Archive for December, 2014

Jason de Caires Taylor: sculpting underwater masterpieces

Jason de Caires Taylor: sculpting underwater masterpieces

The really extraordinary thing about Jason de Caires Taylor’s underwater sculpture groups is that they look so natural, so at home in the filtered green light of the sea. Figures, faces, appear out of the murk like classical statues marking the spot of an ancient shipwreck.

Jason’s underwater career began as an attempt to create new foundations for corals to colonise in the aftermath of a tropical hurricane that had damaged reefs in the Caribbean.

The series of videos below is highly recommended, as a way of seeing and experiencing the sculptures. The nearest thing to actually swimming among them.

Unstill Life is a three-dimensional representation of a classic painters’ subject. Four-dimensional, I should have said, for time allows the sea to work on the piece, coating it with algae, fringing carved eyes with tubeworms and starfish. Sea fans have set up shop in the bowl of fruit, which is now guarded by a fish that has made its home there.

In another video, a face ravaged by the sea, yet retaining its beauty and grace, grimaces almost in fear, as a silver barracuda hangs in the water nearby.

The camera lingers on a row of African faces deep underwater, turned up to the light, making one wonder if Jason Taylor intended this piece as a memorial to the hundreds of thousands of Africans who lost their lives in the ocean after being taken in chains from Africa.

But it was the grandeur of the drowned throngs in Silent Evolution that awed me. These works are no gimmick, they are moving and powerful and absolutely right for their environment.


Alive, alive, O!

Alive, alive, O!


I am supposed to be writing an article about cyberspace and the creative imagination, but the mind wanders – cyberspace is a labyrinth in which you stray at your peril. Around any corner await discoveries so stunning that work is forgotten for a few minutes, sometimes hours.

The Wellcome Institute’s Image Award Winners for 2010 have just been announced and the resulting gallery of pictures, accompanied by videos, interviews and scientific background is completely beguiling. I must now return to my article, but it gives me real pleasure to lead you astray, so without further ado, here is the diving beetle leg I promised:


More astonishing and beautiful images from the Wellcome Collection. These were the winners of the 11th Wellcome Image Awards – announced on 23 February 2011 – “recognising the creators of the most informative, striking and technically excellent images among recent acquisitions to Wellcome Images.

The images – not all are photographs – were chosen by a panel of expert judges who, let it be remembered, are not just looking for composition, technique and beauty, but for scientific usefulness, but most, like this photograph (below) of the retina of a baby Zebra danio, danio rerio, are quite breathtaking.


Here is a confocal micrograph of a cavefish embryo at around five days post-fertilisation. The embryo has been stained with an antibody against a calcium-binding protein (in green) to show different neuronal types and their processes in the nervous system. This staining also reveals taste buds, which are located around the mouth and along the body of the cavefish.


[Below] Confocal micrograph showing the expression of different fluorescent proteins in the stem of a thale cress seedling (Arabidopsis thaliana), the first plant to have its entire genome sequenced.


Who were the cybergypsies?

Who were the cybergypsies?

Jarly mainlined the internet. If he could have plugged it directly into his body he would have done. Nowadays that sort of thing is on the cusp  of possibility, but in those days all we had to guide us was William Gibson and our own experience of wandering  around cyberspace.


It  was not like now.  The world, in the words of the old calypso, was full of empty. It had no features, no well mapped topography. Darkness hid everything, but in the darkness a few lights glimmered. Imagine a   night   sky with no more than  a handful of  stars scattered  across the whole of  it.  



[Work in progress]

Painting with light, the Wholeo dome

Painting with light, the Wholeo dome

‘I don’t remember,’ says artist Caroling (real name Caroline Geary). ‘when I first encountered the phrase, “stained glass is the ‘handmaiden’ of architecture”. The idea, which permeated the stained glass world, got stuck in my mind like a porcupine quill. After all, painting escaped servitude years ago. It finally dawned on me that glass needed not only to become portable, but also to become revolutionary.’


‘In 1967, after seven years of designing for studios, doing stained glass free-lance and for fun, I was profoundly dissatisfied with what I or anyone else had done in the medium. Stained glass might be a wonderful medium for colour, but what is colour? Colour is vibrations, the light from atoms and stars, a basic language, the stuff of communication! You can touch stained glass and the fingers receive communications. The colour shines into your eyes, penetrates the skin, and even colours up your shadows. The colours seem to float in a thick space. It is an unusual space.



‘What a great idea, I thought, to surround myself with this inside-out space. I wanted not to look at a window, but to be in a window. I needed control of all the light. I would make panels on the arcs around me. The radius of the arc was seven feet, the distance my fingers reached up while standing on tip-toe.’


ARTIST CAROLING COMMENTS: On a bright hot morning, movie-makers looked around in Wholeo Dome. Here are some favorite details: a feather stuck in easterly “Breathe In”, a spectrum cast by the old military tank prism in the south, etched panels leading westerly to “Death End”, spirals of the “Essence of Being” in the north. Clouds leading the eye afar, illuminating the textured glass membrane of the dome, while intense colors project into your cells. The rich sense of depth permeates the whole. Looking up, patterns entangle. Looking down, colored light reaches, bathes, and sinks into pebbles. Not only eyes but auras mingle.


Songs of the brainfever bird

Songs of the brainfever bird

A friend brought to my attention the Xeno Canto collectlon of bird songs, some 67,000 recordings from 7,147 species representing 67.4% of the planet’s birds.

Thanks to Xeno Canto, I’ve been listening again to the song of the brainfever bird, an eerie, disturbing cry which I last heard fifty years ago as a child in the Western Ghats.

A low wolf-whistle is repeated ever more loudly and shrilly as if the bird is working itself up to a paroxysm of terror or rage. It used to frighten us children we when we were fishing in the forest streams. What had the bird seen? Was a panther lurking in the bushes behind us? A python looping from a branch above?

common hawk cuckoo

Mad, completely mad.

These fears were not as ridiculous as they may sound. In 1958, a woodcutter from Bushi village out after a cache of wild honey was killed by a leopard on the same mission.

Then one night my father’s driver Babu, a great hunter, saw two green lamps swaying at head height above a dark forest path. He fired, and a 15 foot python fell to the ground. He brought it back in the boot of the car. I remember the musty stink of it, like a wet dog.

These things, never forgotten, found their way into my novel The Death of Mr Love. The song of the brainfever bird brings them back again.

Brainfever Song I, Recorded by David Farrow in Kosi Tappu, Nepal on March 28, 2001


Brainfever Song II, recorded by Vladimir Arkhipov in Chitwan National Park, Nepal, on March 13, 2005.


Brainfever Song III recorded by Fernand Deroussen in Uttar Kalamati, Jalpaiguri, West Bengal on April 20, 2003


Common Hawk Cuckoo, Hierococcyx varius, recordings and  data courtesy Xeno Canto,


Table 9 wide

A curious sighting in the Australian desert

A curious sighting in the Australian desert

I dream every time I fall asleep. Sometimes the dreams are vivid enough to recall clearly on waking, but generally they evaporate before I can remember them. One dream has stayed with me for more than a decade. If I close my eyes I can see it now: a brilliantly coloured parrot wrasse, hanging in mid air above a red Australian desert. I was pleased to find this fish and planned to catch it, however I was called away. To stop the fish swimming off while I was gone, I draped a tea towel over it.

This image was so intriguing that about two or three years ago, I tried to recreate it by combining pictures of a wrasse and desert. So far so good, but I could not find a suitable tea towel. I made this one in Photoshop.


A few nights later a voice spoke to me when I was sleeping. ‘I was born in the dark where dreams begin, in the low halls of the australopithecine mind.” I knew at once that this was the beginning of a story. I didn’t know what the story might turn out to be, but I began to dream more pictures.

There was a skull, decorated with writing which had been carefully engraved in the bone. I tried to recreate the decorated skull and connect it in a sequence to the fish. The result was a set of images that I’ll post here when I can find them.

Remembering Ted Briggs, last survivor of HMS Hood

Remembering Ted Briggs, last survivor of HMS Hood

Obituary first published on this website October 8, 2008

On May 24, 1941 in the Denmark Strait the battle cruiser HMS Hood blew up after being hit by a salvo from the German battleship Bismarck. One of Bismarck’s shells exploded in an ammunition hoist causing a flash which travelled down to the main magazine. It was an old, known fault with British battlecruisers. During the Battle of Jutland, a quarter of a century earlier. similar hits on ammunition hoists had led to the loss of Queen Mary and Indefatigable. Ted Briggs was one of only three survivors of the Hood’s crew of 1,421. All his life, Ted remembered his old ship and her crew.

As an 18-year-old Flag-Lieutenant’s messenger, Briggs was on Hood’s compass platform when a shell from Bismarck hit the ship between centre and stern, penetrated the deck, exploded and touched off the ammunition in the four-inch and 15-inch magazines. According to one witness, the column of flame generated was “four times the height of the mainmast”.

Ted Briggs himself recalled that he was lifted off his feet and dumped headfirst on the deck: “Then she started listing to starboard. She righted herself, and started going over to port. When she had gone over by about 40 degrees we realised she was not coming back.” There was no time, or need, for an order to abandon ship. Hood sank within three minutes.

On his way to the compass platform shortly before the action, Briggs had bumped into a fellow-sailor, Frank Tuxworth, with whom he had earlier been playing cards. Tuxworth joked: “Do you remember, Briggo, that when the Exeter went into action with the Graf Spee, there was only one signalman saved?” Briggs laughed and replied: “If that happens to us, it’ll be me who’s saved, Tux”




Hood, launched in 1918, was at the time still the biggest warship ever built. “She was the outward and visible manifestation of sea-power,” wrote Sir Ludovic Kennedy in his book Pursuit: the Sinking of the Bismarck. “For most Englishmen the news of Hood’s death was traumatic, as though Buckingham Palace had been laid flat or the Prime Minister assassinated.”


Albert Edward Pryke Briggs was born on March 1 1923 at Redcar, in the North Riding of Yorkshire. He never knew his father, a builder and decorator who died in a fall from a ladder three months before his son’s birth. Ted first saw Hood when he was only 12 and she was anchored off the mouth of the Tees. In his book, Flagship Hood, co-written with the late Alan Coles and published in 1985, he recalled: “I stood on the beach for some considerable time, drinking in the beauty, grace and immaculate strength of her.”


The very next day he went to the local recruiting office and announced that he wanted to join the Royal Navy: “They patted me gently on the head,” he remembered, “and told me to come back when I was 15. So I did just that. I had joined up within a week of my 15th birthday.”



After his training at HMS Ganges, Ipswich, Briggs was surprised and delighted to be assigned to Hood; he joined her on June 29 1939, just before war was declared. “It never once occurred to me that she might be sunk,” he said. “As far as I was concerned, she was invincible. And everybody on board shared this view.”


