Wetland habitat illustration by Barbara Nicholson

One of Britain's leading plant illustrators, Barbara Nicholson had a talent for painting accurate portraits of British ecosystems

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Nature on our doorstep: the art of British natural history

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 form part of the Museum's art collection.

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.

The garden warbler illustrated by John Cotton

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.

In 2017 and 2018, the Museum displayed selected artworks documenting nature in Britain in a free exhibition.

Andrea said at the time, '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.

'It 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.'

Andrea documented the artworks included in the exhibition, plus additional highlights from the collection, in her book, The Art of British Natural History.

Red deer illustrated by Antarctic explorer Edward Wilson

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.

A Polypodum australe watercolour painting by Dillenius

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.

Illustration of a Tench 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.

A black and white water mite illustration by Charles David Soar

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.

Illustration of a ladybird spider by Michael Roberts

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 Images of Nature gallery

See how artists and scientists view the natural world through more than 100 images from the Museum's collection in the Images of Nature gallery.

Historic prints, watercolours and paintings spanning hundreds of years are displayed alongside modern images created by scientists, imaging specialists and photographers.

We hope you enjoyed this article…

... or that it helped you learn something new. Now we're wondering if you can help us.  

Every year, more people are reading our articles to learn about the challenges facing the natural world. Our future depends on nature, but we are not doing enough to protect our life support system.  

British wildlife is under threat. The animals and plants that make our island unique are facing a fight to survive. Hedgehog habitats are disappearing, porpoises are choking on plastic and ancient woodlands are being paved over. 

But if we don't look after nature, nature can't look after us. We must act on scientific evidence, we must act together, and we must act now.

Despite the mounting pressures, hope is not lost. Museum scientists are working hard to understand and fight against the threats facing British wildlife. 

For many, the Museum is a place that inspires learning, gives purpose and provides hope. People tell us they 'still get shivers walking through the front door', and thank us for inspiring the next generation of scientists.

To reverse the damage we've done and protect the future, we need the knowledge that comes from scientific discovery. Understanding and protecting life on our planet is the greatest scientific challenge of our age. And you can help.  

We are a charity and we rely on your support. No matter the size, every gift to the Museum is critical to our 300 scientists' work in understanding and protecting the natural world.  

From as little as £2, you can help us to find new ways to protect nature. Thank you.