The first thing you see when you enter the small exhibition of 17th and 18th-century flower drawings, is a giant black beetle with three impressive-looking horns.
The beetle sits in a typical old-fashioned flora and fauna display case; it's pinned to a board in the classic way of a scientific specimen.
In fact, this beetle, alongside another beetle and a butterfly, have been borrowed from the Zoology Museum in Cambridge and placed next to watercolour images of themselves. It is as if we have the portrait and the sitter all in the same glass vitrine.
|Atlas beetle (Zoology Museum, Cambridge) and Follower of Merian, Atlas Beetle, c.1700, watercolour with some white and gold|
Is it art? Is it science? These distinctions blur in your mind as you peer at the displays.
|Jan van Kessel, detail from Butterflies and Other Insects, 1661, oil on copper|
This Flemish artist, Jan van Kessel, got so carried away by the ecstasy of meticulous naturalism that he included transparent drops of water alongside his blossoms, shells and creepy crawlies. Look at the drops practically quivering on the leaves and on the pale blue-grey ground.
The white background is not entirely ubiquitous, though. Here is another woman, Margaretha Barbara Dietzsch, who, along with her brother, liked to use a black ground.
|Margaretha Barbara Dietzsch, detail from Common Dandelion with a Garden Tiger Moth, watercolour, bodycolour and gum Arabic, 18th C.|
A strange nocturnal world unfolds. It's almost a still life, almost a flower painting (like those in Gallery 17; see my blog post), but without the allegory, without the wilting leaves and the mementi mori. Yes, a quarter of the dandelion clock is blown away but the caterpillar climbs determinedly on. And everything is ripe with growth and bursting with life. These are not melancholy pictures. This is part science, part art, and 100% rhopography: the depiction of the trivial, the love of the humble.
Visit the exhibition Crawling with Life: Flower Drawings from the Henry Rogers Broughton Bequest.
Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, Gallery 14.
Ends Sun, 8 May 2016.
It is totally worth seeing! It's small, too, so you won't exhaust yourself. And free!
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