The fact was, however, that this formidable vessel had one – and, as it turned out, fatal – weakness: her deck armour was not strong enough to withstand the vertical trajectory of a shell fired at extreme range. It was a weakness that the Bismarck was able to exploit.



The British were aware in May 1941 that the German fleet had left Norway, and guessed that it would attempt to use the Denmark Strait between Iceland and Greenland to break through to the Atlantic, where it would attack the convoys carrying supplies and arms from America to Britain.


On the evening of May 23 Bismarck and the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen were sighted in the Strait. Hood, along with Prince of Wales and six destroyers, went to intercept them. There followed several nerve-wracking hours of cat-and-mouse, as Hood and her sister ships tried to locate the Germans. Although dawn at this latitude was at 2am, visibility was poor; there were snow flurries, and radar at this stage of the war was not fully effective beyond 20 miles.



Finally, at 5.35am on May 24, Hood spotted the enemy. She moved to close in, and attacked. Briggs recalled: “We had taken them by surprise, and fired about six salvoes before she replied. And when she did, her gunnery was excellent. The third salvo hit us at the base of the mainmast, causing a fire – some of the ammunition was exploding.


“Then there was a hit just above the compass platform. It didn’t explode but it caused some bodies to fall down. I saw one officer with no hands and no face – I knew every officer on the ship, but I didn’t recognise him. We were closing in to get the range we wanted, and that’s when the final salvo hit. I didn’t hear any explosion – all I saw was a terrific sheet of flame.”


The Bismarck’s fifth salvo hit the Hood’s magazine hoist resulting in a catastrophic explosion that tore the ship in half.


Briggs was sucked down beneath the sea. He later wrote: “I had heard it was nice to drown. I stopped trying to swim upwards. The water was a peaceful cradle – I was ready to meet my God. My blissful acceptance of death ended in a sudden surge beneath me, which shot me to the surface like a decanted cork in a champagne bottle. I turned, and 50 yards away I could see the bows of the Hood vertical in the sea. It was the most frightening aspect of my ordeal, and a vision which was to recur terrifyingly in nightmares for the next 40 years.”


HOOD SINKING WITH HMS PRINCE OF WALES IN FOREGROUND. Painting by J.C. Schmitz-Westerholt aboard Prinz Eugen


“When I came to the surface I was on her port side . . . I turned and swam as best I could in water 4″ thick with oil and managed to get on one of the small rafts she carried, of which there were a large number floating around. When I turned again she had gone and there was a fire on the water where her bows had been. Over on the other side I saw Dundas and Tilburn on similar rafts. There was not another soul to be seen.”


Only these two other men – Midshipman William Dundas and Able-Seaman Bob Tilburn – survived.


“We hand-paddled towards each other and held on to one another’s rafts,” Briggs recalled, “until our hands became too numb to do so.”


The three clung on for nearly four hours, singing Roll Out the Barrel to stay awake; even so, they were close to death from hypothermia when they were picked up by the destroyer Electra. Their rescuers could not believe that there was no sign of anyone else from Hood, alive or dead.



Ted Briggs served 35 years in the navy, reaching the rank of lieutenant. He was appointed MBE in 1973, and until his retirement in 1988 worked as a furnished letting manager for an estate agent at Fareham, in Hampshire.


Both his fellow-survivors from Hood predeceased him: William Dundas in 1965, and Bob Tilburn in 1995.


Briggs, who was president of the HMS Hood Association, said shortly before the 60th anniversary of the sinking: “Hardly a day goes by when I don’t think about it. I once said to an old Navy man that I sometimes wished I could forget about it. He said to me, ‘You are a naval curio, and you will always remain so. You will never be allowed to forget.’” In July 2001 he visited the site of the wreck and released a plaque to commemorate the ship and those who served in her.


Ted Briggs married twice, and his second wife, Clare, survives him. They had no children.


 Sources: Daily Telegraph, October 5, 2008. HMS Hood Association, Ulrich Rudolfsky


J.C. Schmitz’s original sketches made during the battle

Lieutenant Julius Caesar Schmitz was an accomplished marine and railroad artist. He served as a propaganda command officer aboard Prinz Eugen during Operation Rheinübung as “Marinekriegsmaler – navy combat illustrator”. The hypen name – Westerholt was added to his name perhaps by the American or British archivists. He generally signed his name “J. or J.C. Schmitz” on his paintings. He may have been from Westerholt near Wilhelmshaven. The Julius Schmitz water-colour sketches of the sinking of the HMS Hood (with handwritten comments by the PG’s KzS Helmut Brinkmann), are the artist’s superb interpretation of the action. In 1989, there was an estate sale in Germany by the son of Admiral Lütjens and, among medals, uniforms etc, another great painting of J. C. Schmitz surfaced: Bismarck and Prinz Eugen in action against HMS Hood and HMS Prince of Wales … 2large.jpg. The picture was a gift to the Lütjens family by the Office of Naval Operations after the death of the admiral. I don’t know what happened to that picture in the auction; the reproduction is small and a lot of detail is lost. Ulrich Rudofsky


“Anima”, Virginia Peck’s painted Journal III, is published

“Anima”, Virginia Peck’s painted Journal III, is published

This piece was written as a Foreword for “Anima”, the printed edition of the third of Virginia Peck’s handpainted journals, which was published on December 3, 2010.

Reception 17:00 – 19:30 at Gallery 1581, Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis, 1581 Beacon Street, Brookline, MA 02446. Telephone: +1 (617) 277-3915.


Once, in a car boot sale, I found an old novel. Its cover was mostly torn away revealing a title page with a handwritten dedication, slowly dissolving in an English drizzle-mist: a wretched sight to anyone who loves books. All books are valuable. There is always something interesting about them. If not the text it might be an engraving, or the type, or the old advertisements you sometimes find before the endpapers.

I picked up this damp, unloved novel and found to my astonishment that it was one of my own. The blue blurring lines had been written for a friend. Such humbling moments are no doubt good for us, but not too often. I still have that book. I’m looking at it as I write this, and thinking that such a miserable tome could have no kinder fate than to be picked up, not by its author, but by a stranger, a passerby with a rare and restless genius, who would give it new life as a ravishing work of art.

You’ll gather I’m a fan. I admire – no, love – nay, adore – Virginia Peck’s hand-painted Journals, but I don’t believe a word of her story.

Virginia says that one day, finding a discarded copy of Natural Light, a novel by Ethel Gorham, she was seized by the idea that she would take it home and use it as a sketchbook. Virginia had not read the novel, and was not interested in trying to make images out of what was written on the page. Rather she would begin workinging by instinct, almost with eyes closed, waiting for what would come, and when shapes appeared in the paint, in the layers of colour and the brushstrokes, she would work with them, and let them become whatever wanted to emerge.




Her first Journal quickly filled with marvellous images. A blue lady stares out at us with startled eyes. What is she seeing? Driftwood sculptures are heaped together, a ring of them, like dancers, or a wood-henge washed in by the tide. Bacchantes abandon themselves to dance watched by a pair of still Pharoah hounds. A pensive youth, looking a lot like Raphael’s portrait of Agnolo Doni huddles next to an exotic tribal face. What is going on here?




I first saw these pictures as small images, neat rectangles on a web page. Even then they filled me with excitement. Inside were wonderful things, fizzing with life and energy, and so exhilarating to paint that Virginia found herself unable to wait for the pages to dry, and had to start working in a second book.

 Journal II (John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman) seems more reflective, but is no less brilliant. A mad tiger lifts its head and cries defiance, there’s an excellent frog and a zebra caught in a maelstrom of colour. Most of the pages are given to dancing couples and pairs of heads. Two nudes rest against a wall. I could swear that the one on the right is pointing a gun but her hand is empty.





‘Broken bottles and ashes’: an interview with X-8

‘Broken bottles and ashes’: an interview with X-8

The idea for an extended conversation between X-8 and myself first came up in October 2006. It was to be called “Wine and Cigarettes”. Some months went by. He wrote to me: “I figure you’re really busy or have drunk so much wine you can’t type anymore. I should have named this interview ’300 Wines and 40,000 Cigarettes’.”

Good things can’t be hurried, however, and by the time the piece was finally ready, X had renamed it again. Welcome to ‘Broken Bottles and Ashes’.



You know I’ve admired your paintings for years, and am pleased to be having this conversation with you. You came up with the title for this discussion, tell me, why did you call it ‘Wine and Cigarettes’?



Why ‘Wine and Cigarettes’? Well I know we both like to imbibe once in a while and I do appreciate a relaxing cigarette with friends, so I thought that evoked a properly intimate setting. I’d rather have wine and cigarettes than an SUV and cell phone.



I wish I could join you in a ‘clope’ (French slang) but gave up a few months ago, still miss the aroma of fresh tobacco with coffee. As for wine, we live bang in the middle of the Cahors wine region in France. I wish you could have seen it last month. The vines were still dormant, black gnarled stumps, but in between was a carpet of yellow hawkbit.

What is your favorite wine?



Top of my list at the moment is Chateau Bovila, which is local and organically made.



I’ve posted a Chateau Bovila label on GOD. I will try and find a bottle here in LA.


I ought to send you a couple of bottles. Well, let’s suppose that we have smoked our clopes and are well into the Bovila . . . Now there are two things in my mind . . . first, the subjects of your paintings are so dark, they are about pain, loss, disgust, murder, death, yet the paintings themselves are full of light . . . the light in fact comes bursting through them. How do you explain this?



I’m not sure what you mean by ‘light’. The luminosity of the paint? Or the statement of the work?



I mean the luminosity of the paintings.



It may be the result of my painting technique. I like to paint in a dark studio with only a 15 watt bulb. Like a cave. The paint on the canvas must reflect what little light there is to be effective. So you end up with a luminous palette of rich and contrasting colors. I also like to use ‘happy’ and vibrant colors sometimes to counterbalance the subject matter. It makes the work more digestable to the viewer.



Painting in low light, near darkness . . . apparently it’s something Rembrandt also used to do.



I didn’t know that.



Yet these light-filled paintings are so dark, subject matter wise. One of my favourites among your work is this painting. When I first saw it I was bowled over by its beauty.



Indra (contd):

It looked to me like a human figure with bracken fronds growing out of its belly. I thought of the Green Man carvings you find in medieval churches with leaves bursting from their mouths. So here was an image of the common life shared by man and nature, a growing tree-man in an autumnal sort of coloration …Then I read the title, ‘Suicide Bomber’, and it hit me in the gut. I hadn’t been expecting that – Palestine and Baghdad, blood, horror and injustice – suddenly all this pain was in the painting that a second before had seemed so calm and beautiful. I feel that wrench whenever I see this painting and I still look at it in two ways in order to recapture the feeling I first had, then seeing its bitter politics. I wonder, did you intend it to be seen this way?



