In addition to the many thousands of biological specimens that can be found at Oxford University Museum of Natural History, we also possess a variety of objects that originate from historical versions of the Museum’s displays. These include models, casts, and illustrations of various kinds, used to represent organisms that were otherwise difficult to preserve and display.
That any of these exhibition materials survive at all is down to pure happenstance and luck. At the time when they were removed from display, these artefacts would have just been seen as outdated ‘display furniture’ and all but destined to have been thrown away. One surviving piece of ex-display material, which catches my eye almost daily as it sits in my office, is a rather large pair of illustrations showing a South American and a West African lungfish mounted on a black backing board.
By pure coincidence, I recently came across lithograph reproductions of these illustrations in an 1895 publication by E. Ray Lankester. Had these fish not have been my office-mates, I might not have paid the lithographs in the paper much attention, nor recognised their significance.
E. Ray Lankester was a noted Zoologist who studied at Oxford University and was the holder of the Linacre Chair. He was also heavily involved in adding to the collections and displays here at OUMNH. His 1895 paper – a smash hit I’m sure we all remember – was titled On the Lepidosiren of Paraguay, and on the external characters of Lepidosiren and Protopterus, and sought to add more reliable evidence on the appearances of lungfishes.
Lungfishes were of particular interest to scientists at the end of the nineteenth century. Though seemingly related, the different species of lungfish caused no small amount of head-scratching, given that they were found in freshwater ecosystems as far apart as Australia, Africa, and South America. As their name suggests, they are fish but also air-breathing, and the fact that they possess lungs also marked them for scientific interest at the time.
Interestingly (well, interesting to me!) is that Lankester adds an extensive note in the paper about the illustration of the specimens, explaining that he is unhappy with how Bayzand’s original drawings have been modified in the process of transforming them into lithographs for publication. According to Lankester, these modifications introduced inaccuracies. In particular, he complained that the lithographer had made it look like the lungfishes were covered in scales, and stresses that “[a]s a matter of fact, no scales at all[,] or parts of scales[,] are visible on the surface” of the lungfish. Instead, he makes clear that in real life (or, in this case, in preserved life) the scales of the fish are overlaid with soft tissue. Comparing the figure in the paper with the illustrations in my office confirms that the lithographer had, indeed, inaccurately reproduced the original drawings.
The happy coincidence of me finding Lankester’s paper led me to several important revelations. Firstly, we now know that Bayzand’s original drawings of the lungfish can still be found here at OUMNH. Secondly, we can surmise that, at some point in the past, these drawings were displayed in the Museum’s galleries. We can also corroborate that the original illustrations are different to the published versions, meaning that, if we are to believe Lancaster, they are also more accurate than those in the publication. Finally, we now know that two of the Museum’s specimens were cited with extra biographical information in Lankester’s paper.
Sadly, these exciting findings mean that my office mates will probably have to be relocated and take up residence in the Museum’s archives alongside their subject matter…
With lockdown and the long winter nights shuffling the nation’s emotions like a ham-fisted magician with a damp deck of cards, we have no doubt all suffered from a case of the winter blues at some point recently. While the Museum and its inspiring specimens have been closed to visitors we have tried out some new approaches to bring you the solace and creative inspiration that nature can provide.
Drawn to Nature is a new series of online events designed to lift people’s spirits with a combined art and science activity. Originally planned as a wellbeing event to take place in the Museum, the online version was created in response to the last lockdown. We start each session with a short talk by a member of the Museum’s collections or research team, who share their passion for a selection of favourite specimens. The talk is followed by a chance for viewers to explore their creative sides by drawing the specimens, while learning more by about them through some Q&A.
It’s not an art lesson as such, but more a chance for people to find inspiration from some of the jewels of the natural world held in our collections. We hope it helps people to relax, find inspiration, immerse themselves in a creative activity, and learn a little natural history at the same time.
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Our first session came from Life Collections manager Mark Carnall, who talked us through the natural history of Nautiloids, the fascinating shelled molluscs that are related to other cephalopods such as squid and octopus. Lit and arranged beautifully by our Events Manager Laura Ashby, their intricate chambered shells and 100 tentacles proved a challenging subject, but one that resulted in an array of wonderful artworks in a variety of styles and media shared on social media.
Following Mark’s talk, we explored some of the wonderful specimens from our entomology collections with our expert speaker Zoe Simmons, Head of Life Collections. Zoe picked out some of the most beautiful flies from our five million-plus insects. Using microscopes, specialist lighting, and careful placement, the specimens were a real hit and again followed by some inspired artworks posted online by attendees from across the world (‘best night of lockdown yet!’ enthused one attendee).
Click the gallery images to zoom and see credit information.
