Nature and Art (Part II)

In last week’s post, Fang from the Visitor Team looked at evolution and Gustav Klimt’s Tree of Life. Today, she continues her exploration of the complex relationship between art and the natural world, and how the two interact, taking a closer look at British wildlife.

For more on animals and nature, have a look at the curator’s blog.


The British Wildlife case, Living Worlds gallery, Manchester Museum.


British Wildlife

This showcase displays a collection of British wildlife – plants, insects, birds and animals – all fit perfectly well into the background image of ‘Landscape and Cattle’, an artwork from an English painter.

Reinagle, R.R.; Landscape and Cattle‘Landscape and Cattle’ by R.R. Reinagle (c. 1823), Royal Academy of Arts, London, (source)


Landscape and Cattle

Ramsay Richard Reinagle RA (1775 – 1862) was an English painter of portraits, animals and landscapes. He trained under his father, Philip Reinagle, who also exhibited at the Royal Academy. R.R. Reinagle followed his father’s style, but also travelled extensively in Italy and Holland,  studying under the master painters there. Reinagle was the president of the Society of Painters in Oil and Watercolours from 1808 to 1812, with whom he exhibited sixty-seven works, mostly Italian landscapes and scenery of the English lakes. Meanwhile, he also had exhibitions of portraits and landscapes in oil displayed at the Royal Academy in London, of which he became an academician in 1823.

Reinagle was a friend of John Constable, one of the most well-known British landscape painters, and painted a portrait of him (below). Later, their friendship turned sour; it has been suggested that this was due to their rivalry as landscape painters, and directly related to his Landscape and Cattle painting.


Left: Self portrait of R.R. Reinagle, ©the British Museum, London (Source). Right: Portrait of John Constable by R.R. Reinagle, ©National Portrait Gallery (Source).

Reinagle presented his Landscape and Cattle oil painting as his Diploma Work to the Royal Academy, London, which was accepted in 1823. According to a statement from the Royal Academy;

“Reinagle showed this painting to Constable before it was presented to the Royal Academy, but Constable commented that ‘It is such art as I cannot talk about -heartless – vapid – and without interest’. Constable’s opinion was perhaps somewhat embittered by the fact that he himself was not elected to the Academy for another six years.”

(Royal Academy of Arts)

However, the Royal Academy’s evaluation was that;

“Reinagle’s picture is skilfully composed and, although influenced by Dutch masters such as Ruisdael, is clearly inspired by the landscapes of Gainsborough as well.”

(Royal Academy of Arts)

Landscape and Cattle depicts a typical scene of English countryside landscape and life: trees, meadow, a river, cattle, sheep and farmers…all under a blue sky and white clouds with birds circling overhead.

I think that the designers of Manchester Museum’s Living Worlds gallery chose wisely using Landscape and Cattle as the background to the British Wildlife showcase, and the Museum’s specimens are ingeniously and skilfully displayed against it. They naturally blend into the ‘landscape’ background, giving a stereoscopic vision and a vivid interpretation of the various themes of the display.

Invasive species and british wildlife

Many plants and animals have been introduced into Britain. Some introductions have had little effect, but others have had a major impact on native wildlife. The British red squirrel population has been threatened by grey squirrels, introduced from America, which compete more successfully than red squirrels for food and habitat. The grey squirrels are larger and stronger and can digest seeds more efficiently. They also carry, and can transmit, a virus which can be fatal for red squirrels.

fang5British Wildlife on display in the Living Worlds gallery, Manchester Museum.

Returning to the Museum case, which overlays the taxidermy exhibits on the landscape painting, a vivid picture is in my mind: a bigger grey squirrel jumps down from the tree top with a nut in its mouth, while a smaller red squirrel is running away through the woods.


Farming methods and British wildlife

Modern farming methods have had a huge impact on British wildlife. Intensive, efficient farming has reduced the amount of wildlife in the countryside. Many species of animals and plants that breed and feed on farmland have dramatically declined, especially birds that feed on weed seeds and insects because these food sources are no longer available. Many species of British bat have become very rare, because their habitat has been changed: their homes in trees and old buildings have been lost, and their food resources (flying insects) have been reduced. Now bats are fully protected in Britain. People can help bats by growing plants that encourage insects and putting up a bat box. Conservationists endeavour to find ways to boost farmland wildlife by managing habitats better and compensating farmers to farm in more wildlife-friendly ways.

In the display, with the aid of the landscape background, some rare species of British bat are enjoying their play in the air, while a barn owl is resting on a branch.


Daubento’s bat, long-eared bat and barn owl, in the Living Worlds gallery, Manchester Museum.


Conservation and British wildlife

There are many British species that have been saved from extinction through successful conservation work, including the heath fritillary butterfly, goshawk and bittern. Of the many species, I have chosen to highlight the beautiful lady slipper orchid.

In front of the river bank and grassland, with cattle in the distance, is displayed an herbarium sheet of the lady slipper orchid (Cypripedium calceolus). This corner of the case is the perfect place for its display as it is typically found in open woodland on moist calcareous soils. These particular specimens of foliage and flowers were collected in 1876 from Yorkshire. Lady slipper orchids have very spectacular purple and yellow flowers. The slipper-shaped pouches of the flowers attract insects which, once inside, can only escape through a narrow opening where they either collect or deposit pollinia, thus fertilizing the flowers.

Left: Herbarium specimen from 1876, displayed in the ‘British Wildlife’ case, Living Worlds, ©Manchester Museum. Right: flowering plant in Northern Sweden, (Source)

They were once relatively common and widespread across the Yorkshire Dales, but were over-collected in the 19th century. By the late 20th century only a single plant survived. Work has been undertaken to save this species. Conservationists propagated them from seed at the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew, and then reintroduced them into the wild. The lady slipper orchid featured on a Royal Mail commemorative stamp in 1998, which stated that it was an ‘endangered species’ and ‘decline in sites’. In 2009, it also featured in a set of commemorative stamps for ‘Endangered Plants and the 250th Anniversary of Kew Gardens’.

Lady’s Slipper Orchid on stamps: 1998 (left) and 2009 (right), Royal Mail, United Kingdom. (Source)

If we imagine Landscape and Cattle as a the background to a jigsaw board, and the Museum’s exhibits as individual pieces, we could create a three-dimensional puzzle of British Wildlife.

I have put together the first pieces of the big jigsaw, but there are 60 exhibits in this case! May I invite you to come to our wonderful Living Worlds gallery to have your own choices of wildlife exhibits and create your own jigsaw picture of British wildlife and landscape?

Fang Zong


The exploration of Nature and Art will continue with Part III – Vivien’s Experience.

With special thanks to Henry McGhie (Head of Collections and Curator of Zoology) for his advice, support, and insights into the gallery design.

And thanks to my former colleague Lasma Poisa for her inspiring tour, ‘Art Treasures at the Manchester Museum’.

For more about plants, please visit Herbology Manchester by Dr Rachel Webster (Curator of Botany) and Lindsey Loughtman (Curatorial Assistant, Botany).


Find out more:

The Living Worlds gallery at the Manchester Museum

Landscape and Cattle at the Royal Academy of Art

The Wildlife Trust: Saving the red squirrel

The British Postal Museum: Mammals

Lady’s Slipper Orchid

Cypripedium Calceolus

Lady’s slipper (Bradford Museum blog)



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