Saturday, 20 June 2015

What grows on the verge of a nervous breakdown?

What grows on the verge of a nervous breakdown? Nothing; no Campion, no Stitchwort, no Vetch, no Jack by the hedge and most certainly, no caterpillars. The verges and hedge banks of the country lanes along which I familiarly walk are joyful, profuse flowers, dancing with life. At least they were until this morning when the growling, thrashing hedge bank monster (tractor with 'attachments') determined to peruse its territory destroying everything in its path. Callously it chewed up and spat out every living thing within reach of its jaws including the exquisite green caterpillars of the Orange Tip butterfly that I have been delighting in watching grow.

Earlier this Spring I followed the butterflies courtship dance; the demure female, with soft grey tips to her wings leading the amorous, orange tipped male along the garden path... and the country lanes before succumbing to his whiles... his pheromones or simply his sheer persistence! By and by she lay her precious eggs just below the flower buds of the Garlic Mustard plant, known as Jack by the hedge in country parlance. Butterflies are very particular as to where they lay their eggs, choosing specific food plants for their young. The Orange Tip is no exception, she seeks out plants growing in a sunny aspect, laying her eggs singly, a sufficient distance apart from one an other to ensure that in their appetite for life they don't consume one another. Their beauty belies a rather gruesome cannibalistic bent to their nature. When they hatch they feed on their nursery flower bud before moving on to the long green seeds that form as both plant and caterpillar mature. Their camouflage is perfect, emulating the colour and form of the long bean shaped seeds, making the joy of discovering them and watching them grow all the more fun.

If not, as melodramatically suggested 'on the verge of a nervous breakdown', I felt disconsolate, sulking for a while before realising that as I was being so negatively self indulgent, the hedge bank monster could still be heard, growling away in the distance, prowling its way back along the other side of the lane! Dashing out I gathered nine lives into an old ice cream box and out of harms way before the monster could be seen coming over the hill. They now reside in my caterpillar nursery (a bespoke, bijoux building that Neil made for me, worthy of ranking on a list of amazing small spaces!) in the company of Tortoiseshell chrysalis's and Peacock caterpillars. They are, I hasten to add out of harms way from one another too...mine is a respectable establishment, not a house of horrors, cannibalistic and parasitic behaviour is not tolerated!

...more from the nursery soon!

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

The Grand Surprise

I read, from my favourite butterfly book by Jeremy Thomas and Richard Lewington, that the 'The Camberwell Beauty' was once known as 'The Grand Surprise' and that it was prized by early dealers and collectors who suffered no qualms in pursuing, killing and pinning specimens in situ within their collections.

I have one such sad specimen, loaned to me for reference. As I gaze at it now my vision becomes more and more blurred with tears. This 'specimen' was once a vibrant living thing. How an individual could have pursued it, killed it and stabbed a pin through it's body is beyond me. I am, I must admit growing weary of the justification that some such specimens were collected for the advancement of science, particularly as I become more aware of the ruthlessness and greed of this era. I have referenced collections which have within their number dozens of any given species, many collected to the point of extinction, then arranged casually like postage stamps. It's deeply sad.

Of course these early collections did in part celebrate the beauty of butterflies. Their beauty is undoubtably what brought about their collection in the first instance. Many saw early butterfly collections as nothing more harmful than aesthetic arrays of such beauty. Beauty which beguiled so much so as to deny any consideration of the sacrifice which they also represented.

 We should continue to celebrate butterflies today with equal appreciation and enthusiasm but we must find new ways to capture and gaze upon their beauty that don't make our eyes well with tears. We have splendid books to reference. We have societies to join, which celebrate butterflies and pioneer their conservation. We have exciting new networks of enthusiasts growing through Facebook and Twitter and contemporary artists and poets continue to illustrate and describe their beauty, as they have since time immemorial.

Of course I hope that my artistic celebration of the beauty of butterflies delights the senses. But moreover I hope that unlike the collections of a bygone era, it contributes towards inspiring  realisation of the imperative to preserve our beautiful British butterflies on the wing before they pay the ultimate sacrifice; extinction. It is surely the shared hope of all who delight in butterflies today.

As I lift my tatty faded specimen back into its collectors case, I reaffirm the conviction that I feel towards this,'case for conservation', an artists celebration of the collective beauty of all 72 species of British butterfly. There will be no pins through the silken bodies of my hand embroidered specimens, no butterflies will be harmed in the making of this piece! But I do hope to underpin the prescient need for their conservation.

