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.
Pins, politics and patterns
I've been reading a totally brilliant book about beetles and loved this wonderful insight.
Collecting insects (and of course everything else) has been part of our most primal natures, but it was only in the c18th that preserving and mounting specimens really became more possible, owing to a rather unlikely industry: pin-making. In 'The Wealth of the Nations', Adam Smith famously referred to pin-making as an example of efficiency that could be achieved by the division of labour, and by the the mid 1700s London, Gloucester and Bristol had become the largest pin-making centres of the world. Mostly used by the garment industry, pins were adopted quickly by the entomologists of the day as a way to attach their specimens. Up to this point, collectors had had varying degrees of success with maintaining their hoards - some even resorting to squashing specimens between the pages of a book. Good for flowers maybe but...
It took a little while for mass-production of pins to allow for the manufacture of those made specifically for entomological use, but finally by the 1800s there was way to store, identify and arrange specimens more systematically. Those beautiful aesthetics around pinned specimens arranged in neat rows and patterns were born too. I love that early instructions from 1690 courtesy of one James Petiver (from his single folio sheet entitled: "Brief Directions for the Easie Making and Preserving Collections of all Natural Curiostities"), suggested that insects should be preserved by thrusting a pin through their body and sticking them to one's hat, until one has the opportunity to get a board and pin them to the wall of one's cabin, or the inside of a 'deal' box, so that would avoid being crushed.
More soon (ish), T