“Returning to the Philosopher’s Table” is a project to bring together artists, scientists and thinkers to collaborate on work for an exhibition at the Literary and Philosophical Society in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. There will be a series of events, talks and lectures as part of the Festival of the North East in June. The project is the brainchild of artist Dawn Felicia Knox with the support of Irene Brown, Degree Programme Director of the Master of Fine Art at Newcastle University. Irene also curated the Gallery of Wonder at the Great North Museum where I showed work a couple of years ago.
The Newcastle Lit and Phil is an amazing place – established during the 18th century as a meeting place for thinkers and intellectuals it has a long and fertile history as a museum, library and lecture hall. Although the collections of artefacts and objects accumulated by early members are now housed in other museums, it still holds an amazing library of books and plays host to a loyal group of distinguished readers, writers, debaters and chess players.
So far the selected artists have been given access behind the scenes of the Lit and Phil and to the stores of the Great North Museum where some of the original objects are kept. As with most museums the bulk of collections are rarely if ever seen by the public and often the real treasures languish in crates and on shelves in underground vaults.
Amongst racks of fossils, bones, bird’s eggs, insects and stuffed birds, reptiles and mammals is the only existing British specimen of the extinct Great Auk.
The group has been meeting weekly to discuss the significance of objects with a view to developing work which brings back the flavour of the original collection of objects and antiquities which formed the heart of the early Lit and Phil. I am planning two new pieces called “Manifold Works” and “Glorious Works” which will be installed in the James Knott Room. The idea was suggested when I came across a brief reference to a small collection of moths and butterflies in the old museum at the Lit and Phil.
When member George Allan bought up Marmaduke Tunstall’s collection in 1790 it included a small selection of lepidoptera, forty-four species of butterfly and twenty five species of moth. He originally formed his own museum of natural history and curiosities before the collection eventually came into the possession of the Literary and Philosophical Society in 1823.
Tunstall had been a highly respected naturalist and collector and his “Ornithologica Britannica” was the first publication to use Linnaeus’s new binominal nomenclature to name and classify species. The same revolutionary system was used to record the insects in his collection. Of the moths, fifteen received their new latinised names whilst a further ten were listed as “Other Species”.
The named are:
Sphinx stellatarum (Hummingbird Hawkmoth)
Sphinx statices (The Forester)
Sphinx (Zygaeninae) filipendulae (Six-spot Burnet)
Phalaena pavonia (Emperor Moth)
Phalaena pronuba (Large Yellow Underwing)
Phalaena potaturia (The Drinker)
Phalaena quercus (Oak Eggar)
Phalaena vinula (Puss Moth)
Phalaena trepida (Great Prominent)
Phalaena salicis (White Satin Moth)
Phalaena jacobaeae (The Cinnabar)
Phalaena caja (Garden Tiger)
Phalaena grossulariata (The Magpie)
Phalaena sponsa (Dark Crimson Underwing)
Phalaena gama (Silver Y)
It has not been possible to trace the collection in the Great North Museum stores, the specimens have either become mixed up with others or have crumbled to dust. However my plan is to resurrect the ghosts. “Manifold Works” will release paper cutouts of the fifteen named moths across the void of the James Knott Room, whilst “Glorious Works” will consist of tiny paintings of an imagined collection chosen by dint of their poetic and evocative vernacular names – the Delicate, the Anomalous, the Confused, the Uncertain, the Non-conformist, the Exile, the Suspected, the Vestal, the Alchymist and the Passenger. Each painting is based on a diagrammatic representation of moth wing structure.
“Glorious Works – The Passenger” 5 x 5cm ashes on burnt and rusted tinplate
I have been looking into the derivations of the latinised names of moths in an excellent, if difficult book called “The Scientific Names of the British Lepidoptera – Their History and Meaning” by A. Maitland Emmet. Carl Linnaeus initially categorised and named all manner of animals, plants and insects using a system of two latin names, a system subsequently adopted by all natural scientists. I have discovered that each name has a story to tell.
Much of Linnaeus’s personal collection and correspondence is still in existence and I have been exploring his insects and moths on-line at the Linnaean Society website. Here I found his specimen of Disgonia algira, The Passenger, which has survived for 200 years in the drawers at the society’s headquarters’ at Burlington House, Piccadilly.
