“Of Green Leaf, Bird, and Flower”: Artists’ Books and the Natural World

Thursday, May 15, 2014Sunday, August 10, 2014

This exhibition looks at the ways in which self-taught naturalists and artists recorded and observed the natural world around them from the sixteenth century to the present, examining the intersections of artistic and scientific interest. Depictions of Britain’s countryside and its native plant and animal life are explored through nearly three hundred objects drawn primarily from the Center’s collections, ranging from centuries-old manuscripts to contemporary artists’ books.

“Of Green Leaf, Bird, and Flower” highlights the scientific pursuits of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that resulted in the collecting and cataloging of the natural world, and that informed the aesthetically oriented activities of the self-taught naturalists of the Victorian era, particularly those of women who collected and drew specimens of butterflies, ferns, grasses, feathers, seaweed, and shells, and assembled them into albums and commonplace books. The exhibition suggests a remarkable continuity of past and present aesthetic concerns by juxtaposing these works with those of contemporary artists such as Eileen Hogan, Mandy Bonnell, Tracey Bush, John Dilnot, Helen Douglas, and Jane Hyslop, who reveal a shared impetus to document, interpret, and celebrate nature while at the same time broadening the vision of the natural world to incorporate its interaction with consumer culture and with modern technologies.

Opening the exhibition is a selection of early field guides and microscopes, which are placed beside detailed drawings and notes by contemporary artists that illustrate their close observation of nature. The next section, focusing on the flora of the British countryside and featuring drawn, painted, and cut paper versions of flowers, grasses, trees, and leaves, is followed by a section highlighting its fauna, including birds and butterflies, moths and caterpillars, beetles, bees, spiders, and the odd hedgehog. The exhibition continues with a look at ponds and streams and the creatures that inhabit those places, like kingfishers and swans, frogs, and dragonflies. Visitors have the opportunity to listen to bird songs and the sounds of the countryside while viewing works by contemporary artists who walk through the landscape, observing and recording. The final section is a consideration of British gardens focusing on Little Sparta, the Scottish garden designed by the poet Ian Hamilton Finlay, where language, sculpture, and historical allusion interweave with the landscape and its plantings.

The exhibition features traditional bound books, drawings, and prints, as well as a range of more experimental media incorporating cut paper, wood, stone, natural specimens, sound, video, and interactive multimedia. Historical works are also on loan from the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library and the Lentz Collection at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, including examples of early microscopes used by natural historians.

“Of Green Leaf, Bird, and Flower”: Artists’ Books and the Natural World has been organized by the Center and curated by Elisabeth Fairman, Senior Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts. The accompanying book, designed to evoke an early naturalist’s field guide, has been published by the Center in association with Yale University Press.