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Nature Art Uncovered - The Beginnings

The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch

In 1504 Hieronymus Bosch, living in the low countries of Northern Europe, applied the last touches to an image that has puzzled the world ever since. "The Garden of Earthly Delights" (1503-1504) seems to suggest a utopian world, yet running through the work are a series of human frailties that end in the ultimate damnation of the human race.

Woven within this fabric lie some of the most wonderful and amazing images of the natural world: the realistic and accurate portrayal of birds, of wildlife divided between good and evil, of the owl as a bird of night and evil.

Birds of water, woodland and meadow stand side-by-side with creatures more at home in a modern horror movie: all of them are linked to the lives of people as they pass through their own time span on Earth, from light into darkness. Corners of the painting reflect the illustrations Bosch would have been familiar with in "books of hours", personal prayer books.

For the monks or clergy who worked for so many hours to illustrate these wonderful and enchanting books, the natural world was something they observed and worshipped every hour of every day. That worship took place in a landscape we now can only imagine and envy.

It was rich in wildlife, from the monastic garden to the fields they toiled in, to the woodland, forest and river that they held in grace from the crown. For them the richness of that world was a gift from God, one to be thankful for and to rejoice in.

What better than to take the plants and flowers of the garden and the countryside, the birds and wildlife from the landscape and weave this into the fabric of worship within the illustrations of their books. For them, the observation of detail was all important. Its representation was not burdened by categorisation but by a simple desire to depict nature. It was work ‘inspired by nature' and celebrating the world around them.

The great master Albrecht Durer drew inspiration from nature to create an image that would seem as alive and fresh to us today as four centuries ago. Its enchanting detail remains as much an icon to those who love nature art today as to those who loved art then. Every individual strand of fur visible, his beautiful watercolour of a young Hare is a dedication to his talent of observation. He left a legacy to other artists, especially in print making.

Nature art is as old as art itself. For what intrinsic reason our ancestors created images of wildlife on cave walls we can never be entirely sure - we can only guess. What we do know is that ‘natural' art evolved to include many of our greatest artists and their work. Unencumbered by a rigid classification they produced work in celebration of what they saw and felt.

I have been fascinated by the history of art for many years, and have for the past forty years, researched and studied art and its relationship to nature and the natural world. As such, I have been fortunate to not only work as an artist, but also as a freelance writer and presenter with the BBC, collaborating with many conservationists, authors, artists and historians along the way.

Over the coming weeks, I will explore how our human interest in discovery and knowledge has led to a genre, a label that can be a liability to our expansion as artists and as human beings. Stay tuned...

For more information about the author and his artwork, visit his Robert Parkin's website.

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