John Hutton Balfour (1808-1884) - Nature Study
3 May - 6 July 2008
Nature Study was one of a unique series of exhibitions in which contemporary artists are invited to exhibit alongside works from the collections of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh. On this occasion, Louise Bourgeois; perhaps the most admired living female artist, exhibited drawings and sculpture with extraordinary nineteenth century teaching diagrams and plant models commissioned by one of the Garden's great Regius Keepers, John Hutton Balfour (1808-1884), presented on the occasion of the bicentenary of his birth.
The deeply personal and remarkably concise drawings by Bourgeois (b. 1911) in Nature Study were made in red gouache on white paper in 2007 and they demonstrate her consistent concern with motherhood: the cycles of life, nature and human nature, and the polarities of birth and death, growth and decay, separation and togetherness. Bourgeois, who studied mathematics at the age of 15 and whose favourite form is the ellipse (because it has two centres), has expressed her conviction that human identity is a dialogue.
In the mid-nineteenth-century, Botany was taught to medical students and Hutton Balfour commissioned well over a thousand large diagrams of plants which were shown during lectures, hung from bent pins on fabric rollers. Nature Study featured a number of these diagrams, including one of a small, insectivorous plant (a Sundew) which is probably one of the largest botanical illustrations ever made, measuring over six feet by four feet. Hutton Balfour was Regius Keeper for 34 years (from 1845 to 1879) and his influence can be felt today as he was responsible for building the Temperate Palm House and acquiring Inverleith House and its grounds.
Though widely divergent in time, purpose and style, these two bodies of work showed curious formal affinities, and occasionally, touched on strikingly similar themes. Taken together, they formed a dialogue that communicated a particularly strong and authentic fascination for the natural world - and for life itself.
The possibility of bringing together contemporary art and the scientific study of the natural world has been a distinguishing feature of the exhibitions programme at Inverleith House for many years. Previous exhibitions in this series of juxtapositions have featured Laura Owens (also paired with the Balfour collection) in 2000; Rudolf Stingel (with nineteenth-century botanical drawings by Indian artists) in 2006, and John Cage with Merce Cunningham (shown with early twentieth-century botanical drawings by Lilian Snelling) in 2007.
The exhibition was accompanied by a fully illustrated publication containing essays by H.J. Noltie and Philip Larratt-Smith and it opened at a time when many of the Garden's world-famous collection of over 500 species of Rhododendron were in flower; visitors were invited to consider the relationship between the human and the natural world, when the drawings of Bourgeois and Balfour were displayed together, for the first time.
All works courtesy of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, © 2008.
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