It is with sheer joy that I discover an original data label – the tiny pieces of paper behind pinned specimens – that are often a glimpse into a bygone era.
Labels tell just snippets of a story, a tale of where specimens were found, by whom, and a date. With no figurative language or tantalising descriptions, they are skeletal stories at best that rely entirely on how much information the individual who made the label provided.
Very often the labels are illegible, partly as a result of age, more often because they were scribbled hastily in the field and never properly transcribed. Many of my late 1800s butterflies and moths are complete with labels showing their copperplate script; feathery slanting letters written in sepia ink, so utterly romantic.
This recent discovery is a favourite.. ‘Golf course, Singapore, Edge of Jungle 9/9/62’. This shortest of stories conjures up an ex-patriate life perhaps, of khaki shorts, whirring fans and cocktails on the terrace, and a day in September almost 60 years ago when a collector - who will be forever mysterious - discovered a beautiful butterfly on the edge of a jungle.
Hygrometers – used to measure atmospheric humidity – have been used in some form for thousands of years; 2000 years ago during the Shang Dynasty, the Chinese used a bar of charcoal and a lump of earth: its dry weight was taken, then compared with its damp weight after being exposed in the air; the differences in weight were used to tally the humidity level.
A crude hygrometer was invented by Leonardo da Vinci in 1480. Even human hair was used in Hair Tension Hygrometers; the hair is hygroscopic (tending toward retaining moisture) and its length changes with humidity. The length change was magnified by a mechanism and indicated on a dial or scale.
Unsurprisingly, the lifecycle of a butterfly is very much affected by relative humidity. In its larval stage, the pupa of tropical species requires typical humidities of 80-90%. It forms its pupal skin according to this humidity. In Northern and Eastern species, however, the pupa can develop with far lower humidities, sometimes descending to 50-60%. Too much humidity, or too little, coupled with changes in temperature, can seriously hinder the emergence of the butterfly. Monarchs are an exception as they overwinter on the frost line in Mexico and have an inherent cool tolerance.
This new piece continues a conversation about the connection of nature and science, and of the delicate environmental balance which binds us all.
Morpho helena, antique hygrograph
My last series ‘Instar’ is named after the term given to the various developmental stages in the metamorphosis of an insect.
The collection is dedicated to the memory of a fascinating 17th century woman of science, Maria Merian, who dedicated her life to the close observation of insects. She was the first person to offer proof of metamorphosis and dispel the widespread contemporary belief was that insects were "born of mud" by spontaneous generation. Merian documented evidence and described the life cycles of 186 insect species over her lifetime. She was an accomplished artist and her illustrations and engravings are stunning examples of her botanical and entomological observations.
Maria was a fearless and intrepid explorer, and in 1699 she sailed with her daughter nearly 5,000 miles from the Netherlands to South America to study insects in the jungles of what is now known as Suriname. She was 52. The result was her magnum opus, ‘Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium’. Her achievements were extraordinary for a woman born within the constraints of 17th century society, and despite being partially paralysed by a stroke, she continued working until her death in Amsterdam in 1717. The death register lists her as a pauper.
Maria Sybilla Merian, naturalist, 2 April 1647 – 13 January 1717
Earlier this week I embarked on an epic one day journey to visit the natural science stores of the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.
The research session was organised by @socaberlady along with @societyscottishartists ahead of an exciting VERY exciting exhibition this May (watch this space) 🕸
The assistant entomology curator @ash_whiffin showed us around the huge collection (a total of 2.5 million specimens), including some beetles from the 250 year old - and scientifically important - Dufresne Collection.
Now safely back in Somerset after flying into Edinburgh and out of Glasgow..
What we do for the things we love!
Falling atmospheric pressure is often associated with bad weather such as thunderstorms and can be accompanied by different combinations of high wind speeds, rainfall, rapid changes in temperature, and solar radiation, all conditions that can result in high mortality in small insects.