I wanted the painting to be pretty and violent.



Here’s another painting that at first glance looks full of life, exuberance, dancing figures, reminiscent of Matisse, only at second glance do you see bullet wounds, blood and the title and realise that these figures are not dancing, they’re sprawled in death. Or perhaps they’re both, the painting contains the before and after, the energy of the living as well as their corpses.

X-8: Sniper. Acrylic and enamel marker on canvas. 6 feet by 5 feet. 2004.



The painting is joyful and happy from a distance and full of death and chaos up close. I liked that effect. Instead of dancing people in the park you have a massacre in progress.



Where does all this darkness and violence come from? Tell me about the things that left a mark on you. I know some of this is already on your website, where for example you talk of seeing your father’s body, shot dead in the street. I’m guessing that a lot of this stuff must be painful for you. Yet you talk of this damaging childhood with a kind of nonchalant bravado as if it didn’t matter.



Thank you. It was 35 years ago. Only now have I been able to acknowledge it. I am no longer connected to it emotionally. During my 20’s, there was a game called “Punk Rock Childhood” in which you try and prove that your childhood was the worst. Whoever had the worst was the winner. Others definitely had worse. But it was a way to wear your unfortunate circumstances as a badge of honor. Kind of like a battle scar.



Tell me about your childhood.



I had a dysfunctional family. My father tried to kill my mother when she was pregnant with me and she went to a psychiatric facility of some sort. There are no pictures of my mother and me from that time. I saw pictures of me and various social workers. (I received prison made wallets from my father but I never saw him. Met him a couple of times.) She was released when I was 4 and we became a welfare family. Sometimes she would have medical appointments at these state facilities where the severely deformed lived. I remember a boy whose arms were shaped like corkscrews. It was all very surreal.


We moved every year and soon I was a content loner at home – inventing games to play on my own. We eventually settled in the city of Whittier – which is Richard Nixon’s home town.


She gave me some .38 caliber bullets one year and said they were meant for her. I was 9.



What did she mean by the .38 bullets?



From what I have pieced together, my father apparently tried to shoot her when she pregnant. I guess it was my mother’s way of showing that my father was a very bad man – he robbed banks and tried to kill her as well.


At the time I thought of the bullets as toys or trinkets. I used to play with them and stare at them and wonder what they were filled with. I liked the sleek silver cases and copper tips. They were pretty and shiny. I used to spin them on the ground over and over. I eventually used .38 caliber bullets for art and embedded them in wet tar in a piece I did in 1986. It hung at Al’s Bar, the local artist’s bar. until all the bullets were taken as souvenirs by patrons.

X-8: Slaughterhouse, 6 feet by 5 feet, 2005



Your mother had a bad time, you grew up with her. Did you feel protective of her?



We slept in a small bedroom throughout my childhood. She cried in the middle of the night. I felt sad and wondered what was wrong with her. Again, I thought all this was the norm – you’re naïve and innocent and you don’t know and you don’t ask.


She tried to be a good mom. I look back and have to give her credit. She did make an effort to bring me up ‘right’, even though it was extremely strict. I wasn’t allowed to have anyone visit. A lock was put on the phone so I couldn’t make calls. I would be locked out of the house if I went out for the evening and then would have to sleep in the park. I wasn’t allowed to shave.


I just thought it was the norm.



The strictness of it seems quite extreme. For example why weren’t you allowed to shave, or don’t you know?



It was simply suffocating. And as I grew up I realized how bizarre the whole thing was and I became resentful of her.


I look back and realize she didn’t want me to grow up. To her shaving meant I was becoming a man. She wanted me to remain a child forever. She detested me becoming independent and hanging with others besides her. She didn’t want to know or meet those who were my contacts to the outside world.


Toward the end when I lived with her, she tried to commit me to a mental institution because I began hanging with other people besides herself.


The doctor talked with me and told me not to worry. He prescribed her more pills. She was pissed. We didn’t speak to each other for a year.






When did you become aware that your childhood wasn’t the norm?



I think when I was forced to pull a discarded Christmas Tree from a trash dumpster on Christmas morning so we could have a tree. I was seven.


People with smiling faces used to deliver fruit baskets and boxes of food during holidays. I thought everyone got free food. But I found out no one did. Only the really poor.


I left home at 17 and never looked back. My father was eventually shot to death in front of his house.



You do extraordinary things like put a picture on your website of your father covered by a blanket in the street. How did you feel about your father?



I met him a couple of times. He promised me a bowling ball when I was 10 but it never arrived. I never forgave him for that and I lost trust in people.


When I was 15 I met him on Father’s Day and he said I didn’t look like his son.


He worked in a factory and glued the soles on shoes for a living. He was also an alcoholic. He asked to be dropped off at the liquor store after our Father’s Day breakfast. I never saw him again until I saw his dead body on the news.


I was an unwanted child. My mother told me that. So I clearly was a burden to him. Why they didn’t have an abortion I’ll never know.



I think you say on your website that you were brought up by your grandparents.



My grandfather and grandmother were the center of the family. We met during weekends. They lived in a barrio, which is a poor neighborhood where latins lived. It still had dirt streets.


My aunts and uncles partied and drank liquor while we played in the backyard playing and stealing cucumbers from my grandma’s garden. I ate like 10 cucumbers one time and got sick. To this day I can not stand cucumbers.


My cousins and I would drink the leftover cocktails. We would play with matches and start fires. We burned down the neighbor’s wooden shack one time and the fire department figured out it was us and found the matches.



Sounds like fun.



Then religion overtook the extended family. They all became born again Christians. Anyone who didn’t embrace Christianity would face eternal fire in hell. I thought they had all become mental.

X-8 Crucifixion, 6 feet by 5 feet. 2003



What sort of Christianity were they reborn into?



We were Catholic. When I was 5 I was taken to church in a new suit. I hated the suit and it was a Latin Mass, so I didn’t understand anything the guy up front in the white robe was saying. I threw a tantrum and I never had to go to church or wear the suit again.


My family was all into gangs and crime. Many of my uncles and cousins were in and out of jail. I guess one day they all decided it was best to become ‘born again Christians’ as a way to change their life.


They still all are part of the same Christian Fellowship but I avoided them because they were so aggressive about converting others.



How aggressive?



I was chased out of the parking lot of a relative’s wedding when I was 17 with a friend of the family yelling at me telling me I was going to Hell if I didn’t accept Christ as King of The World. Very psycho.



What were your feelings about religion? You’d had a very rough deal.



I question those who try and control people. I’ve read that religion has killed more people than all natural disasters and fatal diseases combined. I think it’s good for some people if you are weak and need a crutch to help you along. I understand for some people it’s a tradition. But I don’t think killing each other over an invisible entity is really healthy. I don’t think the values and rules they set up in the name of ‘morality’ are useful. For example I think suppressing the natural sexual drive only creates sexual deviants. Just look at all the priests who become child molesters.I was taught that sex was bad and I became a very promiscuous person.

X-8: Falling Through The Snow. Acrylic on canvas. 6 feet by 5 feet. 2005.



Your early life sounds like unrelieved horror. Were there any good moments?



I excelled in school. It was an escape from my dreary homelife. To be involved in other creative things showed me there were other things in life. I knew that if I learned I could escape the cycle of poverty and despair.



What were your favorite subjects?



I liked everything. My cousins used to tease me because I got A’s and they got C’s and D’s. I liked music. I played the trumpet.


I hung out at the local library and pored over all the non-fiction books and foreign magazines. Der Speigel was a favorite. German magazines always had naked ladies in the back pages. It was a whole different world. An exciting world. I decided I wanted to be a journalist and write for a cool magazine. I took journalism classes and soon became an editor at my high school paper.



Did you have friends among the other pupils?



I had a little boy’s bowl haircut in 3rd grade and the girls used to chase me at recess screaming “Beatle! Beatle!” The Beatles were just happening at the time. They used to pin me down in the schoolyard and kiss me and then run away. I hid in the boy’s bathroom during recess after that. They used to stand by the door screaming “Beatle! Beatle!” I obviously had no clue about sex.


I got taught about sex by boys at school. They had dirty magazines. I couldn’t understand how a penis could fit into such a bizarre looking thing. The vagina fascinated me. It was like a strange creature.



How did you get started painting?



At 15, I got a skin disorder called vitiligo. It was a blessing in disguise. I withdrew from ‘normal’ society. I began to draw. I created pictures of devils, nazis, monsters and suicides.

X-8: Suicide Siva, 6 feet by 5 feet, 2001


I did take a design class in college one year and the teacher really liked my drawings. He pulled me aside one day and said I didn’t need school to be an artist – just go for it. He liked the splatters and drips that I left on the bottom of the drawings. He was an inspiration. Even to this day.


So I listened to him, quit college and moved to downtown Los Angeles after that and eventually lived in an large artist loft. It was 5000 square feet for $600 a month. I lived with two others. We had to put the toilet and sinks in ourselves. It was raw space. It was so big we used to ride a Vespa in it.



Where and how did you train?



I am self-taught and I support self taught music and art. Schools naturally teach technical ability. I like it when it’s crude. That’s why I liked punk. Anyone could do it. You didn’t need schooled talent. Academics were shunned. I feel the same way about art. I don’t like mainstream stuff.


Moving to downtown Los Angeles I did abstracts for awhile. In 1993 I began creating large figuratives and began to dig up the rotten stuff inside me and release it on giant canvases.



You view your art as a catharsis.



I think it’s healthy to create when you are angry or depressed. That way you don’t become a serial killer. There’s a certain magic to catharsis.


I see my paintings as enlightening. I am killing my internal devils through catharsis. All the paintings are essentially self-portraits. That’s the essence of exorcistic art. It’s a healthy process. I use simple imagery and universal symbols in my work so it’s no surprise that devils and angels play a prominent role.


I love creating alone. That’s obviously traceable to my childhood. I like the feeling of releasing secret emotions and feelings, and to do that, you create in a dark environment alone. It’s pure and peaceful.

X-8: Inside the Skull. Acrylic, latex, oilstick, urine and cigarette burns on canvas. 6 feet by 5 feet. 2002



You use a lot of unusual media – mud, blood, urine, if memory serves. Why? How do they make the painting better for you? A technical thing? A visceral connection with work? Transference of life force?



Living in Downtown Los Angeles, I started with mud because it was natural and primitive. I mixed the mud with urine because I felt that it combined elements of both man and nature. It was also anti-academic. It was a great way to separate yourself from the college taught brainwashed artists in the neighborhood.


Mud had a wonderful texture too.


