There’s nothing quite like a walk through the English countryside, but the next best thing might be a stroll through a new exhibition at the Yale Center for British Art (YCBA) that invites visitors to experience the British landscape through the eyes of artists from the 16th century to the present.
“’Of Green Leaf, Bird, and Flower’: Artists’ Books and the Natural World,” on view May 15–Aug. 10, examines the intersection between artistic and scientific interests in the natural world.
The exhibition has been organized like a ramble through nature, according to Elisabeth Fairman, senior curator of rare books and manuscripts at the YCBA.
“We want you to feel as if it’s a walk through the landscape,” she said. “We start with the flora of the British countryside; we go on to fauna, focusing on birds and insects (and the odd hedgehog); we take a stop at ponds and streams; we look at some English gardens, and end with the work of artist and poet Eileen Hogan.”
To set the scene, the exhibition opens with a poster by Robert Tavener — “Country Walk: Summer” (1958) — a lithograph designed for London Transport, promoting field guide books and promising “miles of grass and pleasantness,” as it depicts a young boy and girl (and two dogs) walking through the countryside.
“Of Green Leaf, Bird, and Flower” goes on to feature more than 300 works, including traditional bound books, drawings, and prints, as well as experimental media incorporating cut paper, wood, and stone. It should be noted that an artist’s book is no ordinary publication; it is a work of art, realized in the form of a book. Oversized beetles burst out of one volume, while cut-paper crows circle around another. In “POETree,” a collection of short poems has been stamped onto actual birch tree leaves.
Also on view is a mahogany box filled with more than 100 specimens sorted into genus and species. Collected by a Miss Rowe — who joined the Liverpool Naturalists’ Field Club in 1861 — each specimen was carefully mounted on a thin sheet of writing paper and placed into an envelope, with a label and watercolor of the specimen painted on the front. Next to this collection sits a contemporary work, “Wild Flowers Worth Notice” by Mandy Bonnell, who spent several weeks at the YCBA in 2012 looking at Miss Rowe’s box of specimens.
“I love this idea of an artist coming into our collections and using them as a source of inspiration,” said Fairman.
The exhibition is full of similar pairings of historic and contemporary objects, with modern British artists speaking to the tradition of collecting and cataloguing flora and fauna in England.
According to organizers, Britain’s fascination with ordering the natural world took off after Carl Linnaeus devised the modern taxonomy for classifying plants and animals in 1745. The exhibition explores the role of amateur, or self-taught, naturalists during 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.
“Cataloguing was a way to control the natural world intellectually and allowed women a way into the risqué world of men and science,” said Amy Meyers, director of the YCBA. “Botany, in particular, was considered a cleaner and neater subject most appropriate for women.”
While most of the objects are drawn from the YCBA’s collections, the show incorporates key historic works from other Yale collections, including plant and insect specimens from the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, as well as a selection of early microscopes from its Lentz Collection.
In addition to works of art and natural specimens, the exhibition features 16 sound recordings of bird song, including that of the nightingale, which Fairman said was her favorite track.
Other recordings include “Sounds of the Countryside” and the artist Hamish Fulton reading from his work, “Wild Life: Walks in the Cairngorms” (2000). In addition, there are interactive touch screens, including “The Pond at Deuchar E-Scroll” by artist Helen Douglas, in which images of the pond near her home in Scotland are linked into a long visual narrative.
The exhibition concludes with a bay dedicated to a series of paintings and drawings by Eileen Hogan that were inspired by “Little Sparta,” the garden created by the poet and artist Ian Hamilton Finlay in the Lanarkshire hills in Scotland. (Finlay’s work can be found in the collection of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.) Hogan first visited in 1997 and it became an important part of her life for the next 15 years.
“I worked from drawings, photographs, and memory,” said Hogan. “I’ve learned that my sketchbook makes me realize what I find interesting; my memory makes me understand what I care about.”
“Of Green Leaf, Bird, and Flower” is accompanied by an illustrated publication that has been designed by Miko McGinty '93, '98 MFA to evoke an early naturalist’s field guidebook. It includes an introduction by Fairman, as well as essays that explore key themes in the exhibition.
The title of the show comes from the 1826 poem “Twenty Lessons on British Mosses” by William Gardiner. The YCBA’s founder, Paul Mellon, had a love of the British countryside and began acquiring works of natural history in 1937. The exhibition has been dedicated to his wife, Rachel Lambert Mellon — a renowned horticulturalist and gardener — who passed away in 2014.
Located at 1080 Chapel St., the Yale Center for British Art is open to the public free of charge 10 a.m.–5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, and noon–5 p.m. Sunday. It is closed on Friday, July 4.
More artful books
The focus on book arts doesn’t end with the YCBA’s show in August. Later this year, Yale undergraduates will mount an exhibition on the subject at the Yale University Art Gallery (YUAG).
“Odd Volumes: Book Art from the Allan Chasanoff Collection” will be on view Oct. 10–Feb. 1. This student-curated show will present a selection of works recently gifted to the gallery by Allan Chasanoff ’61 B.A. The exhibition will feature works that take the book as material and transform it into an array of sculptural objects.
“Odd Volumes” is being produced in collaboration with Artspace, a non-profit artists’ organization in New Haven, which will commission eight Connecticut artists to create work in response to the Chasanoff collection. The completed projects will be displayed this fall alongside works borrowed from the YUAG in the exhibition “CT(un) Bound,” located at 50 Orange St. in New Haven. Funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, the project aims to build connections between contemporary artists, the book arts community, and educators.
Yale’s Haas Family Arts Library will also present an exhibition of book arts this fall to accompany the YUAG exhibition. On view Oct. 1–Feb. 20, “Beyond the Codex” will build on themes developed by student curators in “Odd Volumes.” The Library’s current exhibition, “Jazz and the Book Arts,” is on view through June 16 and includes works by artists who have been inspired by jazz music and musicians.