25 years of Nature in Art

Nature in Art, Wallsworth Hall

Nature in Art, Wallsworth Hall - Credit: Archant

Nature in Art’s director Simon Trapnell reflects on 25 years of celebrating art inspired by nature

One of the glorious things about the museums community and the family of institutions that make it up is its diversity. Not just diversity within collections but between collections. Together they provide opportunities for inspiration, learning and, perhaps most importantly, discovery. One might think that there was hardly anything that could not be addressed in depth through one or more of these collections, but, just as Nature in Art appears to have plugged a gap in the selection of publicly accessible museums, one suspects that there are many more gaps still to be filled.

Man is a painter and always has been. As early as 25,000 BC the subjects of his first paintings were animals. If it was man’s capacity for rational and abstract thought that helped someone decide to call him Homo sapiens (wise man), he might equally aptly have been called ‘Homo pictor’ (man the painter). Long before language was reduced to writing, people drew pictures on the walls of the caves which were their homes.

From the tomb paintings of Egypt of around 2000 BC until the Middle Ages, man’s chief topic for his art was man, often depicted in his relationship to God and sometimes accompanied by domesticated or hunted animals and birds. With a few notable exceptions in China from about the ninth century AD onwards, it was not until the 17th century that artists turned again to give a significant proportion of their talents to making living, wild creatures the chief subject of their paintings, as distinct from decorative details in other pictures.

It is surely a remarkable fact that, while nature was the first subject for man’s artistic attention, it was largely overlooked for thousands of years and has only in the last four centuries again become an important stimulus to his creative endeavour.

Perhaps then it is a surprise that, as far as we know, it was not until the opening of Nature in Art in 1988 that the heritage of art inspired by nature has been exclusively collected, displayed and celebrated. While national art collections in many countries have been notable for the breadth and variety of their subject matter and the magnificent quality of the work they exhibit, they have largely neglected works of art depicting nature. Boosted by the growth all around the world of a sense of public and individual responsibility for conservation of the environment and our heritage in nature, and for inter-cultural dialogue, there is a new awareness of the value of fine examples of works of art from around the world which depict living things.

Back in 1982 when the charity that owns and runs Nature in Art was established – at that time with no money, no collection and no building, it’s only asset was a ‘good idea’ and enthusiasm – a self-sustaining professional museum focusing on art inspired by nature was an unachievable dream in the opinion of many experts. Yet by 1988, a small collection had been assembled and sufficient funding to purchase and then convert a fine Georgian mansion was raised from countless sources enabling the museum to open free of debt. Still today, without any guaranteed ongoing public or private funding, the museum has remained debt-free and is approaching its 21st anniversary with confidence and plans for expansion and development.

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In the intervening years the collection of fine, decorative and applied art has grown to embrace quality examples from over 50 countries and cultures spanning 1500 years by over 600 artists and makers, supported by loans from public and private collections around the world. This ongoing development of the collection has been accompanied by some physical expansion (a new education centre and art studios for example) which has earned Nature in Art a special commendation in the National Heritage Museum of the Year Awards and a short-listing for the European Museum of the Year Awards and the Times/Shell UK Museums Year Award. (Nature in Art’s education unit has also been specially commended in the Best Education Programme section of the National Heritage Museum of the Year Awards.) The support of the V&A Art Purchase Fund, The Art Fund and others to help acquire key items for the collection has been instrumental in bolstering the collection and displays and instilling confidence in other existing and potential partners. One of the most important pictures acquired with such support was ‘Noah and the Animals entering the ark’, attributed to Jan van Kessel the younger (1654 – 1708). This was loaned out to the Metropolitan Teien Art Museum in Tokyo and is one of many items from Nature in Art that have been lent for display elsewhere.

The collection deliberately embraces a wide range of styles and media, not just paintings of ‘wildlife art’ or ‘illustration’ (although they are key) but many others that respond to the broader notion of art inspired by nature. It includes quality examples of sculpture, textiles, ceramics, ethnic art and many other genres that are part of people’s artistic responses to nature. Such diversity is important, not simply in collecting terms, but also to expand the visitor experience beyond their expectations. A vibrant range of temporary exhibitions also helps in this regard. Organising over 180 exhibitions in the first 20 years has been hard work but has enabled the museum to focus from time to time on particular aspects of its own collection, to respond to particular themes and to work with other museums and public and private collections to present works in the Nature in Art context. Exhibitions of works by Matisse, Picasso, Sutherland, Lalique or 5000 year old Chinese jade bottles have been included as well as Audubon, Thorburn, Shepherd or nature themes. Such variety and regular changes to displays means the museum currently enjoys the support of 1000 season ticket holders.

Most science museums have ‘interactives’ – video screens, buttons to press, levers to pull. These help bring topics to life and are vital to help engage and inform the public. Art museums can find it difficult to appropriately embrace such technology. At Nature in Art the development of an artist in residence programme is its equivalent. This allows visitors to meet artists (a different one every week) and gain a tangible appreciation of how different techniques are employed to achieve particular results. Many go back to the museum galleries (and hopefully other museums!) and look at the displays with new eyes.

Some museums are restricted in their activities to preserving and showing items. They have as it were, the ‘full set’ of their particular field. Although the diversity of our collection is unrivalled, the challenge for those of us working at Nature in Art is that the work has really only just begun. The list of artists still to be permanently represented in our collection is far longer (and growing) than those represented in the collection today. That fact results, we hope, in a sense that Nature in Art is a living, breathing institution with a life and spirit that has a long and ever-developing future.


• Nature in Art, Wallsworth Hall, Twigworth, Gloucester, GL2 9PA, tel: 01452 731422, www.nature-in-art.org.uk