It was a Monday. The Museum was closed to the public and it was the first day in a while that both children had been at school. I was a little worn out after a busy holiday, full of anticipation about continuing with this series, excited about uninterrupted time to work and definitely hormonal. Looking at the trays of these exquisite moths provoked a very unexpected response in me.
I booked my return to the Zoology Museum, to continue working on the next 4 paintings in my Everyday Magic series well in advance. This time I decided to send my wish list of creatures to draw ahead; last time I was given the luxury of browsing and it was totally overwhelming! So I carefully picked 8 different UK native moths I wanted to study closer.
Moths are kept in a different set of rooms in the underground Zoology labyrinth; so still none the wiser about where I actually was, I was led down the rabbit hole to a set of rooms where the trays of the moths I had requested had been kindly prepared. I unpacked my museum drawing kit, (dry materials and the original boards with work in progress which I work directly onto) and was given a helpful cool lamp to bring the little wings into full colour.
I really wanted to gauge the scale of each moth, (so difficult to do from a book). I hadn’t really thought about what the moths would look like and the way they would be presented but of course they were all mounted with little pins through their tiny bodies and their wings splayed wide in an unnatural way.
I couldn’t help thinking how tiny and vulnerable each moth was, how they had been manipulated into crucifixions. Postures they would never naturally adopt. And how there were trays and trays of them. Rows and rows of the same moth. As I chose which I would draw I began to notice all the tiny differences, their idiosyncrasies: a slightly fluffier thorax, a broader abdomen, wings slightly smaller than the next, deeper colouring and mounted wonky.
I began to think of the scholars who had begun collecting the moths in the first place, some over a hundred years ago; distorting these wonderful creatures to make observing them more convenient for humans. I found my eyes welling up with tears as I thought how invasive and opulent these trays were at the expense of tiny lives. The dignity and integrity of these beautiful jewel-like creatures compromised.
Don’t get me wrong, I understand fully that without trays like these we may not even be aware of vital creatures that depend on us. I’m deeply grateful to the Zoology Museum, their willingness to let me draw from their collection and their kind welcome; the preservation of all of these specimens that they share and we can learn from. But I have made a decision not to draw mounted moths in the future. It doesn’t feel like drawing from nature at all, rather some misrepresentation of wildlife.
So I ended up dabbing my eyes with some toilet tissue, sketching out the shapes in-situ and taking lots of photographs to finish the work from at home, at a less emotionally draining pace.
I feel like I’ve learnt something very important about what I’m trying to achieve with these Everyday Magic paintings. I want them to be a celebration of life, while that encompasses the inevitable end of life, I don't want each element to be a record of the deaths of tiny creatures which I aim to revere and protect.
So I am adding moth trap to my Wish List and I extend my deep thanks and gratitude to the Zoology Museum for welcoming me and once again and helping me refine my message and direction.
Click here to see my collection of moth paintings, painted from photographs (only a few originals left); and see how these latest moths will be incorporated into paintings in my Everyday Magic Series here.