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!