Many of them, moths included, have adapted to predict - to some degree - upcoming weather associated with decreasing barometric pressure. This evolutionary modification has long been documented for large migrating insects that take advantage of the convective storms that precede typical cold fronts by enhancing their flight activity.
For small and short-lived insects, detecting atmospheric pressure changes and adjusting their behaviour accordingly (when to migrate, when to breed and lay eggs etc), expresses their ingeniously adaptive abilities.
Antique tiger moth (c. 1920s), vintage barometer, 2019
In enforced post wisdom tooth extraction recovery, I have been doing a lot of reading, and came across this fascinating National Geographic article.
I was moved by the beautiful pathos of a story about abandoned scientific research stations of old empire. This one in Tanzania - 'a vision of the future, suspended in time' - is crazily incongruous, modernist buildings now mostly abandoned in the African jungle.
Amani was founded in the 19th century as a German botanical garden, going on to become a British malarial research institute. These days, now funding has pretty much disappeared, a skeleton staff has stayed on, mostly in the hope that it's fortunes will be revived.
Retired lab assistant John Mganga still lives there, amongst the dusty books and remnants of the insect collection that he put together with famed British entomologist John Raybould in the 1970s.
'Something really was lost when the whole place folded... he had truly believed in science and the country's future. He lived that dream and he suffered from losing it.'
The Governor, The Commandant and The Convict
A recent work trip to Sydney has been slightly incredible. I love living in Queensland (most of the time) but it is almost impossible to connect with the strong colonial tradition and aesthetic of natural history collecting that is such a driving force in my work here.
So when I knew I was going to be having a few days in one of the oldest settled cities on the continent, I made sure I spent as much time as I could in its finest houses (Elizabeth Bay House), as well as making a pilgrimage to the Mitchell Library, current home of one of Australia's greatest colonial treasures - The Macquarie Collectors Chest.
In one of my life's highlights, I was offered a private viewing of the chest, along with three conservators and a state librarian. In a hushed room with only the lowest of light (to protect the treasure within), the chest was gently opened to reveal the first of many layers of natural history specimens, most of them over two centuries old. As the photos above and below testify, the entomological specimens are as bright and beautiful as the day they were captured, sometime in the early 1800s.
The history of the chest and how it came into existence most definitely asks more questions that it answers, but in essence it was made for Lachlan Macquarie, Governor of New South Wales, by his friend Captain James Wallis of the 46th Regiment and Commandant of the Newcastle penal settlement (1816–1819). The beautifully painted panels depicting scenes of the natural world were the work of a freed convict Joseph Lycett, and these three diverse characters illustrate the close interconnections which occurred in the small but complex colonial society of the day.
In a series of poorly documented events, the chest made it's way from its birthplace in the new land of Australia to Scotland, where it languished for over 150 years at Strathallen Castle in Perthshire (aprocryphally generations of children played with its contents, and incredibly, most specimens are intact apart from the odd broken bird claw).
The chest came back into the light in the 1980s and was sold by Sotheby's in Melbourne, eventually being acquired by the Mitchell Library In 2004, where it now forms part of the library's holdings of Governor Macquarie's personal archives.
The opportunity to connect with this piece of modern Australian history has meant the world to me, and I will continue to be enthralled by its mysteries.
Once again closed, but Its heart gleaming with long-dead beetle wings, and tucked safely in the dark undercroft of its current resting place.
In preparation for a gallery installation next year, I've been researching how butterflies have been depicted in art history... and I've been blown away by the work of Dutch Golden Age artist Otto Marseus van Schrieck.
Painting at the end of the 17th century, he made famous what is known as the 'sottobosco' genre, or the forest floor still life. It was the first time that an artist had concentrated on what was generally perceived to be the lowlife of the natural world - snakes, caterpillars, rodents, snails and butterflies. He painted these creatures with astute scientific realism, against a background of almost pure black. Poetically, he occasionally pressed the wings of real butterflies into the wet oil paint, causing the finished painting to shimmer from the darkness.
