Conservation Manager, Stuart Benn, reflects on the links between science and art and drawing inspiration from nature.

Culture Vulture

Back in February, I spent a week with friends in a beautifully converted old farmhouse at Buseu, high in the Spanish Pyrenees.  By day, Woodlarks sang right at the door but after sunset all was still, lit only by stars of such brilliance that I’d only ever seen their like before in the deserts of Morocco and central Australia.  So tempting to remain indoors by the roaring log fire with the convivial company always ready to refill my glass with the local vino tinto, yet, despite the piercing night cold, I had to keep stealing out for just one more look at that stellar show. 


 In fact, I was so loathe to miss any of the display that I took to sleeping on a couch upstairs below a huge picture window so the stars were the last thing I saw before I turned in.  Well, not quite, for at the other end of the room sat a carved wooden head of a Lammergeier, its form and detail discernible even in the faint starlit glimmer.  Simple yet compelling, its red-ringed yellow eye fixed on you, drew you in, demanded attention.  It fascinated me and I would gaze on it until tiredness and sleep finally won. 

I’d been captivated by that stare before. 

New York’s Museum of Modern Art houses an impressive collection of late 19th Century French work and the van Goghs, Renoirs and Monets draw plenty of admirers.  But one painting makes people pause and look and come back and come back again – The Sleeping Gypsy by Henri Rousseau, simple yet compelling and, again, it’s that piercing lion’s eye that does it.

Photo: via

Famously, Rousseau never left France and drew inspiration for his fantastical exotic paintings from the exhibits of plants and stuffed animals that he saw in Paris.  But nature forms such a central and dominant theme of his art that I can only imagine that he felt a deep connection with those animals and birds, and used them, in turn, as a device to connect us with his paintings.

 I always find it surprising that science and the arts are seen as somehow different.  Yet our appreciation of the natural and physical worlds, art and music often does come down to the same emotional equation - that certain indefinable quality that attracts you, makes you think, makes you view things differently and all to be had by simply looking at the stars, a spider’s web, a robin or into a lion’s eye.