And there’s more to come. Tomorrow evening (Wednesday 10 March), Earth Collections Manager Dr Hilary Ketchum introduces the strange-looking carnivorous marine reptiles of the Jurassic – the plesiosaurs. We hope to bring you yet more of the inspirational well-being the natural world has to offer.
You can watch the Drawn to Nature streams online in the playlist on our YouTube channel:
Worms, fish and … Greenland? Hugely different topics which all have one thing in common – the Museum’s First Animals exhibition online lecture series. Running every other Wednesday from May until September 2020, this series provided a fantastic insight into a wide range of topics about how the first animals lived, died, and are studied. And illustrator Rachel Simpson tells us how she drew her way through them all…
I came across this lecture series just before the first talk and I knew I had to sign up. Drawing along to lectures is a hobby I seem to have developed in the past few months as we went into lockdown and didn’t have much to do. It’s the perfect combination for me – an opportunity to listen to interesting topics and brush up on my live drawing skills at the same time. There’s no pause button, there’s no asking the webinar speaker to just go back a few slides and hold on a minute whilst I draw; it’s fast paced, it’s inspiring and it’s a great way to just create art.
I’ve done some illustration work with the Museum before so I knew that it was going to be fun. In 2018, I worked with Dr Jack Matthews illustrating Ediacaran Fossils as part of a collaborative university project between the University of Plymouth and the Museum. I was also lucky enough to be able to go to Newfoundland and see some of the fossils myself, again with Jack. This was such an incredible opportunity and opened up a whole new world of science/art collaborative work which I didn’t know about before.
The First Animals series kicked off with Jack’s talk titled Don’t walk on the rocks! – an interesting insight into how protective “Barma Booties” (some rather funky socks worn to protect fossil sites such as Mistaken Point, Newfoundland) might actually be damaging to the fossils they’re meant to be protecting. Having been to Mistaken Point myself and worn these socks, it was interesting to hear about their possible impact and to learn about the experiments conducted to prove this fact.
Of course, at the same time as Jack was talking, I was scribbling away in my sketchbook trying to form some sort of visual response to the talk. At the end of the hour I’d managed a portrait of Jack and a family of Barma-Booted tourists trampling on the fossil site. It was a start. The beginning of my lecture drawings and a point at which I can retrospectively say started a new hobby.
Over the following weeks we heard about worms from Dr Luke Parry; 3D reconstruction from Dr Imran Rahman; The Chronicles of Charnia by Dr Frankie Dunn; and the first animal skeletons from Dr Duncan Murdock. Luckily for me, all the speakers kindly included photos and descriptions of the topics they were discussing which meant that I was never short of visual inspiration for my drawings. After all, it’s hard to try and draw an annelid worm if you’ve never seen one before.
I love to look at the fossils being discussed and then try to draw a little character or creature inspired by them. They’re not scientifically accurate, nor are they always anatomically correct, but they have character and begin to bring to life the essence of something that’s been dead for many millennia. The fossils are obviously stone-coloured so I take as many liberties as possible when it comes to colour. I like to make them as vibrant and colourful as I can, so although they probably didn’t look like that, that’s how I like to think they looked.
Some fun little beasties from Dr. Imran Rahman’s talk.
Charnias galore! They come in all different shapes and sizes.
Small filaments which could have joined all those Charnia together.
Shells, bones and teeth from Dr. Duncan Murdock’s talk drawn in Tombow brush pen and Posca Pen.
Within my wider practice I like to use stamps as the basis of my illustrations. These however, are time consuming to make and therefore not very suitable for when I’m drawing along to lectures. As a result I’ve found myself using brush pens and pencils to make my lecture illustrations. If you’re interested in art, or thinking about getting into art, brush pens will be your best purchase. They create a wonderful quality of line and are quick and easy to use. Whereas a ballpoint pen will give you one line of a certain weight and thickness, brush pens are versatile and depending on the pressure applied, the line quality will change.
For the first few lectures I only used brush pens, but later on I decided to use coloured pencils as well, to add depth to the drawings. As I got more used to drawing in lectures I found that I was making more illustrations per talk. Early on, I managed to finish maybe a double page in my sketchbook but towards the end of the series I was filling four double pages! It’s amazing what a little bit of practice can do.
As the weeks went by the talks continued and we heard about the evolutionary origin of animals from Museum director Professor Paul Smith; an introduction to taphonomy, the study of fossilisation, by Professor Sarah Gabbott; and how the first animals moved by Professor Shuhai Xiao.
During this time I became a lot more confident drawing the specimens; looking back I can see that this was the period in which my work developed the most. My drawings began to have more character and life. The landscape drawings were slowly becoming more realistic and detailed. This was great news for me as this whole endeavour began as a way to practice my drawing skills in a timed environment.
