Friday, June 27, 2014

From the British Museum to Ballarat: Maria Sibylla Merian and me

Maria Sibylla Merian, c 1700, copperplate by Jacobus Houbraken from a portrait by Georg Gsell

During our visit to London in April, Shane and I spent two memorable afternoons in the Prints and Drawings Room of the British Museum. My primary aim was to view works by the artist-naturalist Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717) including her album of 91 drawings entitled Merian's Drawings of Surinam Insects. Having this magnificent volume entirely to ourselves to study in depth - and tranquility - was an experience I will never forget.

Among the album's standouts were the Common or Spectacled Caiman and South American False Coral Snake, and Pineapple (with examples of a caterpillar, chrysalises, two butterflies and a beetle). Both works are pictured directly below.

On the second day we also perused selected works on paper by Hans Holbein, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Eric Gill and Edgar Degas. Despite undergoing extensive construction work, the Prints and Drawing Room was a peaceful haven compared to many of the main galleries of the BM. Every time we entered the building it sounded like a football match was in full swing. On our way to the Prints and Drawings Department, we gingerly navigated a path through hoards of rowdy visitors mindlessly snapping selfies in front of mummy cases. 
Shane pores over a folio of drawings by Edgar Degas.

Considerably less hectic was the Enlightenment Room, which resembles an elaborate Cabinet of Curiosities. It’s an enchanting world completely unto itself and is unquestionably one of my favourite rooms in the British Musum. On display was an album of watercolours by Maria Sibylla Merian. Sadly, I’m not in a position to call in every three months when one of its pages is turned.

It’s going to take awhile to process all that I saw and experienced in the UK, particularly in regard to its possible impact on my work. But as I tentatively begin a new watercolour in the Ballarat studio, I'm already wishing I could magically transport myself back to London to see those Maria Sybilla Merian watercolours again.

Directly below: early stages of Catoxantha opulenta beetle woman, 2014, watercolour on A3 Khadi paper.