Whilst working on my Camberwell Beauty I had to look at the collectors specimen pragmatically, with a keenness of observation not clouded by tears. It was helpful in understanding it's exquisite form and shape. Though faded and bruised its wings still retain a velvety lustre...a delicate downy texture. It's bright blue eye spots still shimmer. It's deep cream fringes, giving rise to its namesakes; 'white petticoat' and 'mourning cloak', seem exquisitely pleated. Such mesmerising, miraculous qualities, I approached my rendition with genuine humility, and a profound sense of the beauty I aspired to honour, acutely aware of my limitations and being merely mortal, my inability to recreate a miracle!

It is only now, as I sit here quietly with my thoughts, having honoured the beauty to the best of my ability, that I feel challenged by an emotional, some would argue overly sentimental, impulse to bury the collectors specimen in the willow woods. A ghostly, once splendid thing somehow imbued with the spirit of butterflies long lost to us.

However, I have decided not to waste another minute feeling mournful, gazing wistfully and dead butterflies! I must to focus all my energy on resurrecting species through the collaborative energy that that artistic initiative hopes to engender. Introspection 'arty' or otherwise or poor substitute for action!

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

It's twenty past five in the evening, I have been stitching butterfly scales across the hind wing of a Camberwell Beauty butterfly all afternoon, now the tiny stitches have merged into shadow; receded into the shade of tired eyes no longer bright enough to focus attention.

As day light fades my energy inevitably ebbs; like a songbird I feel compelled to abandon my studio perch and seek a more homey nesting place. This evening however, though darkness has fallen, I can still hear songbirds; beautiful, bright, lyrical notes striking the heartstrings of Spring. Rain is pattering hypnotically on my studio roof... roosting calls echo from the rookery in the ancient woods in a reassuringly ancient way.

There is perhaps nothing more beautiful than the meditation of peace and quiet, unlike silence it holds gentle phrases and whispered promises. I think I'll rest here a while before I go in, my eyes may be tired but my ears are wide awake!

Friday, 7 February 2014

A stitch in time

Time, I've felt a bit short of it lately. Most of us feel frustrated 'from time to time' that we don't seem to have enough of the stuff. Truth of it is, we all have the same quota every day; twenty four hours, divided up into minutes, then seconds. Why is it then that 'sometime' flies and 'sometime' drags...that time 'sometimes' seem to have different measurement values.

Waiting in a memory clinic earlier this week to discuss my Mum in law's sufferance of Alzheimer's, time all but stopped. Minutes felt like hours, forty minutes like an eternity. Our perception of time was undoubtably further skewed by the outdated tatty mags, headlining last years trends and news. Why maybe we'd been trapped there since 2012, according to 'The Telegraph Sunday supplement - April 2012', it was possible we'd been waiting years! Visiting the loo presented with the only thing to do, so to alleviate the boredom and pass the time, I fantasised it may be a Tardis! Alas, predictably and disappointingly, the door opened back into the waiting room. Patients and conscience of course dictated that we continue to wait quietly, we were after all seeking help and understanding for a loved one for whom the parameters of time now hold nothing but confusion.

Conversely, back in my studio this afternoon, true to the adage: 'time flies when your enjoying yourself', it's flown! I'm sat out here in the glow of tungsten light, the darkest of winters nights pressing up against the windows, wandering what happened. A whole afternoon, all that scope I had to get things done now shallower than the beam from my angle poise lamp.

I have finished working the miniature silk stitches across a Camberwell Beauty's wing though. Perhaps I should count time, not in seconds but in 'butterfly scale' stitches, each one worked gently and contentedly. Anyhow, tomorrow is a brand new day, with lots of scope. Actually, on reflection, I hope it flies like the best of them!

Thursday, 30 January 2014

The master plan

I moved the Swallowtail butterfly from his resting place on my desk today. I've been sat at my floor standing embroidery frame for a day or two, so no need to disturb him. Having succeeded in my aspiration to create his likeness, it's brightened my day to see him resting there amongst my sketch books, paintbrushes and paraphernalia and imagine him real.

Glancing up from my work I've caught sight of him; a daydream later I've found myself in France, where I most vividly recall first seeing Swallowtails.

In my dream state, the sound of the radio receded to a feint whisper, the warmth of the radiator became the warmth of summer and I'd find myself standing at the foot of a towering buddliea bush gazing up through its fairytale spires of purple flowers. Squinting against the brilliant sun, I'd watch as the butterflies fanned their magnificent wings and unfurled their delicate long proboscis. Daintily dipping them into the flowers, as if sipping cocktails through a straw, measuredly spiralling them back into perfect miniature coils having sipped their fill of nectar before drifting away to join the sun. Backwards and forwards to France in the twinkling of an eye...without a soul noticing!

Daydreams should be encouraged, they are the wellspring of sanity in my estimation but every now and then one needs to wake up! Often it's the shrill call of the telephone ringing; a coffee break will equally break the spell... sometimes it's the tug of conscience that brings the daydreamer around. The latter awoke me from my Swallowtail daydream: 'You need to focus jane!' -  my conscious declared. Duly, I stood up from my workstation and delicately lifted my embroidered butterfly off my desk and onto 'the master plan!'

