Nature Art Uncovered – The Time of Classification

Robert Parkin - AFC
May 6, 2011 share
Artists for Conservation

At some stage, every artist will be asked the same question: “An artist, how interesting. What do you paint?” Most people would think this is easy to answer, but you know it’s not. I’ve tried almost every way of explaining I can think of, a list of explanations that at some stage will inevitably illicit the response “Oh, a wildlife artist.” The list has included landscape, history, plants – but when it gets to wildlife, bingo! 

When did we reach this plateau of classification? And why? Let us take a step back to a time when the world, the human world, began a journey of discovery and knowledge. The New World was becoming familiar, and the exotic proved to fascinate the rich and powerful. 

Enter among others Pieter Casteels lll. Few have created images as diverse as this Flemish artist. Still life, landscape, marine and a range of extraordinary paintings that feature all manner of bird life: from farmyard cockerel to peacock, and even that harbinger of bad luck in the eyes of the superstitious, the magpie. 

Casteels was a painter, influenced by the day, and by fashion. Like many artists, he gave what his clients wanted. Skilled and trained he could muster his talent to any subject, and so brought an eye to his work that enabled him to ‘explore and render his subject matter’.

Tall ships were making progress to the New World. Aboard, artists prepared to capture images that could not be imagined by those who remained rooted in the old. A little less than one hundred years after Casteels death, the daughter of Frederick North, Member of Parliament for Hastings in Great Britain began a remarkable journey.

This was Victorian Britain and the age of empire []. An accomplished painter, her sex, although suited to painting and writing should not have allowed her to make a career from her work. But Marianne North was made of sterner stuff. With her father’s death in 1870, and unmarried, she sought to use her modest inheritance in pursuit of her overriding passion, painting flowers in their ‘natural setting’. 

Marianne’s first journey, alone, was in 1871. She travelled via Jamaica to the United States and Canada.  The next took her to Brazil - later still to India. In 1879 she donated her collected works (on condition her paintings be housed in a building where garden visitors may rest) to the Royal Botanic Garden at Kew in London, creating one of its most endearing and popular features. The Marianne North Gallery was even embellished by her own hand. 

It must have been a truly glorious age. For, like the ‘Lenten lily’ whose glow inspired the romantic evocation of nature, science reflected its own light into the after-glow from the renaissance and continued to suspect and uncover the secrets of the natural world. 

At the suggestion of Charles Darwin no less, Marianne travelled to Australasia and met Marian Ellis Rowan, a talented young woman who would prove to be an accomplished ‘natural history’ artist in her own right. We will return to her at a later stage. Of Marianne North? Well she would continue her travels and gain recognition as an outstanding ‘Botanical Artist’. 

With science and discovery - classification had come of age. 

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