Images of Nature: Natural History Museum opens new permanent art gallery

By Richard Moss | 24 January 2011
a painting of a rotund bird surrounded by other birds such as parrots and ducks
Julian Pender Hume, Dodo© Natural History Museum
The Natural History Museum has opened the doors on a new gallery highlighting its considerable collection of artworks.

Images of Nature showcases a selection from the world’s largest collection of natural history artworks on paper. It amounts to more than 500,000 pieces, some of which are more than 300 years old.

Many are seeing the light of day for the very first time. Visitors will be able to see works by eminent artists such as the prolific bird illustrator, John Gerrard Keulemans, and Georg Ehret, who produced lifelike botanical paintings.

One of the most famous paintings to be unveiled is Roelandt Savery’s oil painting of a dodo, which was used by the museum’s first Superintendent, Professor Richard Owen, to scientifically describe the extinct bird.

a watercolour drawing of a blue macaw
A macaw from the John Reeves collection© Natural History Museum
Owen placed the bones over the painting and his interpretation, published in 1866, became the dodo’s recognised scientific description.

In a nod to scientific veracity and changing interpretations, a painting of a rather more slimline dodo – Dodo Raphus cucullatus – by museum palaeontologist Dr Julian Pender Hume shows a different version of the rotund creature of popular imagination. 

“Nature has inspired many artists, and natural history images are valuable for both artistic and scientific study, as many of the works in the gallery demonstrate,” explains Judith Magee, curator at the Natural History Museum.

“The collections we care for at the Museum are some of the finest in the world, and the new gallery is the perfect place to showcase our highlights, some of which date from the seventeenth century.”

As well as traditional watercolours and impressive oils such as the Keulemans Bustards which, measuring more than two by one-and-a-half metres, is one of the largest in the museum collection, visitors will be able to see how scientific imagery is allowing experts find out more about creatures in the animal kingdom

a microscopic image in flourescent green of a small worm
Buddenbrockia plumatellae (a tiny parasitic worm of freshwater bryozoans)© Natural History Museum
Confocal micrographs of the parasitic worm, Buddenbrockia plumatellae, enlarge the one millimetre-long creature while an X-ray of mummified saker falcon, Falco cherrug, strips through the outer layers of an ancient Egyptian mummy to reveal the bones and body tissues inside.

But it is the whole range of artworks that continue to inform science, as Peronel Craddock, Interpretation Developer for the gallery, points out.

“Pictures capture nature in ways other methods cannot,” she says. “Visual records were, and still are, an important element of scientific study and scientists often rely on a drawing or photograph to help them describe and classify specimens.” 

The gallery will also host temporary exhibitions starting with a display of Chinese botanical and zoological watercolours commissioned by the 19th century East India Company tea inspector John Reeves. Works by a Shanghai-based contemporary artist, inspired by the collections from China, also feature in the exhibition.

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