Katrina van Grouw: Flight of the Peacocks

A peacock’s train is not its tail! You can see its real tail, lying flat against the magnificent fan-shaped train when it’s fully spread.

There’s something missing from my living room.

I know there’s something missing because there’s over a square yard of bookcase visible that I haven’t seen for years, revealing a lot of books I’d forgotten I own. The obscuring object, shrouded in cloth wraps, has now gone, and my books have re-materialised as from behind a stage curtain.  It’s a small step back towards normality after the domestic chaos that came with The Unfeathered Bird (and became even worse with Unnatural Selection).

Although the house is, and will probably always be, full of skeletons, saying farewell to the two enormous paintings—the diptych— that was created for the jacket illustrations of The Unfeathered Bird is at least a step in the right direction. As I write, the paintings are somewhere on the Atlantic Ocean on a one-way trip to America. Their final destination: the offices of Princeton University Press, New Jersey, where they belong.

If you’re not already familiar with the book, the paintings are of a peacock; front and back view. It’s an unfeathered—well, partly unfeathered peacock. One of the most frequently-repeated untruths about birds is that a peacock’s splendid fan-shaped train, bedecked with glittering iridescent “eyes”, is its tail. It’s not. Its elongated feathers actually originate from the lower back and rump. A peacock’s tail feathers are actually very plain things, just long grey-brown feathers that you can see lying close to the back of the train when it’s fully spread. For this reason I chose to leave the train and tail feathers onthe otherwise naked skeleton.

The idea came from a specimen in the collections at Naturalis, the Natural History Museum of the Netherlands in Leiden, where Husband was formerly curator in charge of birds and mammals. It was one of a set of now rather old and tatty skeletal preparations that included some feathers left in place. This particular specimen happened to be a white peafowl, which I decided would be a good idea so as not to detract from the limited palette used in the book.

Although the Leiden specimen provided the inspiration for the paintings, its posture, like that of so many historical museum specimens, wasn’t sufficiently accurate for my needs. For that we had to prepare a fresh specimen of our own. By pure co-incidence a taxidermist friend of Husband’s, a man named Bas, had recently acquired a dead peafowl that was surplus to requirements. The story’s quite an amusing one and is worth telling:

Bas was contacted one day by a farmer asking the price of having a dead pheasant mounted. He quibbled over the price but reluctantly agreed; only to turn up not with a pheasant but with a fully-grown peacock. Any taxidermist will tell you that peafowl are a lot more difficult to prepare than pheasants. Bas quite correctly pointed out that peafowl and pheasants were not the same price, at which the irate farmer (equally correctly) pointed out that peafowl are members of the pheasant family. The two scowled at one another for a matter of minutes before the farmer, accepting defeat, flung the dead bird at Bas and stormed off, never to return!

Husband prepared its skeleton in the required posture from knowledge gained during a lifetime of studying living birds. Like virtually all the skeletons in both my books, it was boiled down on the kitchen stove, bleached and dried on the draining board, and re-assembled on the dining table. This was also the skeleton that I used for the peacock illustration in side view, inside the book. For several months the two paintings, along with a very large easel, and the skeleton, formed a little enclave; a little ‘world of peacocks,’ circling the window, as I worked on them simultaneously; blocking out the light, filling the house with the smell of paint, and allowing peacocks to dominate the living room for the first time.

Inspired in my formative years by John James Audubon’s colossal Birds of America I have the ridiculous habit of producing all my artworks life-sized (I’ve only recently grown out of this since I’ve been producing illustrations of cattle and horses). All the skeletons in The Unfeathered Bird—the storks, pelicans, swans; even the ostrich body— were drawn to this scale, which entailed wrestling with easels in spaces barely big enough for even the cat to squeeze past, and all of the pictures have had to be stored somewhere in our very, very tiny house.

The skeleton used in side view in the book doubled up as the model for the cover paintings.

While peacock skeletons may not be that big, with the feathers on and shown life-sized, they’re enormous; too big by far to hang on the walls at home, or even to take upstairs to be stored. So apart from a few outings to be hung on exhibition, they’ve been blocking access to my living room bookshelves since 2011.

The paintings were done in acrylic, with paler layers underneath the darker brown surface. I worked in pencil on top of that, and scraped away the top layer of paint for some of the highlights on the bones, and added deeper shadows in acrylic. So if you look at them closely you can see pencil lines as well as painted areas.

