A beetle, a rose and a blackbird…?

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A student post by Pigi Sakellaropoulou, PhD researcher of Early Modern Art History at the University of Edinburgh and Scottish Graduate School for Arts & Humanities (SGSAH) Intern at The Hunterian on the project ‘Bridging Collections’.

During these first three weeks of my SGSAH internship (1) at The Hunterian, I often wonder:

“What could a beetle, a rose and a blackbird tell us about the past and present?”

For this internship, I investigate the broad theme of art and nature, working with Dr Lola Sanchez-Jauregui, Curator of European and American art collections in The Hunterian. The project aims to understand The Hunterian’s art collection and the shared stories of objects belonging to both Art and Natural History collections.

The zoology collection holds a series of the original illustrations of insects created by Margaret Wilson and included in Robert Staig’s book Glasgow University Publications – The Fabrician Types of Insects in the Hunterian Collection at Glasgow University: Part 1 (1931) and Part 2 (1940). In spite of not being all-inclusive, these illustrations depict a selection from the wonderful entomology collection of William Hunter.

Many kinds of insects, including beetles (Fig.1), are represented with great precision by Margaret, a GSA graduate of whom we know little. Despite the challenge of her contribution barely being mentioned or acknowledged, we are trying to learn more about her life and work to gain a better understanding of the scientific illustrations in the first half of the 20th century and the role that women played in this.

Representations of flowers together with butterflies or other insects are among the all-time greats of artistic creation. Nevertheless, during the 19th century, this kind of illustration was particularly popular in Europe, especially those that were influenced by or produced in Asia.

The Hunterian art collection holds an album of Chinese illustrations that exemplifies this trend. Its image of the rose attracting two insects (Fig.2), as well as the rest of its images, underline the theme of art and nature that is so central to the project. Working together with Ms Jeanne Robinson, Curator of Entomology at The Hunterian, we are trying to figure out more about the insects depicted in this album; do they represent real specimens existing in nature or are they based mainly on the artist’s imagination?

Beatrix Whistler, “The lady of the garden, lawn and blackbird”, as she was famously called by Stéphane Mallarmé, is also part of this project. In her garden in Paris, one could have found a parrot, a mockingbird, two Shama merles, as well as blackbirds. Beatrix depicted birds on many occasions, either as sketches or complete compositions.

The Hunterian holds the largest collection of Beatrix Whistler drawings and paintings, including 30 studies of birds, ranging from pencil sketches to finished oil paintings. This variety in terms of depicted details can be grasped in her drawing A Bird Pecking at Berries (Fig.3).

Following contemporary curatorial practices, insects, stuffed birds and animals, and works of art belong nowadays to different departments of The Hunterian. Nevertheless, the study of their common narratives could remove categorisations that were not firmly in place in the past and reveal some exciting stories to be considered for the future.


Images

Figure 1. (Left) Margaret R. Wilson, Scarabaeus hastatus, watercolour on paper, The Hunterian, GLAHM:141764. (Right) Scarabaeus hastatus, dry pinned specimen, The Hunterian, GLAHM:137648.

Figure 2.. Unknown artist, Untitled Butterfly and Flowers, 19th century, watercolour, The Hunterian, GLAHA:57488

Figure 3. Beatrix Whistler, A Bird Pecking at Berries, 1886–1896, brown wash over pencil on white wove paper, The Hunterian, GLAHA:46683.


References

  1. Scottish Graduate School for Arts & Humanities (SGSAH) offers internships as part of the SGSAH Internship and Artist Residence Programme 2020/21 to support doctoral researchers in Scotland and their development.

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