The blood and hair paintings had a more urban overtone. Blood and hair samples are major evidence in homicide cases. It was no surprise that images of serial killers soon followed.



I have been following discussions on an alchemy forum with some interest (albeit little understanding) they talk of a “spiritus mundi” which alchemists through the years have tried to capture in various ways… starting with piss, shit, organic materials etc. Without this magic life force, their “work” is inert. I find the same sort of thing in writing . . .



We are all DNA and stardust.

X-8: Speeding Under A Black Sun (Octopus). Acrylic on canvas. 6 feet by 4 feet. 2003.



We’ve already touched briefly on them being infused with light. Of course how one views a 6 x 6 foot canvas in reality must differ from how it’s seen via the web.



People are usually amazed at the size of the paintings. Viewing them on a website doesn’t give the whole effect. It’s a much more bold emotion when you see the carnage up close and life-size.


In regards to presentation, X-8 is a pseudonym that comes from my favorite letter and number and it remains a pen name. It is somewhat a brand name. Tony Curtis once remarked he would have been more well known if he had named himself ‘Cosmo 5000’ or something. Pseudonyms are common in the music world, so I don’t see a problem.


I often use the music industry as an analogy for how I approach the art world: The paintings are songs. The individual series are the albums. Using this analogy, art galleries are the record labels and clubs rolled into one. When you don’t like the labels and clubs, you start your own thing.



Like you did with your music and your involvement with the LA punk scene?



When I was about 16 punk began and it was all about disaffected youth from bad homes, abusive families and everything. And revolting against it. For some it was fad but I totally related and embraced the anti-social aspect of the music and the scene. It was freedom from one’s shitty childhood and you hung out with others who experienced the same hardships. There were no rules. And it was fun.


Coma. Acrylic, urine and colored gel on canvas. 6 feet by 5 feet.2005.



Do you have music on when you paint?



Yes. Most of the time.



What kind?



I sometimes wear headphones with classical music or German industrial music playing full blast as I paint at 3 o’clock in the morning. I love the sun rising as the work dries, like a silent remnant of a nightmare or evidence of a dark horrible adventure.



I am really interested in how painters use paint, as a physical substance to work with, whether with brushes, knives, whatever, the physical side of painting –



I love the texture of paint. I love the smell of it. You name it- oil, latex and acrylic. I love large pieces because they seem so powerful.



When looking at paintings on the internet, I miss the experience of seeing them close up. Brushstrokes and textures and nuances disappear. Nothing will ever beat standing near the picture of course, almost smelling the paint. In the website image of ‘Suicide Bomber’ one can’t really see the texture of the paint, but I’m imagining it laid on quite thick, maybe allowed to crack, and perhaps scraped off again.



That one is more textural than the others. I liked the matte opaque paint I was using and laid it on thick.


X-8, Suicide Bomber, 6 feet by 4 feet, 2005



Suicide Bomber detail



Suicide Bomber detail 2



Painting is a very physical activity and must be tiring, if you’re hours in front of a canvas. How do you work?



I use sleep deprivation and psychotropics.



Do you have a routine?



I work on several large canvases at a time. All in various stages. Some are in a ‘ferment’ stage and are photographed after a couple of months.



How many hours will you put into each painting, each stage?



It depends on the work. Some take a year, some are done in 24 hours. “Reincarnation” was done in 24 hours.



How do you begin?



Staring at a blank canvas loaded.



Do you sketch first, or go straight in and let the theme emerge?



It’s mostly stream-of-consciouness. I sometimes draw but I find it undesirable.



Where do the ideas come from? I was pleased that a passage in The Death of Mr. Love gave you one idea).

X-8: Drunk Or Dying, 5 feet by 6 feet. 2007



I don’t know. I’ve always liked the macabre so I tend to start there.



What is it that I can feel in these paintings? I don’t believe it is rage. It’s too intense to be cynicism. I know you said you were detached from the pain of your childhood, but there is something vulnerable about these pictures.

Derangement (Lost in Rivers), 6 feet by 5 feet, 2004



I try and mix sorrow with anger for balance. I think that gives them a balance.



I’d like to send you a copy of Animal’s People. The narrative from that crippled boy’s mouth is perhaps an analogy to your outpourings on canvas. Animal does feel rage, although not all the time, occasionally he allows himself to feel gentler emotions but despises himself for it. He is not telling his story in order to change the world although I, his surrogate author, am on record as naively saying that I would like to help shape the future. Do you have any such concerns?



My interests are all subversive. (laughs)



Is it ridiculous to ask how you would like people to react or respond to the paintings?



I don’t think about it.



Finally, I’d like to ask you to talk about two more of your paintings. This figure reminds me of Nijinsky as the faun in L’Apres Midi D’un Faune – in the costume by Bakst.

Addiction and Perversion, acrylic and latex on canvas. 6 feet by 5 feet. 2001



I see your comparison. “Addiction And Perversion” is a self-portrait of my possible future. The skin disorder vertiligo slowly spreads all over the body with time. If I’m going to be a spotted man, I might as well go down in flames with drugs and sex, hence the title. It will make a great movie.


“End Of The World” pre-dated 9-12 but had symbols of it in it – an aircraft disaster, a dark messiah and his followers, the abuse and torture of women and a crescent moon in a mountainous desert. It was supposed to be a vision of hell.


At this point in the conversation the phone rang with news that Animal’s People had been long-listed for the 2007 Booker Prize.



Congratulations on your Booker nomination. I’m having an incandescent experience with this interview. Given this pace, I think we’ll be done in 2013.

More work, information about the artist and information about
acquiring paintings at X-8′s website


Stone age tribe tells the world, f*** off

Stone age tribe tells the world, f*** off


I  wrote this article for the September 2010 edition of Himal magazine. For the original illustrations by Venantius Pinto, please see  Venantius.

Subraj, my friend calls him, but the newspapers name him Sunder Raj. They say he was a fisherman, but my friend, who spent time drinking toddy and smoking ganja cheroots with him, says Subraj wasn’t quite familiar with boats. He made his living scamming bits of semi-precious sea life that other people stole from the ocean: nautilus shells, corals, bêche-de-mer and turbo shells inlaid with swirls of mother-of-pearl. Subraj’s lack of seafaring experience, said my friend, was due to his having spent years in prison for
andaman-nautilusbattering to death his first wife and her lover (ironic, given the Andamans’ long history as a penal colony, that he’d done his time on the mainland). Upon returning to the islands he had married again. He was a charming, jolly man with a huge muttonchop moustache. Everyone liked him. It came as quite a shock to hear that he had been eaten by the North Sentinelese.

Tales of fierce cannibal islanders have drifted for millennia on the currents of the Indian Ocean. The west first heard them from the Venetian Marco Polo. Locked in a Genoese jail, he entertained his cellmate Rustichello da  Pisa with yarns of a far off islands whose people had protruding muzzles and jaws and teeth like mastiffs. ‘They are terribly cruel,’ Polo told the wide-eyed Pisan, ‘and dine on every foreigner they can catch.’ His information likely came from sailors’ legends retold in Rialto taverns, but Rustichiello’s account of Polo’s travels, ‘Il Millione’, was a fourteenth-century besteller. Its success ensured that the slur on the character of the Andamanese has survived to our own day.

marco polo in prison

Marco Polo in prison with rat, from a recent exhibition in Korcula,Croatia


When the British arrived in the Andamans in 1858 they were greeted by showers of arrows fired by small black-skinned people with tight peppercorn curls who closely resembled African pygmies. How had they got there? One theory was that an Arab slave ship from the Congo must have run aground. But colonial officials were meeting ‘negrito’ peoples in the forests of Thailand, Malaya, the East Indies and New Guinea. We now know that these peoples are as genetically distant from Africa as it is possible to be, because they were among the first to leave it. Starting some 70,000 years ago, bands of dimunitive people might have been glimpsed from time to time on beaches around the northern rim of the Indian Ocean. They carried water in nautilus shells and hunted with bows and long arrows they had not yet learned to fletch, and spears tipped with flint or hardened in fire harvested from lightning strikes. Year by year these folk ventured further, staying near the coasts, entering the forests of India and Burma and, as ice-ages dropped the ocean, moving along the forest-covered mountain range that joined Burma to Indonesia. The returning ocean submerged the mountains leaving groups of people marooned on a necklace of islands, among them the Andamans. By the time the British arrived in 1858, the Andamanese had lived perhaps 60,000 years in almost complete isolation.


Jarawa tribe on the shore of Great Andaman Island.

Jarawa tribe on the shore of Great Andaman Island.


In my library, rubbing covers with such useful things as A Comparitive Vocabulary of the Gondi Dialects and Colonel Kesri Singh’s Hints on Tiger-Shooting, is an 1887 first edition of A manual of the Andamanese Languages by Maurice Vidal Portman, a British ICS officer who for twenty years was charged with civilizing the Andamanese. It was ‘work of extraordinary difficulty,’ said his obituary, ‘for most of them were as shy as wild animals – he would frequently have to land on their beaches, standing up in an open boat, amid a shower of poisoned arrows. He won them by sheer personal magnetism. He doctored them; they were very rapidly dying out from venereal disease. He judged them and, if necessary, he hanged them.’


Surviving photos of Portman show a tall, aristocratic Englishman hemmed about by small dark folk. An adventurer in the Burton mould, secret agent, Grand Hierophant of his own mystical order, Portman claimed fluency in a dozen Indian languages and knowledge of at least four Andamanese dialects. His Manual contained every phrase an English official might need in his dealings with the natives.


Portman with men from South and Central Andamans tribes.


– Give me a nautilus shell to drink from. (Tín kórlá éné pai lébé – A’ka Bojigiab)
– That woman is wearing his skull. (Kát ápail lá ót chetta ngããrók-ké – A’ka Bea)
– Pick these ticks off me. (Kélétom chíbá ngó tut boichal kau jérlup –A’ka Chariar)
–A centipede has bitten him. (Koróbító num píó – A’ka Kédé)

Of the hostile Onge speech he gives few examples A’ku gaibí, ‘Don’t shoot them,’ being one. Of Jarawa and Sentinelese nothing. No point, he wrote, making an Andamanese-to-English version of the Manual, because before any of the aborigines could learn English they would be extinct. And so it has proved. The Great Andamanese tribes are all but gone. The last of the Bo, Boa Sr., died in 2010. Eighty five years old, she knew enough Hindi to confide that she was lonely because no one was left to share her people’s songs and stories. The Onge are much reduced. Threatened by a new trunk road, the Jarawa have recently begun emerging from their forests. Of the original twelve tribes, only the Sentineli remain aloof, uncontacted and remote.