The master plan really is going to take some focus. At this stage it is simply a large pencil sketch identifying all seventy two of our British butterfly species. The plan is that I should bring it alive in art form. The plan will indeed be my master! Artistically speaking, it is perhaps the most exciting plan that I have ever committed to. The excitement is borne of its initiative; to raise awareness of our butterflies' beauty and vulnerability and of their conservation needs, raising valuable conservation funding through sponsorship of its achievement and its ultimate auction. I am thrilled to share that it is endorsed by some of our greatest conservation bodies, including 'The Royal Entomological Society' and 'Butterfly Conservation', and has garnered the support of pre-eminent conservationists including Professor's Jeremy Thomas and David Bellamy. A number of species have already been sponsored... some sponsors names will be familiar to many. As the project evolves I'll share all the thrills here with you; together of course with the occasional daydream and a little random musing! Hoping it will capture your imagination and get you day dreaming too. Butterflies surely are the most day dreamy, bright and beautiful things to drift off with.  

Saturday, 25 January 2014


I'm settled into 2014 now, evidentially!

One: I've spent more days of the week in my studio than on holiday or recuperating from winter bugs. 

Two: I've left a healthy domestic muddle indoors, avoiding the compulsion to fuss. Too much pride over housework equals diminishing returns in my studio. I hereby name it and shame it as 'evasive, compulsive, displacement disorder!' I know the condition is out of control when I get around to such nonsense as polishing spoons and making them 'spoon' together like little lovers in the draw...for goodness sake Jane, they're only cutlery! - who said that? 

Three: I've listened to 'Gardeners Question Time' twice this week. Meaning that I've been in my studio; the only place I listen to the radio, for sufficient consecutive days; to shout out 'snap'...and believe me I do when it happens, with an empowered sense of victory over distraction!

Of course most evidentially of all; professionally speaking, 'settled' means art in tangible form. I'm not counting musing, doodling or 'studying in the field' as I euphemistically call chasing butterflies; fun but technically playing. I'm talking stepping into my studio space and seeing something accomplished resting on my desk. This morning that 'something' was a Swallowtail butterfly, poised beside the tweezers which, with finishing touch I had bent the crook of its legs. Yesterday, as the pips of five 'o' clock chimed on 'PM at five PM'  (I don't count that as a 'snap' victory by the way, it would be too easy), I had left him where he rested like a held breath. 

I never really know if I can breath a sigh of satisfaction over what I have achieved until I've stepped away from it for a while. Only when I catch sight of it anew, almost by surprise, do I know if it has transcended that sense of my having fashioned it and assumed its own energy. Instead becoming something born of its inspiration, nature...something with a natural energy not a crafted sense. The test is simple, a butterfly that fails to make me smile is simply not a butterfly. It made me smile. I hope it makes you smile too.

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

A light touch

During the winter I scurry out to my studio first thing in the morning to turn my heater on. There is very little 'limbering up' associated with my exacting working methodology. Necessarily, I sit for hours employing just small muscle groups; painting with miniature brushes, modelling with pins, stitching with tiny needles...nothing brisk to stave off the cold. I categorically cannot work if chills are pinching at my fingers and toes or I can't feel my nose! Occasionally I'll brave the distance in my fluffy dressing gown, pyjama legs tucked into my wellie boots in order to steal a march on the day. In the time it takes me to polish off my porridge and brew some coffee, it's generally quite cosy out there.

This morning I made the dressing gown dash, scampering about as the day dawned not unlike any other creature we spy crossing our field... I even have an authentic furry coat!  I do however lack the tenacity of our furry friends living full time in the open air. Beatrix Potter should have been given a medal for compassion for fashioning them little coats and booties to see them safely through the winter!  Of course I have grown to understand that we cannot cosset or clothe the creatures with which we share our land, there's not a badger out there that would thank you for a velvet coat and breeches, but their struggle to survive does distress me. A struggle not only presented by harsh winter weather, against which one may argue they are more or less fairly matched having adapted and evolved defences against the elements. It is moreover the man made adaptations of our land that nature cannot survive. Our demand for housing, crops, road networks, shopping centres and car parks courts, swimming pools, sports arenas. It is pointless continuing to list. I do not have the 'weight to debate'.  There are much stronger environmentalists, academics, and people politic out there than me. But what I do have is my miniature paintbrush, fine filament threads and the sensibility to share how much I care through the art work that I evolve. Mine is a light touch. My 'muscle' exercised in delicately pinching hold of embroidery needles and fine sable brushes. In triggering the small motor neurones of hand to eye coordination, and the gentle perception of what is beautiful in nature and in need of preserving.