Natural History Illustration - Before Photography

Intruder 3 - Trevor Weekes

On Friday 19 April 2021 Easel Art Space welcomed many to the opening of the Natural History Illustration Exhibition, works from which are shown elsewhere on this website. In the weeks that followed I have joined fellow Directors in welcoming numerous visitors to the Exhibition. What has been notable though, has been the happy surprise expressed by so many at ‘all the intensity’ – in sculpture as well as works hung.

Have a look at them on this website. www.Easel-Art-Space Feature Exhibition.

It became vital then better to understand the Exhibition. The works are original, and rare. Where have these works begun, what has moved the artists to present them to public view?

One morning Ebony Hyde (see website) tutored two young boys in natural history illustration skills, studying ‘the weevil’. Those observing were excited by the results. Why though did the tutorial occur at all; surely ‘natural history’ is better served by photography or video technology – David Attenborough’s work for example – rather than by the work of the hand, pen, brush, paint and ink, clay and bronze. ‘Media’ of a past age?

The obvious point is this: in this exhibition, in common with others, the ‘still centre’ caught by the artist’s image, each waiting patiently on the wall of Easel Art Space to be seen and understood, shares the glory of all art: capture the fleeting moment, interpret the singular intersection of time, space and being, forever. Stop time; stop decay; explain the unforeseen. Enhance the lived experience. Enhance living. Be still. These values known now as always, illuminate. Nonetheless the questions persist: are the Natural History works’ subjects better caught by the camera, by technology? Indeed what is the practical community and education benefit of these works?

As always the past gives the starting point. From the American Museum of Natural History publications (2014; website 2021)

“…Before photography, the only way to bring back a visual of strange creatures in other lands was through illustration. Art has long been incredibly important to the development of science, as shown in the Natural Histories: 400 Years of Scientific Illustration from the Museum’s Library exhibition now (2014) at the American Museum of Natural History in New York…”


“….while Charles Darwin’s popular The Voyage of the H.M.S. Beagle (1839) and the blown-up images of fleas and previously invisible microscopic views from Robert Hooke’s Micrographia (1665) might be familiar, there are less widely reproduced works…”

Allison Meier (December 2013) here makes the more obvious practical, pragmatic point – science development always relied for information and record on hand-wrought illustration, with ‘recent’ examples being in 1665 and 1839. For some commentators this is justification of the art form itself.

She also draws the point that in the same exhibition in 2014, a rarely seen early 18th century illustration is glorious:

“…There’s also a dynamically drawn pineapple swarmed with a caterpillar, butterflies, and other insects by German naturalist and artist Maria Sibylla Merian from her 1719 Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium based on her two-year travels in South America. Merian was one of the few women who got widespread recognition for her natural history work, being influential in entomology, in particular in observing the butterflies’ metamorphosis….”

Alexander von Humboldt – whose illustrations are the basis for some writers’ describing him as a ‘visual thinker’ - was active in the mid to late 18th century, at times in South America. His work including illustration altered European science.

Merian pre-dated him. The Scott sisters worked in Australia across lives spanning 1832 to 1910. They too, like Elizabeth Gould, were not accorded widespread recognition appropriate to accomplishments.

In recent Modern Met (NY) (2018) commentary, this span of Natural History Illustration:

“…Botanical illustration is the art of depicting the form, colour, and details of plant life. The practice can be traced back to sometime between 50 and 70 CE, when an illustrated book titled De Materia Medica was created by Greek botanist Pedanius Dioscorides to help readers identify plant species for medicinal purposes. The eighteenth century saw many advances in the printing processes, allowing colours and details of drawings to appear even more accurate on paper. As interest in botanical publications increased, the role of botanical illustrator came to be considered a respected profession….”

The ‘practical’ historical value of Natural History Illustration is obvious, then. Science past and present wholly has been advantaged, at times created, often validated by the art form and its practitioners.

'Golden Hour' Sulphur-crested Cockatoo - Ebony Bennett

Yet the works at Easel Art Space now do not draw life from supporting science, much as many may invigorate scientists and inspire them. The exhibition was curated to emphasise the spectacular art form and its practice. The Directors know of strong feelings about the closing or amalgamating of Natural History Illustration tertiary courses, such as that at University of Newcastle (UON) which from 2016 to 2020 offered the only Degree course of its kind in Australia. Media commentary at the time emphasised the move to ‘creative industries’, of which NHI studies would remain only a ‘major’.

The truth is that each work in the current exhibition has its own character to convey its existence, and attractiveness, as art itself not solely illustration of an observed natural form or creature. Consider Intruder (Trevor Weekes) or Coastal Carpet Python (Zoe Lawrence), both Natural History studies, both character studies, both exquisitely rendered, both unique in time and insight. In the eye of the observer possibly: personification. Both, like others, delicately realised – Australian flora and fauna, sculpture capturing irony - to be lived with helpfully for a lifetime. To draw breath is to search the natural world.

Do not miss the Exhibition either at Easel Art Space, Scott Street Newcastle, or at It has special value, and values.

There is though as well a large future dimension also to be recognised, sparked by seeing these art works, absorbing their provenance. Easel Art Space was made by four of us, from July 2020 onwards, as an anti-Covid response. We joined forces with CStudios Newcastle, took space in the old Newcastle Station and set about curating exhibitions, establishing new websites, expending all the energy we could muster.

It was entirely possible, as so many have observed globally, to ‘sit on our hands’ behind closed doors and take Caesar’s coin. Over more than a year words have taken on new, often threatening significance: lockdown, the Australian Constitution, pandemic, epidemic, border closure. There have been so many losses, personal and economic, so many abandoned values. So much fear, so much ‘protection’.

Of course nothing can be dealt with lightly; televised images from India (April 2021) suggest what could have happened in any, perhaps every country had not hatches been shut tight, by requirement. Fear stalked all lands. In the end, despair was always a possible response. But Churchill’s advice: “...never flinch, never weary, never despair’ is as relevant now as at any other time, perhaps all times.

Therefore in the Natural History Illustration exhibition are the exquisite concentrations of detail, colour, vitality, mood, artistic insight, skills, differences, the fixities of time and image transcending temporal impairment, future truths from present images. Brilliant messages, brilliant communication. Individual.

Natural History Illustration Exhibition - Opening Night

The arts can speak for the human; Natural History Illustration speaks for values intrinsic to human observation, human sympathy. The values matter much. Lionel Shriver (The Spectator Australia 13 March 2021 p 19) writing from Britain:

“…For the past year, we’ve nobly made personal sacrifices for the perceived well-being of the whole. Meanwhile, all other values have taken a backseat: friendship, family, curiosity and adventure, art…”

Shriver argues that there have been, there remain alternative ways and means. Art, she suggests, should not take a backseat any more than other values. Art, as we see in Natural History Illustration the exhibition, is freedom, a value to be cherished above all else, persisting wonderfully even when the daily world ‘closes down’. Finest art is finest freedom.

“…Western liberty allows for creativity and even, quietly, breaking of rules. It’s a burden, granted, but in the West the purpose of our lives is for each to determine. Altruism is a choice.”

And finally:

“…The retired Supreme Court Justice Jonathon Sumption observed mournfully last week that constraints on the state are mere conventions. But a state can do anything, really. And now the British state has done anything…”

There is exceptional, historic, historical, free and future beauty in the Natural History Illustration exhibition at the Art Space. Or on line. Don’t miss it.


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