On Google Earth, North Sentinel Island is a blob of emerald jungle lost in blue ocean thirty miles west of the southern tip of Great Andaman. The first report of the island comes from the East India Company ship Diligent which in 1771 passed close to the island and sighted ‘a multitude of lights’ burning on shore. In 1867 a merchant ship, the Nineveh, was driven by a monsoon storm onto the reef off North Sentinel. Eighty-six passengers and twenty crew got safely shore in the ship’s boat but their thanksgiving were ended when arrows began falling around them. ‘The savages were perfectly naked, with short hair and red painted noses,’ the Nineveh’s captain reported. ‘They were opening their mouths and making sounds like pa on ough; their arrows appeared to be tipped with iron.’ The besieged passengers and crew fought off the attack with stones and were eventually rescued by the Royal Navy.

Portman, in his capacity as ‘father of the Andamanese’ was fascinated. As the Sentineli had no knowledge of metal he assumed the iron for their arrows had been scavenged off the beach. On other islands the Jarawas used iron tipped arrows to hunt pig. The captain spoke of short hair and red noses, but Portman and many others had observed that the Sentineli wore their hair long. Like the Onge they used yellow ochre, but did not possess a red pigment.

Jarawa tribe. Photo: Survival International

Jarawa tribe. Photo: Survival International


In 1880 Portman began a series of expeditions to North Sentinel. Over twenty years, the results were invariably the same. The islanders vanished into the jungle. Portman and his team found leaf shelters, cooking pots and implements similar to those used by the Onge. He reported that the people scooped water holes in the dry season, that they wore the lower jawbones of men ornamented with a fringe of twisted fibres. He brought back trophies: two-, three- and four-pronged fishing arrows with barbed bone tips. On one occasion he found a number of children and two adults, whom he took to Port Blair. Other Andamanese could not understand their speech.The adults sickened and soon died. Portman returned the children to the island laden with gifts. His visits ceased near the turn of the century and the island and its people returned to obscurity.

In the 1970s some Indian anthropologists began attempting to contact the Sentineli. A film crew visiting in 1974 to shoot a piece called Man In Search of Man fled when arrows whistled down around them. The director was hit in the thigh, throwing the successful marksman into fits of laughter. To add to the farce, police wearing cricket pads left gifts of a pig and a plastic doll which the Sentineli promptly speared and buried in the sand.

At midnight on August 2, 1981, the motor-vessel Primrose ran aground on on North Sentinel. It was too rough to lower the lifeboats and as the ship was in no danger the captain decided to keep his crew on board. Two days later the Primrose’s owners in Hong Kong received a frantic distress call. ‘Wild men, estimate more than 50, carrying various home-made weapons are making two or three wooden boats. Worrying they will board us at sunset. All crew members’ lives not guaranteed.’ A Sikorsky helicopter eventually rescued the crew. Keen Google Earthers can spot the rusting hulk still lying on the island’s north-west reef.

The Primrose photographed on the reef from the rescue helicopter

The Primrose photographed on the reef from the rescue helicopter





The Primrose as she is today



Recent pictures shot from Indian boats show handsome, healthy people with perfect smiles. When we look into their faces we are looking back, through unimaginable deeps of time, at ourselves. We still know nothing about the Sentineli, but once among the Onge Portman met a man said to have canoed from North Sentinel. From him he learned the island’s real name. On Chiö-tá-kwö-kwé, endlessly circled by sea, sand and stories, nothing changes. Life continues day to day, tending fires from past lightning strikes, hunting wild pig, gathering fruits, tubers, fish, crabs, honey, grubs and the eggs of turtles and seagulls. On Chiö-tá-kwö-kwé time moves in loops, the future flows ever back into the past and death has little meaning when over 40,000 years every great-great-grandsire and great-great-great-granddam will return in the genes to live again and again.

In the deep time inhabited by the islanders, even gigantic natural disasters seem insignificant. In May 1883 Portman recorded odd phenomena on Great Andaman island. Mountain streams stopped flowing, the sea was strange. The Krakatoa tsunami was about to hit. Somehow the tribes already knew.


The tsunami of December 26, 2004 hit North Sentinel Island with two waves about ten meters high. The earthquake hoisted the island ten feet in the air, exposing wide stretches of reef. On Great Andaman Boa Sr. was alerted by warning signs, the behaviour of birds and the sea. She climbed a tree and survived. Fearing the worst for the Sentineli, an Indian coast guard helicopter was despatched to the island and was met with a hail of arrows. The news was greeted with cheering and celebration in Port Blair.

Subraj's boat at Wandoor

Subraj’s new boat at Wandoor


Subraj lived in Wandoor near the Mahatma Gandhi Marine National Park, a stretch of coast hit hard by the tsunami, which wrecked his house and boat. My friend returned to the Andamans not long afterwards to find Subraj building a new house, paid for by the government. He and all the other fishermen had large new motorboats.
‘Come,’ he said. ‘I’ll show you. We’ll go to Cinque.’ Cinque Island is strictly off-limits, but Subraj was not averse to slipping over now and again to poach a spotted-deer. My friend was not keen, so Subraj offered to take him and his companion to see manta rays. ‘We were doubtful,’ said my friend. ‘He didn’t seem to know much about the timings of the sea, or about the mantas. Near certain reefs every day the current is black with them. You snorkel looking into depths full of great lazy-winged monsters. But Subraj hadn’t got the right reefs.’

My friend was travelling elsewhere in the Andamans when news came that someone from Wandoor had been battered to death on North Sentinel and was presumed eaten by the Sentineli. ‘Stone Age Tribe Kills Fishermen,’ yelled front pages all over the world. Various reports, quoting fishermen, told a tale of surprised innocence. Subraj, or Sunder Raj (his proper name) and his friend Pandit Tiwari, were fishing for mud crab, or else lobster, or maybe prawn. After the day’s work the pair got drunk on toddy and fell asleep. During the night their stone anchor dragged loose and despite the best efforts of men in other boats to waken and warn them, they drifted towards the fatal shore. There are obvious flaws in this. How did their boat drift five kilometers, the island’s exclusion limit? Why didn’t another boat simply take them in tow?

Sentineli warriors overrun Subraj's boat

Sentineli warriors examine Subraj’s boat


On his return to Wandoor my friend learned the truth, banal as only truth can be. Subraj had heard over the grapevine that a large plastic container, worth perhaps ten thousand rupees, was bobbing about just inside the reef on the north-east coast of North Sentinel. He hatched a plan to retrieve it and recruited Tiwari, someone he’d once shared a cell with in Port Blair jail (according to the police the pair were always in and out for various minor misdemeanours). They drank a great deal of toddy – for courage, it might be supposed – and set off at night, arriving off North Sentinel at dawn. The uplifted and rapidly bleaching reef was some 200 meters wide, but there was a little inlet beyond which the container was bobbing between the coral and the beach. News reports would claim they had been shot with poison arrows, or else axed to death, or maybe hacked to pieces by machetes. No one really knew, said my friend, because it was two days before Subraj’s wife reported him missing and by then, although the boat was on the beach being inspected by the Sentinelese, the bodies were gone, presumed eaten. Thus the centuries old slur launched by one pair of convicts in a Genoa jail found renewed expression in the deaths of another pair.

Then a helicopter hovering over the boat saw the downdraft from its rotors blow sand off two bodies which, like the 1974 pig and plastic doll, had been buried in the beach. Subraj’s wife pressed for compensation and a murder enquiry, raising some interesting questions. No one witnessed the killings, besides, how do you prosecute a tribe? Can Indian law apply to a territory which has never been conquered nor ever ceded its sovereignty? Tiwari’s parents took an enlightened view. Their son knew what he was doing. He knew the dangers and had decided to take the risk. The Sentineli were not to blame. They should be left alone. The authorities agreed. ‘In fact,’ said my friend, concluding his narrative, ‘given how the rest of us are trashing the planet, leaving the Sentineli alone may represent the best hope for the survival of humanity. They have a right to protect themselves against us bringers of disease, alcohol and greed.  It is we who are the savages.’

A love story in 6,000 moths

A love story in 6,000 moths

Twenty five years ago, I bought a stunning sixty-drawer collection of British moths to prevent it being broken up. I knew nothing about the collection and had no time to examine it. I felt very strongly that selling it off one specimen at a time was an act of vandalism that would extinguish its scientific value, and render the deaths of 6,000 lovely creatures meaningless.



The collection contained long exquisite series of insects, few of which I recognised. I did not have leisure to catalogue them and it must have been some months before I reached down to the foot of one of the cabinets and pulled open a drawer empty except for a scattering of old labels naming the moths that had once inhabited it, and a note that said: “Joint Exhibit by E.W. Classey & H. S. Robinson”.


A sticker pasted on its glass lid bore the initials S. L. E. & N. H. S. and identified the drawer as Exhibit 60 and the date as 1950. None of this meant anything to me. I slid the drawer shut.


My fascination with moths had begun as a child in the jungles of India’s Western Ghats mountains. To my bedroom window every night giant Saturniid moths came tapping: the moon-moth Actias selene whose pale wings and long swooping tails were luminous in moonlight; huge moths like Loepa katinka and Antheraea mylitta with wings like patterned silk robes. I would let them in and tempt them with sugary drops on the tip of my finger.


In the early eighties my wife and I moved to Sussex and through our open summer windows the moths flew in squadrons. Sitting on curtains, or fluttering at bulbs, they seemed drab, but when we looked closely their forewings were all spangles and zigzags and stripes. What appeared grey or brown was really a pattern of subtle hues, and the hidden hind wings were often brilliantly coloured. Our visitors stared back at us with solemn, dark eyes. They wore their wings like furred capes, hunched round the shoulders; their feathery antennae quivered with intelligence. The collector’s passion burned in me but I didn’t want to kill moths, so I started hunting for a Robinson mercury vapour light trap and a suitable camera, and whilst on this quest I came across the collection.


My bedtime reading of those days was books like P. B. M. Allan’s A Moth-Hunter’s Gossip, about the men who night after night went out sugaring, setting light traps, carefully hatching eggs and sleeving larvae.