I have been totally inspired by these paintings, and have created two large companion pieces in response to them - one black, one white. Both contain Victorian and Edwardian specimens. I think they may be the most favourite of all time...
ICaterpillars and butterflies.... we all know that one follows the other. But what actually happens inside the cocoon is extraordinary. Here is a brilliant article from Scientific American about the utterly miraculous process of metamorphosis.
"As children, many of us learn about the wondrous process by which a caterpillar morphs into a butterfly. The story usually begins with a very hungry caterpillar hatching from an egg. The caterpillar, or what is more scientifically termed a larva, stuffs itself with leaves, growing plumper and longer through a series of molts in which it sheds its skin. One day, the caterpillar stops eating, hangs upside down from a twig or leaf and spins itself a silky cocoon or molts into a shiny chrysalis. Within its protective casing, the caterpillar radically transforms its body, eventually emerging as a butterfly or moth.But what does that radical transformation entail? How does a caterpillar rearrange itself into a butterfly? What happens inside a chrysalis or cocoon?
First, the caterpillar digests itself, releasing enzymes to dissolve all of its tissues. If you were to cut open a cocoon or chrysalis at just the right time, caterpillar soup would ooze out. But the contents of the pupa are not entirely an amorphous mess. Certain highly organized groups of cells known as imaginal discs survive the digestive process. Before hatching, when a caterpillar is still developing inside its egg, it grows an imaginal disc for each of the adult body parts it will need as a mature butterfly or moth—discs for its eyes, for its wings, its legs and so on. In some species, these imaginal discs remain dormant throughout the caterpillar's life; in other species, the discs begin to take the shape of adult body parts even before the caterpillar forms a chrysalis or cocoon. Some caterpillars walk around with tiny rudimentary wings tucked inside their bodies, though you would never know it by looking at them.
Once a caterpillar has disintegrated all of its tissues except for the imaginal discs, those discs use the protein-rich soup all around them to fuel the rapid cell division required to form the wings, antennae, legs, eyes, genitals and all the other features of an adult butterfly or moth. The imaginal disc for a fruit fly's wing, for example, might begin with only 50 cells and increase to more than 50,000 cells by the end of metamorphosis. Depending on the species, certain caterpillar muscles and sections of the nervous system are largely preserved in the adult butterfly. One study even suggests that moths remember what they learned in later stages of their lives as caterpillars."
I have hatched monarchs myself at home, and the few pupae that didn't make it became the focus of my attention. I remember opening one up and observing the clear soupy liquid ooze out... and thinking it was decaying matter. Little did I know at that point how complex and full of possibilities that liquid was. Little wonder that metamorphosis has become such a powerful allegory for human change and evolution.
Principles of Iridescence
After quite a few years working with butterflies, I am still totally awe-struck at the crazily blue wings of the genus morpho. There is a simple (yet complex) reason why they are the blue they are – the colour is not down to pigment but to something else completely: ‘structural colour.’
Structural colouration was first observed by English scientists Robert Hooke and Isaac Newton in the 17th century, and its principle – wave interference – explained by Thomas Young a century later. Young described iridescence as the result of interference between reflections from two or more surfaces of thin films, combined with refraction as light enters and leaves such films.
The geometry then determines that at certain angles, the light reflected from both surfaces interferes constructively, while at other angles, the light interferes destructively. Different colours therefore appear at different angles.
Structural coloration is caused by interference effects rather than by pigments. Colours are produced when a material is scored with fine parallel lines, formed of one or more parallel thin layers, or otherwise composed of microstructures on the scale of the colour's wavelength; and so the combined action of interference and diffraction is essential for the structural colour of the Morpho butterfly.
This photo of a morpho didius from my own collection is over a century old. It shows how perhaps structural colour weathers the rigours of time in a very different way to pigmented specimens… and I marvel at the glory of this blue 105 years later.