On the ground, at the bird’s feet is a cast feather—a homage to the 17thCentury Dutch painter Melchior d’Hondecoeter whose splendidly animated scenes of poultry, waterfowl and exotic birds were always marked by his motif of a floating feather. I put these feathers on the inside flaps of the jacket, too.

I painted the entire bird almost to the tips of its spread train, but in the end chose to crop the digitized versions significantly for the book jacket, so as not to lose the details of the skeleton. I came frighteningly close to cropping the actual paintings—cropping with a saw, I mean—too, when I was faced with the problem of transporting them to exhibitions. Thankfully I decided not to.

The paintings’ first trip was to the picture framers’ and it was very nearly disastrous. Artists have a tendency to work on borrowed time and when it came to exhibitions I was no different. I had the diptych submitted for its first exhibition almost before it was finished and rushed the paintings to the framers thoroughly encapsulated in bubble-wrap without realizing that the varnish wasn’t fully dry. I peeled off the packaging to find a pattern of circular marks all over the surface, like a magnified newspaper photo.

You know how sometimes when things are truly calamitous you just stay unnaturally calm and collected, while you might over-react at a lesser accident? Well, this was one of those moments. The framer repeated in awe how he wouldn’t have been so cool in the same circumstances, as he scurried about the workshop finding rags to soak in turpentine. Amazingly with solvents, a hairdryer, and a lotof patience we managed to restore the surface to its desired finish. 

The first aid accomplished, we set ourselves to choosing a frame. I’m usually a person who knows exactly what I want when I go to a picture framers’, but this diptych was unlike anything I’d done before. Grinning, the framer disappeared into a back room. “I always knew the right picture for this would show up sooner or later” he called above the grating of heavy objects being moved around. “You’ll either love this, or hate it.” He emerged some minutes later with a splendidly extravagant white baroque moulding, several inches thick. I loved it.

Diptych on display. The peacocks were exhibited publicly several times and looked stunning wherever they went. Here they’re at an exhibition of artworks from The Unfeathered Bird.

The paintings’ public debut was at the prestigious Society of Wildlife Artists’ annual exhibition at the Mall Galleries in London. After that it was the David Shepherd Wildlife Artist of the Year exhibition at the same gallery. Then a series of solo exhibitions: at the Natural History Museum at Tring, Nature in Art, and my local museum in Buckinghamshire. They looked spectacular every time.

I had various offers of private sales, including one from a wealthy art collector in Florence, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t tempted by the money and by the space to be regained in my living room. But it simply didn’t feel right to separate them from the context they were created in. As paintings they’re not, in fact, the best things I’ve ever done. But they’re the cover of The Unfeathered Bird—the book that dominated and changed the course of my adult life—and, for me, that makes them very special indeed.

In the idyllic world of daydreams there is a Katrina van Grouw Museum, established to preserve for posterity all the artworks from the books along with the skeletons and other specimens that were prepared exclusively for them. In that world, the peacock diptych hangs on the far wall to greet awestruck fans as they enter. “Are those the cover pictures?” they’ll whisper, “They’re so much larger than I thought they’d be”. “I can’t believe I’m finally seeing the real thing.

Sadly that world doesn’t exist and probably never will. But there was another option…

I am blessed with having a truly excellent publisher. No, I’m not just saying that because I’m writing this blog post for them. Princeton University Press has been marvellous. They’ve given me free rein to produce the books I want, trusted my every decision, and rooted for me every step of the way. They’ve shown endless patience, wild enthusiasm, and heart-warming kindness.  For a long time I wondered how I could possibly thank everyone. I could send flowers – or give some prints to individuals. But the more people I worked with, the more it seemed the entire staff was on my side. There would be bound to be someone I’d miss, and there are probably people who’ve worked on my books whose name I don’t even know.

Then it struck me that I could thank everyone, every single day, by sending my peacocks to Princeton where they’d be permanently associated with me and my books, and a permanent message of thanks to everyone who works there. Not just as a message to those directly involved, but as a symbol of generic appreciation from an author to a publisher.

Authors can be a bit surly on occasion. We work alone for years nurturing our ideas into tangible form and, at the end of it, when we’d guard our creations with our very life, we’re thrust into a team-work situation with our precious books in the middle. Perhaps unsurprisingly we can come across as rather defensive; resentful even, so I can imagine that working for a publishing company must sometimes seem a thankless task.