I combed second-hand bookshops for old entomology journals, today horrifyingly expensive, but twenty years ago nobody seemed to want them. I found them riveting. They offered good timeless advice about breeding and rearing, and accurate descriptions of the moths of the vanished pre-industrial landscape. In The Naturalist’s Library, Vol.4: British Moths, 1836, Sir William Jardine spoke of the Blue Underwing:

C. Fraxini is the largest moth found in this country the expansion of the wings sometimes reaching four inches The thorax and upper wings are light grey on the surface the latter variegated with transverse undulating lines of brown The under wings are brownish black with a broad curved band of light blue across the middle The fringe of all the wings is pure white deeply indented and preceded by a row of dusky triangular marks having the point turned outwards which is most distinct in the hinder wings The under side of the body and legs are white the tarsi of the anterior pair spotted with brown above The caterpillar lives on the ash poplar oak elm birch &c. It is ash coloured, more or less yellowish and sprinkled with minute black dots. The head is greenish with two frontal black crescents the eighth segment having a dorsal protuberance, a bluish black colour and marked with a few yellow spots. On the ninth segment there is an oblique black line extending to the hinder stigmata, the latter are all surrounded with a black ring It spins a very loose cocoon among a few leaves and changes into a reddish brown chrysalis powdered with pale blue and having two small blue tubercles on each side of the fourth and fifth segments It is a rare insect in this country and indigenous specimens in good condition may still be regarded as a valuable addition to a cabinet.

The Clifden Nonpareil remains one of Britain’s rarest moths. Most entomologists consider themselves blessed to encounter one in a lifetime. My collection had four. This should have told me something about the person who had filled its drawers, but it didn’t.

As I pored over the entomology journals I would often come across a name that seemed familiar, although I couldn’t say why. It now seems strange that it took so long before I connected the name in the journals with the empty drawer in my collection of moths.

At last I reopened the drawer. A bit of delving in my moth library revealed that S. L. E. & N. H. S. must be the South London Entomological & Natural History Society which later became the British Entomological Society. Its annual meeting of 1950 had been held, as was customary, at the Royal Society in Piccadilly. The name of E.W. Classey had rung bells with me because he had published some of the entomological books I was reading. Robinson, incredibly, was still obscure. Something was staring me in the face and I still didn’t get it.


I began reading about Eric Classey. He was born in 1916 and from childhood was unable to resist anything that crawled or fluttered. At school he was ‘Bugs’. Aged 18, he was hired by the Natural History Museum. He went on to run a famous butterfly dealership, founded the Entomologist’s Gazette and without any publishing experience became a world-class publisher of books on entomology. The more I read about him, the more I was impressed.

Eric Classey had known all the great entomologists of his day, and introduced them to the people who would be their successors. He was a generous mentor to young lepidopterists, lending them equipment and books, giving away expensive volumes to people who couldn’t afford them but who in his opinion deserved them. He was an entomologist’s entomologist. His field expeditions were legendary and the most famous of all was his trip to Ireland to search for the moth that became known as the Burren Green. In an old copy of the Entomologist’s Gazette I read Classey’s own account of the expedition.

In August 1949 Captain W.S. Wright, a botanist, found a small green moth not far from Yeat’s tower near Gort in Co. Galway. It was a species unfamiliar to him so he brought it to Eric Classey for identification. Classey recognised the moth as Luceria virens (today Calamia tridens), a noctuid, unremarkable except for the Gaelic green of its wings when newly-hatched. There was, however, a mystery: the patriotic little creature was draped in the wrong flag. L. virens had never before been recorded in the British Isles. Its nearest known colonies were in France and Denmark, hundreds of miles away.

Classey had a hunch that the moth was breeding in Ireland. Just ten miles from Gort were the surreal limestone landscapes of the Burren of Clare. Botanists had noted that the influence of the Gulf Stream on the riven rock masses created a unique microclimate where alpine plants and Mediterranean plants grew side by side. It was altogether a strange and unexplored place. Could green moths be breeding in the Burren?


In August 1950, Classey and his friends the brothers H.S. and P.B. Robinson piled their gear, including two exceedingly heavy prototypes of Robinson’s newly-invented mercury-light moth trap, into an old modified Bentley and headed for the Dublin ferry.

The weather when they arrived at the Burren was filthy, gales and rain, with fresh tumult brewing out beyond the Aran Islands. Nevertheless the friends set about their business, each night setting the light traps, by day entertaining the locals who turned out en masse to watch ‘the foine gentlemen chasin floies’. Several L. virens were taken the wing, but it was the discovery of a pupa (and thirty eggs which Classey sent to his collector friend Dr Edward Cockayne) that established that the green moth was indeed breeding in Ireland. Classey named it the Burren Green. Its addition to the British list was a triumph.

Classey went on to become President of the British Entomological and Amateur Entomologists’ Societies, and a Fellow of the Royal Entomological Society. In 1983 he was elected to the Entomological Club, the world’s oldest and most exclusive entomological society, which only ever has eight members. Honours were heaped upon him, but it was the Burren Green for which he would be remembered for the rest of his life, and sixty-eight years later in his obituaries.


Reading the story of the Burren Green filled me with fear, because at last the penny had dropped. Classey and Robinson were the names in the collection I had bought all those years earlier. I was fairly sure that labels in the empty drawer referred to specimens taken in County Clare. I checked and they were caught in August 1950. It could only have been during the famous Burren Green expedition.

On what date had the S. L. E. & N. H. S. exhibition been held? I unearched the Society’s Proceedings for 1951-3 and there, sure enough, was an account of the 1950 exhibition. The date was October 28th, two months after Classey and the Robinsons returned from the Burren.

What followed was like the unfolding of a detective story. I started examining the collection’s 411 species of moths and checking the specimens against the labels in the empty drawer and immediately began to find moths from the empty exhibit drawer.
There was the long series of A. exclamationis taken in Robinson’s moth trap to prove its value as a collecting tool.
There was the Gold Spot with fused spots on its forewing.

There was Catocala sponsa, the series of Crimson Underwings now extinct but for a few survivors in the New Forest. Classey had bred them from a wild female taken near his home in north Kent and noted their difference from the New Forest type.

In a drawer of wildly varying Scarlet Tigers I struggled to identify Callimorpha dominula ab. juncta’s bled-together wing marks but found a series of the handsome yellow form above a hand-written label ab. lutescens. I was puzzled as I thought lutescens was the yellow form of the Jersey Tiger, not realising in my ignorance that it is commonly used for yellow variants. Identification was made more difficult by the fact that many scientific and common names had changed since Classey’s day. Callimorpha for example is now Panaxia. The moth has many beautiful forms, hence the old name.

The description of the exhibit in the Society’s Proceedings matches the labels in the empty drawer, with the species listed from left to right and, in the final section, from top to bottom. The varying width of the partitions reflects the sizes of the moths they housed. Thus two columns of Agrotis exclamationis and one of Hadena lepida were followed by one of the larger Catocala sponsa. The next two partitions have no labels but if we follow the description in the Proceedings the Burren Greens must have come next, fresh from Co. Clare, followed by the bred series of Diarsia florida. These two species were additions to the British list in 1950, and deserved centre stage.


Where was the Burren Green?

Surely Classey would have saved at least one choice specimen for his own collection. I searched again and at last, in the nineteenth drawer of the central cabinet with a few old Wainscots for company I found a small faded moth in whose forewings a faint flush of green was still visible. Beneath it a label read Luceria virens L. AN ADDITION TO THE BRITISH LIST. The moth’s data label confirmed it had been taken in the Burren, Co. Clare, on 18th August, 1950. I had found Classey’s Burren Green.


In the cabinets I eventually found twelve of the exhibit’s sixteen species and probably about three quarters of the specimens.

I knew that Eric Classey have given most of his immense collection to the Natural History Museum where, with the collections of his friends Miriam Rothschild and Edward Cockayne, it forms the core of the British national collection of butterflies and moths.

What then were my three cabinets? Undoubtedly they were Classey’s. He had bred or caught many of the moths in the drawers, set them and mounted them, row on row, with the meticulous care for which he was noted. We can virtually trace each specimen from places and dates in the entomological records.

On September 10th, 1950, Eric Classey and four other members of the S. L. E. & N. H. S. went beating for larvae near Ash Vale in Surrey. (This means hitting branches with sticks to shake caterpillars into a sheet, the idea being to rear them to the moth stage.) Of the first twenty-six species listed in Classey’s report of that day’s work, twenty-four appear in the cabinets, mostly in adjacent drawers.

The cabinets I found and rescued all those years ago must have been Eric Classey’s working collection, housing his ongoing work of the period as well as things precious to him: the Burren Green he chose from among those taken on the August 1950 trip to Clare; the exhibit drawer from the October 1950 exhibition and most of the moths that had been in it.


Classey must have taken dozens of drawers like this to exhibitions, and if he chose to preserve just this one, perhaps it was to remember one of the most famous exhibits in British entomological history, celebrating as it did three major firsts: the two additions to the British list, and the long series of moths proving the power of Robinson’s new light trap, which duly caused huge excitement. More than twenty years later, in 1974, the Times recalled its launch:

H.S. Robinson momentarily blinded a room full of entomologists from a chair no less august than that of the president of the Royal Society when he publicly demonstrated the hyper-attractive powers of the mercury vapour light trap, sometimes reckoned the collector’s H-bomb.

The exhibit is the collection in miniature. It demonstrates Classey’s interests: not simply amassing specimens in great numbers, but making new scientific discoveries, encouraging better methods of collecting, and specialising in rarities, things out of the ordinary.

Classey was himself a rarity, a passionate eccentric figure, to whom moth-hunting was not just science but adventure, round whom stories collected and became legends. Behind the facade of a world-renowned scientist beat the heart of a boy. Well into his eighties Classey, driving along a country lane, was apt to do an emergency stop and frantically reverse because he had glimpsed something fluttering in a hedge.

For Eric Classey’s friends, family and fellow moth-enthusiasts, these drawers hold not just moths but stories and memories. Recently I had the pleasure of meeting Holly Seddon, Eric’s granddaughter, who came to see the collection. Talking to her, I realised that what I have presented as a detective story is really a love story: the story of Eric Classey’s lifelong love of things that flutter and go whirr in the night.

Bringing the famous Classey-Robinson exhibit back to life

Bringing the famous Classey-Robinson exhibit back to life

It’s October 28, 1950. Through the august portal of Burlington House, Piccadilly, home of the Royal Society, a crowd of people, mostly men, is passing.

These are the nation’s leading entomologists, experts in the Diptera (two-winged flies),Hymenoptera (wasps, bees and ants),Homoptera (cicadas, spittlebugs), Odonata(damsels and dragonflies), Phasmatodae (stick insects), Hemiptera (bugs) and a host of others. In the spotlight today are theNeuroptera (lacewings and antlions) and the Orthoptera (locusts), but probably in greatest abundance are the connoisseurs of the Coloeoptera (beetles) and especially the Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths). Examples of all these orders and families will be on show inside the building.


The Exhibition described in the Society’s Proceedings of  1950-53

The occasion is the Annual Exhibition of the South London Entomological and Natural History Society. Last night, according to custom, the Society dined together in the Charing Cross Hotel, where out-of-towners will have put up for the night. One can imagine the late bar crowded with people discussing this or that aberration, and everyone is agog to see the green moths that E.W. Classey and H.S. Robinson have brought back from County Clare on the west coast of Ireland.