Paul Smith’s lecture has to be my favourite of them all. He gave a wonderful talk all about the Evolutionary Origin of Animals and talked us through his fieldwork expedition to Greenland. How I would have loved to have been on that trip!
How I would have loved to have been on this trip! Drawings of Professor Paul Smith’s fieldwork to Greenland.
Some of the weird and wonderful fossils Professor Paul Smith found on his trip.
One of my favourite drawing from the lecture series! Drawn with Tombow brush pens and Polychromo pencils.
It was during Paul’s talk that I made one of my favourite drawings from the series – the plane –and coincidentally it was also at this point that I bought myself some new polychromo pencils. I started using these pencils in my illustrations on top of the Tombow brush pens. The pencils added a softer layer on top of the solid base colour from the brush pens and meant that I could add more details, shading and most importantly, the characterful eyes I love to add to my drawings.
Fish and animal studies from Professor Sarah Gabbott’s introduction to taphonomy, the study of the processes of fossilisation.
Imagine being the owner of this house and being told there were found fossils on your roof! Drawing from Professor Shuhai Xiao’s talk.
Buoyed by this development in my drawings, and some lovely responses to my work on Instagram and Twitter, I raced through the next few weeks of talks and made twelve pages of drawings over the next four talks. Professor Derek Briggs told us all about extraordinary soft-bodied fossils; Professor Gabriela Mángano told us about the trace fossil record; and Professor Rachel Wood gave us her thoughts about what triggered the Cambrian Explosion.
Another favourite drawings from the series, drawn from Professor Derek Briggs’ talk.
Close up of drawing from Professor Derek Briggs’ talk.
Trace fossil studies drawn in Tombow brush pens and Polychromo pencils.
The last drawings from the series from Professor Rachel Wood’s talk.
Another of my favourite drawings from the series was from Derek Briggs talk about extraordinary soft-bodied fossils. Here, I made a small series of drawings based on some of the animals mentioned in the talk and as soon as I’d finished drawing them I wished that they were real and that I could pop them in a fish tank and keep them as pets. These drawings got the best response on social media too and it’s wonderful now to look back and compare these drawings to the work I was creating at the beginning of the series.
The First Animals series may be over but keep your Wednesday evenings free because there are more talks to come! The next series, “Visions of Nature”, starts on 8 October so make sure you join us then! A huge thank you to all the speakers, to Jack for hosting and to the Museum for running the events.
Earlier this year University of Plymouth illustration student Rachel Simpson teamed up with our research fellow Jack Matthews to ‘bring the oldest multi-cellular organisms back to life’. Rachel tells us about the process of working with some of the most ancient fossil material and reveals the results of her illustrations and modelling.
In August 2018 I was lucky enough to travel to Newfoundland, Canada with Dr Jack Matthews to learn about and illustrate some of the extraordinary fossils found there. A highlight of the trip was going down onto the fossil surface – known as the MUN surface – to look at examples of organisms such as Beothukis, Charnia and Primocandelabrum, all of which date from the Ediacaran period, over 550 million years ago.
The MUN surface is the location of the fossils that I had worked on for my university project. I had spent the previous months sketching, drawing and bringing these organisms back to life from silicon casts, so it was amazing to be able to see the real specimens in situ and to sketch from the fossil surface.
Sketching directly from the fossils also provided a new challenge as I was unable to control factors such as the lighting, which is crucial to seeing the fossils clearly. Nonetheless, I learnt a lot about drawing on location.
While visiting Port Union I was able to use some of the old printing presses held by the Sir William F. Coaker Heritage Foundation to create work inspired by the fossils I had seen in the surrounding area. I love using printmaking in my own illustrative practice so it was a great experience to get to use these old presses (image at top of article).
We also had the chance to give a radio interview and talk to the Port Union community about the work that Jack and I had done, showing how science and art can work together.
On my last day in Port Union I was invited by a local potter to make some ceramic representations of the fossils I had been drawing there. I created models of Fractofusus and Aspidella, and discovered that re-imagining something in three dimensions is a very different process to recreating it as a drawing.
For the final three days of the trip we relocated from Port Union to Trepassey to visit the Mistaken Point UNESCO World Heritage Site. Here, I saw the highly preserved Fractofusus specimens and made some more sketches. Using a small hand lens I was able to draw all the details that are invisible to the naked eye.
Drawing on location in Canada provided a better idea of the organisms in relation to other surrounding organisms, something that is more obscure when working from museum specimens. This definitely informed my practice and meant that artwork created after the trip was more representative of the science.
When I returned to England, I created some new prints inspired by my time in Newfoundland, the fossils that I saw, and the printing process I was able to use in Port Union.