My peacocks are there to say that it’s not a thankless task.

If you work for Princeton University Press I hope that, as you walk past the two paintings in the foyer—and especially if you might not be having the best of days—you’ll look up at them and know that an author is grateful.

I, meanwhile—well I’ll be happily re-acquainting myself with all those books I’d forgotten I own…

 

Katrina van Grouw, author of The Unfeathered Bird and Unnatural Selection, inhabits that no-man’s-land midway between art and science. She holds degrees in fine art and natural history illustration and is a former curator of ornithological collections at a major national museum. She’s a self-taught scientist with a passion for evolutionary biology and its history.

Unnatural Selection is a stunningly illustrated book about selective breeding–the ongoing transformation of animals at the hand of man. More important, it’s a book about selective breeding on a far, far grander scale—a scale that encompasses all life on Earth. We’d call it evolution.

Suitable for the lay reader and student, as well as the more seasoned biologist, and featuring more than four hundred breathtaking illustrations of living animals, skeletons, and historical specimens, Unnatural Selection will be enjoyed by anyone with an interest in natural history and the history of evolutionary thinking.

Katrina van Grouw on the 150th Anniversary of Darwin’s Classic Work

“My work is now nearly finished; but it will take me two or three more years to complete it, and as my health is far from strong I have been urged to publish this Abstract. I have more especially been induced to do this, as Mr Wallace…has arrived at almost exactly the same general conclusions that I have on the origin of species…No one can feel more sensible than I do of the necessity of hereafter publishing in detail all the facts, with references, on which my conclusions have been grounded; and I hope in a future work to do this.”

Darwin bust

A plaster bust of Charles Darwin (a wedding present from a friend) in situ on our living room bookcase—a daily reminder of the man, and his theory, that is the cornerstone of this book.

 The ‘Abstract’ Charles Darwin was referring to here is ‘On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection,’ without a doubt one of the most influential books in human history. Despite being based on over 20 years of painstaking research, it was nevertheless —for the reasons given—written in a hurry, leaving several important questions unanswered. The most significant of these, and the premise on which Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection rested, was the question of how qualities can be passed from one generation to the next, and it was this question he set out to answer in the future work he alluded to in the passage above. The book was to be The Variation of Animal & Plants under Domestication and it was published on this day, January 30th, 150 years ago.

It wasn’t, I’m sorry to say, his greatest achievement. Apart from being overly long and lacking the focus and eloquence of Origin it presented a mechanism for inheritance that Darwin knew deep down to be flawed. He called it pangenesis. Every cell, Darwin alleged, produces minute particles called gemmules that circulate around the body and can be modified by circumstances experienced throughout life, eventually congregating in the reproductive organs prior to being passed on to future offspring. We now know, of course, that it’s not gemmules but genes that carry inherited information, and that because the genetic information in the sex cells—the cells that produce eggs and sperm—are isolated from the body cells, characteristics acquired during the life of an individual can’t affect them; at least not in any meaningful, long term, evolutionary sense.

So, to many Darwin fans, Variation is a bit of an embarrassment, representing his failure rather than his success. Even Darwin himself found the experience of writing it an ordeal. By the end of what he later described as four years and two months of hard labor, when his interests had already moved on to other things, he wrote in a letter to his friend Joseph Hooker, “If I try to read a few pages I feel fairly nauseated … the Devil take the whole book”!

Variation under Domestication is nevertheless impressive. It continues the analogy Darwin used in Origin comparing the selective breeding of domesticated animals with the process of evolution by natural selection. Darwin wasn’t blind to the fact that domesticated animals change over time. They evolve. (In those days it would have been called the transmutation of species.) While evolution in wild animals is usually too slow to observe within a human lifetime, changes in domesticated animals could be brought about, by careful selective breeding, within just a few animal generations.

Equally important, Variation also presents a remarkable compendium of reflections and observations on traits occurring under domestication, both made directly by Darwin himself: in his own pigeon loft and greenhouses, and from the experience of others. Darwin was an energetic letter-writer and kept up a barrage of correspondence with everyone, the world over, who he considered might be of use, from the loftiest stud owner to the humblest gardener. He socialized with pigeon fanciers among the erudite, and at the pigeon shows he attended in the insalubrious bird fanciers’ underworld of London’s Spitalfields slums.