Exhibit 60, entered jointly by E.W. Classey and H.S. Robinson, was the highlight of the show. In a single specimen drawer were both the year’s new additions to the British list: Luceria virens, the Burren Green, the specimens taken by Eric Classey’s expedition; and Diarsia florida the Fenland Square-Spot, a bred series of the moth which had been identified for the first time that July in Yorkshire’s Askham Bog.

1950 firsts: Luceria virens and Diarsia florida, both new additions to the British List.
These are the actual specimens.

Also much talked about were the exhibit’s long series of the Heart and Dart, Agronista exclamationis and Brown-line Bright Eyes Hadena lepida, taken in a single night and there to illustrate the vast attractive power of Hugh Robinson’s new mercury vapour moth trap, which had been tested on the Burren expedition and the previous month to great excitement. The drawer thus showcased three major firsts for British entomology.

Agronista exclamationis with 1950 labels



Download a PDF facsimile of the entire book, complete with illustrations.


 The empty drawer as it was in 2011, 60 years later


Why is the drawer empty? One explanation is that Eric Classey, with characteristic generosity, had donated most of the expedition’s Burren Green specimens, including the pupa, to the Society. Other specimens had gone to friends and fellow collectors. However this doesn’t explain why every single specimen has vanished.

What if after the exhibition Classey simply returned the moths to their usual drawers in the collection? If this is what happened, the moths, or most of them, should still be there and it would be possible to reconstruct the exhibit using moths from the collection. I decided to try. Below, step by step, are the results.


This reconstruction is done photographically. The widths of the partitions reflect the sizes of the moths that were placed in them. This becomes important when considering the two central sections, which have no labels and helps confirm that these were once occupied, as suggested by the order given in the Society Proceedings by the Burren Greens and the Fenland Square-Spot, the two sensational discoveries of that year.



3. Agronista exclamations, the Heart-and-Dart

The first two series in the drawer were cexclamationis-reconstruction-200aught to demonstrate the value of H.S. Robinson’s new mercury vapour light trap. Their shared label says: ‘Each series [was] selected from a single night’s “catch” at a Mercury Vapour trap to show the wide variation occuring in one place and at one time – which is apparent when it is possible to select from very large numbers.’

The basic problem with moth-hunting had always been that the quarry flies at night, when nets are not much use. Some enthusiasts swore by ‘sugar’, smearing tree trunks and wooden doors with exotic mixtures based on molasses and possibly including rum, rotting fruit, raisins, beer and ingredients too vile to mention. C. fraxini was typically taken this way.

Moths throng to lamps, so another method was to place a Tilley lamp on a white sheet and wait for the moths to come and settle. Robinson’s mercury-vapour moth trap was a huge advance because its light went into the ultra violet range, attracting more insects, which then found themselves trapped inside a box, or casing, generally lined with egg boxes where they could settle. The large numbers caught unharmed in the trap could then be examined and collected or released.


 4. Hadena lepida, the Tawny Shears (or Brown-Line Bright Eye)

tawny_shearsSee A. exclamationis, above. Classey knew this species by its lovely old name, the Tawny Shears.

Like the Heart and Dart, this moth is fairly plentiful and displays quite a range of variation in the ground colour and intensity of wing markings, with paler specimens being commoner in the south-east and darker or duller ones in the north and west of the country.

What better species to demonstrate the power of the mercury-light trap? With hundreds of candidates fluttering into the trap it is much easier to pick specimens to illustrate a wide range of variation.

5. Catocala sponsa, the Dark Crimson Underwing

c.sponsa-300This beautiful moth is now extinct in the British Isles, except for a colony in the New Forest, where they are still grimly clinging on.

The situation sixty years ago was evidently not quite as desperate because Classey was able to rear, from eggs taken from a wild female near Ham Street, north Kent, a series of C. sponsawhich he pointedly remarks are different from the New Forest form.

However the event was unusual enough to justify including a series of fine moths in his exhibit.
This form of the Dark Crimson Underwing, represented in the exhibit and abundant in the collection, has now vanished.


6. Luceria virens,  the Burren Green, a new addition to the British List


burrengreen-600-300x282The empty exhibit drawer is nineteen down in the third (right hand) cabinet. I found Classey’s Burren Green specimen parked next-door in drawer nineteen of the central cabinet with some Wainscots in whose society it did not really belong.

The collection as a whole was organised in families reflecting the British list, to which of course Luceria virens was a newcomer, so when the exhibit was emptied it had no home to go to, and was simply placed in the nearest drawer.

Classey had originally exhibited a number of Burren Green specimens and the pupa which proved they were breeding in Ireland. These went to the Society, to expedition members and collector friends. The specimen that remains is the one that Classey chose to keep for himself.

The specimen is rather faded, but one can still see the faint green flush in its wings. The moth is known to fade. Dr Skat Hoffmeyer of Aarhus, Denmark, quoted by the great P.B.M. Allan, said, “L. virens is not a species which adorns one’s collection; it soon becomes greasy and fades deplorably.”

A collector whose name I can’t now remember recommended taking only newly-hatched moths while their wings were still drying as they are then at their most brilliant. More than a little mean, I thought. Let them at least flutter about a bit. Thank goodness we now have cameras with macro lenses.

7. Diarsia florida, the Fenland Square-Spot, a new addition to the British List

diarsia_floridaThe other great discovery of 1950 and like L. virens, a new addition to the British list. The consequence of this was that there was no ready printed label for this species and the handwritten label that eventually identified it was so faint that I nearly missed it in the drawer full of its cousins.

The series was bred from stock obtained from Askham Bog in Yorkshire by Classey’s friend the collector Dr Edward Cockayne, whose vast collection is now part of the Natural History Museum’s British National Collection of moths and butterflies.

Cockayne also showed these moths at the exhibition. Their inclusion in Classey’s exhibit one may surmise is partly homage to his friend, but it meant that he was exhibiting the year’s two sensational discoveries, side by side.

Classey’s decision to include D. florida in his exhibit may have been a late one, as this is the only species for which he did not type out a label. Possibly it appeared above the small handwritten scrap of paper which remains in the collection, stapled beneath the three remaining D. florida specimens.

Gerry Hagget, on Eric Classey’s tribute website made by his family, recalls Eric in pursuit of D. florida:

There are occasions in life when a catch-phrase is invented only to recur at future occasions. Eric went with Les Goodson to Askham Bog when Diarsia florida was first known. They had set up lamps with the Warden and it was not long before a quite different species appeared worthy of comment. “Oh no”, said the Warden “it can’t be that because it doesn’t occur here!” This it was thereafter whenever a location produced an unusual resident there was the repeated chorus along with knowing chuckles and Eric in the lead.


Hadena compta Schiff, the Varied Coronet


These are the moths mentioned in the Proceedings as having been bred from wild larvae obtained in Dover. They are identified by the long typewritten label.

The type is more modern than the robust old fashioned Underwood font of Classey’s typewriter and the label was conceivably typed by Dr. Edward Cockayne who appears to have sent the moths to Classey along with D. florida as a response to Classey’s gift to him of 30 eggs of the Burren Green, Luceria virens.

A series of H. compta bred from the Dover larvae appeared in Dr Cockayne’s exhibit and included one aberration defasciata Hannemann and an example of homeosis. Cockayne exhibited the moths to show their variation. Classey followed his own bred series with a wild specimen caught in Ireland, which appears slightly larger than the Kentish race.

9. Plusia festucae, the Gold Spot

These moths live in drawer 12 of the third cabinet along with a long series of the Burnished Brass and other insects whose wing spots look as if they have been laid on in pure gold leaf. Classey exhibited a pair of these moths, one of the normal type, the other with ‘united’ wingspots. 
L. exigua is an immigrant, crossing the Channel from the continent, and most abundant in the late summer, suggesting that the summer moths are the second brood of immigrants arriving earlier in the year. 1950 was not one of the its most abundant years.  The signficance of this little moth appears to be the date of its capture, February, in the depths of winter. It could not have survived long in the wild.

 11. Callimorpha dominula ab. junta, aberrant form of the Scarlet Tiger

The collection contains a whole drawer full of Callimorpha dominula which, as its scientific name suggests, appears in many different forms, all of them very beautiful.

In the drawer are many varying forms, including dark bimacula and the brilliant yellow ab.lutescens.


As the following article tells, I got into a muddle trying to find a specimen that could be described as ab. juncta, which I took to mean the colour bleeding from wing spots into the wing and connecting the spots. This should properly apply to the forewing, but the specimen I chose has striking spread of black in the hindwing. It’s not one of these.

These three show the normal (but for the Scarlet Tiger what is normal?) form, the dark bimacula and the magnificent yellowab. lutescens forms.


Classey’s moth had been hatched by Edward Cockayne from a larva from Itchen Abbas in Hampshire earlier in the year.

A lot of the insects in the drawer are from the collector H. Haynes, a Wiltshire man, whose death the Society recorded with regret in 1951. The Entomologist’s Record for 1943 reveals that he had bred a series of Panaxia(the old name for Callimorpha dominula, L.) from the Salisbury district showing specimens with enlarged and confluent markings in the forewings.

12. Hydraecia lucens, the Large Ear

Large-Ears-200Besides L. virens Classey exhibited a number of moths the expedition had taken in Co. Clare in August 1950. This fine pair of Large Ears, taken on August 19th, were among them. There is a column of four Large Ears in drawer 2:17 of the collection. The 1950 specimens are the central two. The two English specimens show distinctly darker coloration.

13. Cycnia mendica ab., the Muslin Ermine, aberrant form


MuslinErmine-200Classey caught this little white moth during a collecting trip to Lymington in June 1950. He refers to it simply as ‘an aberration’. There are twenty specimens in the collection, of which two females have odd dark markings on the leading edge of their forewing tips. Normal females have pure white wing-tips with no markings.

I have chosen the more exaggerated of the two variants to represent Classey’s C. mendica, ab.. This specimen also has broad dark markings splashed on the body where normal specimens have none.

14. Heliothis armigera, the Scarce Bordered Straw

Another moth taken by Clacurlywormsssey’s expedition in Co. Clare in August 1950. It is known by at least a dozen synonyms, and is nowadays generally called Helicoverpa armigera, being less politely referred to as The Cotton Bollworm.

Please notice that it has wonderfully curly antennae, the sort Dali would have envied, flamboyant as any desperado should be.

Armigera is a pest of just about every crop known to man. According to UK government risk assessors at DEFRA, ‘The most important crop hosts of which H. armigera is a major pest are tomato, cotton, pigeon pea, chickpea, sorghum and cowpea. Other hosts include dianthus, rosa, pelargonium, chrysanthemum, groundnut, okra, peas, field beans, soybeans, lucerne, Phaseolus spp., other Leguminosae, tobacco, potatoes, maize, flax, a number of fruits (Prunus, Citrus), forest trees and a range of vegetable crops.’ Is there anything it won’t eat? Its caterpillars have even been known to eat one another.