“Dysgonia” probably refers to the zig-zagged angle line across the moth’s forewing but “algira” has been more difficult to unravel. The name hints at a place of origin, Algeria in North Africa (the moth is a rare immigrant in Britain (and Sweden), preferring the warmer climes of Southern Europe and Africa and only turning up on a handful of occasions when blown north on a hot sirocco wind). Trawling through Linnaeus’s correspondence (linnaeus.c18.net), I came across letters from an ex-student, Fredrick Logie (1739-1785), who had studied under him at Uppsala University.
Fredrik and his brother Alexander were brought up in Algiers, the Algerian capital and a major port where Alexander served as an ‘army officer’. The military position he held is unclear but it is known that during the 17th and 18th centuries Algiers was a notorious base for Barbary pirates who terrorised shipping and coastal communities throughout the Mediterranean and Atlantic seaboard, plundering and taking hostages and slaves from as far north as Iceland. There are records of Europeans serving amongst their ranks – perhaps Alexander was one such ‘white pirate’.
It is clear from the letters that both brothers pursued a keen interest in natural history and that the moths and butterflies that they caught, killed and classified were sent back to Linnaeus in Sweden. Unwilling passengers on a Barbary slave galley.
May – Moth Flight
Cutting the books for “Manifold Works” I have been thinking about why and how moths fly.
Moth flight is often manic, confused and uncertain. Many find this disturbing, especially when the moth is trapped in an enclosed space such as a nighttime kitchen or bathroom. Standing next to a light trap on a warm summer night can be an unnerving experience as kamikaze dive-bombers come tearing out of the darkness, flapping crazily around your head, stunning themselves on the incandescent bulb.
They are guided partially by sight and sound but their feathered antennae (which distinguish them from butterflies), are their predominate sense. The complex arrangement of hairs which make up the antennae are structured in such a way as to pick up the scent of food or of a mate, and they also act as flight stabilisers, enabling the moth to detect small movements and changes in direction.
If one antenna is damaged or removed the moth whirs in a demented circle, with both removed the creature is sent spinning into the depths of deepest madness. It has also been demonstrated that moths can adapt to weightlessness. Gypsy Moths released onto the International Space Station experienced great difficulty navigating in this unfamiliar environment but moths which were hatched and reared onboard the station found their equilibrium, comfortably floating and tumbling through space.
Moths have been in the news this week as researchers at Strathclyde University revealed that the Greater Wax Moth, or Honeycomb Moth (Galleria mellonella), has the best hearing of any creature on Earth. This small brown micro moth can detect sound frequencies as high as 300 kHz which is way above anything that the human ear can pick up. It can also sense sound waves as low as 20Hz, giving it the widest known range of any animal.
It is thought that the moth’s hearing ability may have evolved to help it avoid its main predator, the bat. Further study of moth ears may have major implications for the development of smaller and better quality microphones and speakers in devices such as mobile phones and hearing aids and a better understanding of their echo-location sense to detect objects and measure distance may lead to further improvements in other human communication fields.
The Gallery of Wonder
A selection of work by the participating artists is now showing at the Gallery of Wonder at the Great North Museum:Hancock. The display case is on the first floor, just behind the mummy case. I have submitted “Crow Crimes”.
Photo: Dawn Felicia Knox
Crow Crimes – 2013 fire-baked clay mounted in burnt and rusted tins with coal and haematite.
Glorious and Manifold Works is now installed – Returning to the Philosopher’s Table is open for business.
Many thanks to poet Stevie Ronnie for allowing me to post his poem written in response to ‘Returning to the Philosopher’s Table”.
The library speaks in hushed feet –
according to his story
pronouncements are possible shelving,
images to be braided to rope
or shapes cut from the floor.
My utterings are all these things
so everything here shushes.
Between fiction and oversized
nature pins herself across my back
for breath’s rare instant (rare breath).
I climb the spiral stairs to the gallery.
Today I missed her three times.
Feet hush in the sleep library.
History to his according /
shelving is possible pronouncements,
rope to braid me to images
(flawed, cut from shapes or
things). These are butterings.
Shush. Here everything is so
oversized and fictional. Between
my back and her, she pins nature’s
breath, rare, instant breath.
Stairs spiral – the climb
gallery – shift the two
by three. Did she miss me today?