Some of Darwin’s own skeletons of domesticated pigeons. Darwin kept fancy pigeons for several years, conducting breeding experiments and carefully comparing their skeletons in an effort to understand the mechanism for evolution and for the inheritance of certain characteristics.

Many of the collected observations, although familiar enough to fanciers, have scarcely since been given any attention by the scientific community. And yet it is undeniably science. And science, moreover, increasingly shown to be of relevance to modern understanding. Traits ‘discovered’ in domesticated animals have been found to help explain the evolution of similar characteristics in wild animals. The more we understand about evolution, genetics and development, the more our domesticated animals, and the people who breed them, have to offer. The difficulty lies in convincing the scientific community of their value. The more easily information becomes available in modern times, the more we shut ourselves off from what we think we don’t want to know, or fail to recognize that other social genres might possess the answers we seek. So much of the knowledge of animal fanciers would be of benefit to biologists, if only they would pay attention— as Darwin did.

It’s not every author that gets a significant anniversary coinciding with a book they’re already working on. I began my book, Unnatural Selection both as an exploration of Darwin’s analogy and as a way of thanking my husband for his help with my previous book, The Unfeathered Bird. Husband is a domesticated animal nerd and a lifelong breeder of fancy pigeons—not for sport or exhibition, but as a way of understanding the inheritance of certain traits. He conducts the same sorts of experiments, and makes the same sorts of observations that would have delighted Darwin.So when I realized that my completion date had a chance of coinciding with the 150th anniversary of Variation under Domestication the timing seemed too good to be true.

Throughout, my book uses examples from a lifetime’s experience of domesticated animal breeding, making it a tribute not just to Darwin’s accomplishments, but his style of research and writing. Darwin too was happiest when he was observing living things and carrying out his own experiments. They ranged from testing the effects of seawater on seeds in an effort to understand the colonization of oceanic islands to studying the senses of earthworms by observing their responses to different musical instruments. One of my favorites is his method to test the correlation between eyesight and hearing in very young kittens. Darwin had observed that kittens appear to be unresponsive to sound until their eyes have opened at around nine days. This was how he did it: (1) creep up to a nest of kittens, carrying brass poker and shovel, being careful not to make any sudden vibrations; then (2) bash poker and shovel together to make as much noise as possible! The kittens slept on, unfazed.

We recently watched our little troupe of bantams foraging in the garden. (Being Husband’s birds, they’re not recognized breeds but a motley collection of interesting genetic traits.) There were obviously a lot of good things to eat under the woodpile, but only the birds with the trait for shortened limbs could squeeze into the small gap—the others had to remain on the outside and listen to them feasting. Darwin’s conclusion would have been the same as ours: if food had been scarce, the short-legged individuals would have a better chance of survival than the normal ones.

Unnatural Selection was for me five years and two months’ hard labor and, far from feeling nauseated, I’m more proud of it than of anything I’ve ever done. Its purpose is to illustrate the scientific value of selective breeding and encourage those who turn up their nose at domesticated animals to view them with a little more respect. Also to explain how evolution works using the same analogy that Darwin chose and to suggest that this analogy is even more appropriate than even Darwin realized. And to be a tribute to what Variation under Domestication might have achieved, had Darwin possessed that elusive missing piece to the puzzle.

How ironic, that for all his copious letter writing, the questionnaires he sent out to breeders of plants and animals around the globe, and the extensive reading and meticulous research with which he informed himself of every possible source of useful material, Darwin allowed one crucial contact to escape his notice. For there was someone, at exactly the same time, conducting very similar breeding experiments to his own and with the same purpose in mind—someone studying inheritance in pea plants in a monastery garden in Brno… Gregor Mendel.

 

Katrina van Grouw inhabits that no-man’s-land midway between art and science. She holds degrees in fine art and natural history illustration and is a former curator of ornithological collections at a major national museum. She’s a self-taught scientist with a passion for evolutionary biology and its history.

As a special celebration of the 150th anniversary of ‘Variation under Domestication,’ Katrina be posting images, articles and excerpts from Unnatural Selection on her Facebook page ‘Books by Katrina van Grouw’ from today, January 30th, until Darwin’s birthday on the February 12th.