The moth’s home territory is southern Europe and North Africa. It can make thousand mile journeys to reach the south coast of Britain but rarely gets beyond. Possibly this gives a clue to its inclusion here. County Clare is 350 miles further on. Fair play to the little divill.

15. Hydrillula pallustris, the Marsh Moth

Eric Classey took H. pallustris in June 1950 at Woodwalton Fen. Why was it included? Well, the moth is scarce.

For most the capture of a single male in a season was considered ‘good going’ as pallustris is a moth of retiring habits and is very erratic in its appearance at the light. The female has been found in the wild state only on two or three occasions – Proceedings of the S. L. E. & N. H. S.

Classey’s specimen came from Woodwalton Fen, which the Society was actively trying to save from development. Three months after the 1950 exhibition, the Society’s President, Air Marshal Sir Robert Saundby, addressed the assembled membership. Five years after the end of the Second World War, Saundby was a famous figure. He had been a  World War I air ace, and during World War II he was No. 2 at RAF Bomber Command.  No one really thought of him as  a lepidopterist, but now he dropped a bomb on them:

When looking through the list of subscribers to the Wicken Fen Fund I was rather surprised to note that, apart from the two guineas subscribed by the Society as a corporate body, only twenty of our members had supported the Fund.
saundby_portrait-300Now I am quite well aware that there are a number of people who do not agree with the way in which these nature reserves are managed, but I think we should all agree that they ought to be kept in being. If Wicken or Woodwalton Fens were given up, they would, in a very few years, be lost to us for ever. They would undoubtedly be drained and brought under cultivation, in common with all the other former fen lands of the East Anglian levels.

Looking after these reserves costs money and it is not sufficient just to prevent the Fen from going derelict. Last year the Wicken Fen Fund raised a sum, after paying expenses, of £57 8s, which was handed to the National Trust. The amount raised by the Fund has been gradually falling, year by year, while the expenses of keeping the Fen going have, like most other things, risen sharply.

The annual cost of the upkeep of the Fen is now about £800 a year. It is true that, in 1948, the University of Cambridge, in order to save the Fen, accepted financial responsibility for £450 a year. But this does not mean that the financial problems of the upkeep of the Fen have been solved. In their rejjort for 1947-48 the Local Committee said:—” The Committee hopes that this grant, far from having the effect of discouraging subscribers will greatly increase their number, and hopes that subscribers will feel that, whereas in the past their contributions may have seemed little more than a drop in the bucket, the money they can give now will result in really tangible improvement of conditions in the Fen.”

These hopes have not been fulfilled. I am not suggesting that large subscriptions are needed, but if a substantial proportion of our members would be prepared to subscribe a few shillings a year, what a difference it would make. Here, I suggest, is a cause which should appeal to every naturalist, whatever his interests.

16. Mincuia lunaris Schiff, Lunar Double-Stripe, suffused wings


lunarisClassey bred these moths from wild larvae taken near Ham Street in north Kent. He describes them as ‘a suffused aberration’. Six of these bred moths are in the collection, in drawer 3:13, giving a choice of specimens for the reconstruction. I chose the bottom two as being easiest to Photoshop, but the top two are more colourful and they are shown here.

This is as far as I could get with reconstructing the exhibit with moths still in the collection.

Photoshop is a wonderful imago-processing tool. It breeds moths faster than you can blink, cutting out the egg, larvaL and pupal stages. Where there was a column of three, we now have twenty one. We can clone L. virens indefinitely. In short, it is easy to finish by filling the gaps and showing what the exhibit would have looked like on October 28th, 1950.


17. The exhibit as it appeared in October 1950

Only three exhibit species are no longer in the collection but I have put in pictures sourced elsewhere to complete the drawer. The three are the White-Lined SphinxCelerio lineata, a Brighton Wainscot, Oria musculosa and three specimens of the Deep Brown Dart Aporophyla lutulenta ab. sedi bred from pupae which Classey had found in Ireland. To this moth attaches the following interesting tale:





A indicates species that remain in the collection. Cabinet and drawer numbers are given, thus 2:4 is cabinet 2, drawer 4. A ø marks moths no longer in the collection.

√ Heart and DartAgrotis exclamationis (long series in 2:4)

√ Brown-line Bright EyeHadena lepida – not mentioned by the Society – 6 specimens in 2:11

√ Dark Crimson UnderwingCatocala sponsa (extinct except possibly in the New Forest, 17 specimens not of New Forest type in 3:14)

√ Fen Square-Spot Diarsia florida – series bred from Askham Bog, Yorks, 1950 (in Proceedings but no label in drawer – Classey had sent his friend Edward Cockayne 30 eggs of the Burren Green from Ireland, and Cockayne responded with a series of H. compta (next entry) and this Diarsia florida series. Like the Burren Green, D. floridawas a new addition to the British list that year. 3 specimens in 2:7 )

√ Varied CoronetHadena compta – Hatched from larva by Cockayne, the second series he sent Classey. (8 specimens plus 1 wild caught by Classey in Ireland in 2:11)

ø White-lined Sphinx Celerio lineata – (not in collection)

√ Small Mottled WillowLaphygma exigua – √ (11 specimens in 3:2)

√ The Gold Spot – Plusia festucae (19 specimens in 3:12)

√ ? Scarlet TigerPanaxia dominula ab. juncta – (conjoined spots, possible candidates in 1:18)

ø Deep Brown DartAporophyla lutulenta ab. sedi (not in collection)

√ Large EarHydraecia lucens – Taken during the Burren expedition August 1950 √ (4 specimens in 2:17)

√ Muslin MothCycnia mendica Ab. – Taken in Lymington, June 1950 (20 specimens in 1:15)

ø Brighton WainscotOria musculosa – 1 also taken at Lymington (not in collection)

√ Scarce Bordered StrawHeliothis armigera – taken Co. Clare, August 1950 √ (9 specimens in 3:11)
√ Marsh MothHydrillula palustris – taken in Woodwalton Fen, June 1950 (1 specimen in 3:2)

√ Lunar Double-StripeMinucia lunaris Ab. (suffused) – bred from wild larva, Ham Street, 1950 (6 specimens in 3:13)

A stroll through ‘A Walk Through H’

A stroll through ‘A Walk Through H’


 We are moving through a large room in a museum, past a desk at which sits a curator engrossed in a book. She does not look up as we pass through a doorway into an airy exhibition of drawings. Our calm reverie is ended by a voice, clipped and irritable, which informs us that, “Tulse Luper arranged all these drawings in order for me one Monday afternoon when he heard that I was ill.”





Thus begins a tour of the drawings. Some the narrator has been given, others acquired in various ways, including stealing them. At first, naively, we see them as artworks, but it’s soon clear that for the narrator they have a great value that has nothing to do with art. To him they are maps. If he can thread their mazes and find his way through the empty spaces between them, he will at length come to H.




What H is, is not explained. The narrator himself will not know until he gets there, and by then, he accepts, it will not matter. His long walk begins at Hestergard, a place impossible to return to, once you have left it. The road, marked in red, like a blood orange, or real blood (type A), a sinister analogue to yellow brick, leads from one drawing to another, through towns with names like Canter Lupis, Hesgadin, Manephia. As artworks they are exquisite (and this film surely began as an attempt to explore their details), but although the narrator always has some anecdote, some trivia to relate about each one, he entirely misses their beauty.




The world of art and art galleries is soon left behind as we pass along lines and through channels and lanes into the drawings themselves, lost with the narrator in a strange world of competitive ornithology. Now and again our attention is distracted by the flutter of birds’ wings. The narrator is aided by the mysterious Tulse Luper (a legend among Greenaway devotees) and thwarted by Van Hoyten, a man who looked after the owls at Amsterdam Zoo and who now lives in Assidium in a room full of feathers, going out on nights of the full moon to count birds.




Tulse Luper warns the narrator that an audit of European birds should not be undertaken by someone with an ulterior motive. The narrator obligingly thrice lights damp wood fires in the hope that the smoke will obscure the moon and prevent the count. But it is Van Hoyten who prevails, by beating the narrator to an important map in the bazaar of Assidium, preventing him from taking up the post of Keeper of Owls at the Amsterdam Zoo, which Van Hoyten had given up, but which he now selfishly reclaims.




Gradually, with Michael Nyman’s score heightening the tension, the narrator has to admit that he is lost. For a long time, we wander with him through the alleys and labyrinths of a single drawing, from which there seems to be no escape, but then we are in marshes, large reed-fringed meres in which birds plunge and play.




I will leave it to you to discover this glorious film and find out how it ends. It is often called “surreal”, but I find no surrealism in it, just as I find none in Jorge Luis Borges, whose spirit, armed with maps, ciphers, labyrinths and mystical alephs, hovers over these deep waters. This is the landscape of the mind and we are on an alchemical journey.

Noi andavam per lo solingo piano
com’om che torna a la perduta strada,
che ‘nfino ad essa li pare ire in vano.
Across the desolate plain we made our way
like someone looking for his proper road
who till it’s found again must aimless stray
Purgatorio, I. 128-20
In time the narrator’s voice, with its unending stream of complaints, small failures and pretty resentments, seems to fade, becomes like an inner voice to which we cease to listen and we are once again lost in the reverie which he, the narrator had interrupted. For this was always our journey, and it is we who are lost, looking for H, whatever H may be.


Peter Greenaway, talking about this film, said, “I’ve always been fascinated by maps and cartography. A map tells you where you’ve been, where you are, and where you’re going – in a sense it’s three tenses in one. It’s also an amazing ideogram of information that is very useful and, perhaps most pertinently, also not at all useful. My father had recently died, and the subtitle of the film was ‘The Reincarnation of an Ornithologist’ – my father was one. Through his life he had amassed an extraordinary amount of information about bird study, and I was very aware that with his death – as indeed with any death – a vast amount of very personalized information had gone missing, was totally irrecoverable. The film is on the journey a soul takes at the moment of death, to whatever other place it ends up – H being either Heaven or Hell. I devised 92 maps to help this particular character get there. The whole film was divided into five sections that represented movement from a very urban landscape to a wilderness landscape, and there were references and cross-references to all sorts of systems.”

This vanished website

This vanished website

It was taken abruptly off-air a couple of years ago when the server it was on was compromised. I’ve finally found the copy that was made before it vanished, but instead of being a WordPress xml file the copy runs on a virtual machine. I now have to work out how to get the data off the virtual machine and back on the web, but there will be some content here soon.