Picture of the week: 12/07/21

THE insects in today’s picture choice are so vivid and lifelike that it’s hard to believe they were painted more than 350 years ago.

But the painting on copper panel actually dates from 1657 and is the work of Jan van Kessel the Elder, a versatile Flemish artist known for his meticulous studes of insects and flowers (along with marine and river landscapes).

METICULOUS DETAIL: van Kessel’s extraordinary painting from 1657

Born in Antwerp in 1626, van Kessel belonged to a dynasty of famous painters and a couple of his works are in the National Gallery.

But despite the vivid realism of the colours in his sprig of redcurrants lying alongside an elephant hawk moth, ladybird, millipede and other insects, to modern eyes the study may feel uncomfortably lifeless.

But of course that stems from our ability to capture the natural world in all its splendour without trapping, killing and impaling them in cabinets of curiosities, as early natural history enthusiasts were prone to do.

NATURAL WONDER: the spectacular peacock butterfly PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

Ironically van Kessel – a keen observer praised in his day for his precision and attention to detail – was perhaps more radical in his artistic approach than we might initially appreciate as 21st-century observers of his work.

“Cabinets of wonder”, as they were also known, were early forerunners of museums – private collections of notable objects which emerged during the 16th century and helped to establish the socioeconomic status of their curators.

Filled with all kinds of disparate objects, from preserved animals, horns, tusks and skeletons to minerals, sculptures or clockwork automata, such collections often helped to promote scientific advancement when their contents were publicised and discussed, and the desire to collect and categorise the natural world inspired artists to achieve the same in painted form.

POLLEN COUNT: an industrious bee PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

By the Victorian era, the pursuit of collecting was held in high esteem and formal parlours functioned as private museums with which to impress and amaze guests, the age of scientific exploration and discovery fuelling the popularity of taxidermy as an all-consuming obsession.

But for van Kessel way back in the 17th century, a collection of studies of flowers and insects engraved and published in 1592 in Frankfurt was to influence his work, and his studies differ from the dispassionate approach of predecessors who arranged flora and fauna in rows, as if they were specimens in a collector’s cabinet.

UNDER COVER: a ladybird potentially unaware of its prey PICTURE: Nick Bell

Van Kessel created a more dynamic arrangement of insects, where his message of nature as a mirror of God’s power would not have been lost on contemporary audiences.

As art expert and seminarian Patrick van der Vorst wrote in a recent reflection on the work: “The juxtaposition of Van Kessel’s animated painted insects with the redcurrants and two moths delights the viewer. There is a certain cheerfulness that emanates from these paintings.”

WILD ENCOUNTERS: nature comes alive in words and pictures @DrawnIntoNature

Perhaps that means van Kessel’s painting from 1657 has more in common with the vibrant portraits in modern nature journals than the grim drawers favoured by Victorian collectors, who kept their insects and butterflies so neatly and systematically arranged and ordered.

Picture of the week: 14/09/20

TO MARK Hertfordshire’s annual open studios programme, our third picture of the week is another featured artist from the event.

Our focus is on artists specialising in landscape, nature and wildlife working in any medium, and our latest selection is a colourful painting by Mary Ann Day.

BOLD COLOURS: Red Sky at Night, Hertfordshire, by Mary Ann Day

A self-taught artist whose work has featured in several exhibitions on the outskirts of London, Mary Ann has experimented with different styles and textures, using a palette knife in much of her work. She continues to be excited by the “magic of paint” and says she is travelling on “an artistic journey that continues on a never-ending rollercoaster of discovery”.

Her work features various themes but is notable for its bold, bright colours, sometimes laid on in thick layers but always vibrant and often evoking far-off wind-lashed islands like Hawaii and Fiji.

“Colour is the key to my work,” she explains. “Without colour life would be a very dull place.”

The Herts Visual Arts event runs until September 30 and features artists, artisans and designer-makers who live or work in or on the borders of Hertfordshire. Visit the Herts Visual Arts website for more details.

Do you have a favourite artist or sculptor specialising in landscape, nature and wildlife work? We’d love to receive your nominations for future works to feature in our Picture of the Week slot – drop a brief explanation for the reasons for your choice to editor@thebeyonder.co.uk.

Virtual visitors enjoy Herts arts

HERTFORDSHIRE artists are taking their annual open studios event online next month.

And although the move was forced by ongoing coronavirus restrictions, it means this year Herts Visual Arts will be able to host an extraordinary range of virtual events around the clock.

LOCAL LANDSCAPES: Harpenden Ponds, Southdown Road by Andrew Keenleyside

The county network for artists and creatives is celebrating its 30th anniversary and to mark the event is planning 30 themes over 30 days for its annual #HertsOpenStudios celebration of local talent.

As well as a social media wall, the group website features dozens of artist’s galleries and videos of them at work in their studios or explaining their techniques, like the oil painting demonstration produced by Alexander James Gordon (below).

The month-long art celebration follows similar events earlier in the year in Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire.

There will be live personal events and exhibition visits too, normally involving advance booking and social distancing restrictions.

SPLASH OF COLOUR: Red Sky at Night, Hertfordshire by Mary Ann Day

But the virtual celebration means that visitors can seek out artwork and demonstrations at any of the day, popping back numerous times to explore different trails and techniques, with videos including studio tours, demonstrations and individual artists explaining and showing off their latest work.

The event runs from September 1-30 and features artists, artisans and designer-makers who live or work in or on the borders of Hertfordshire. Visit the Herts Visual Arts website for more details.

COUNTRY RETREAT: Basildon Park by Susan Edwards