Maria Merian’s Butterflies, The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, London SW1, until 9th October 2016
This is an exquisite gem of an exhibition that delights the eye and informs the mind. The German-born Maria Sibylla Merian (1647–1717) was both an artist and entomologist whose enquiring mind took her and her youngest daughter on the challenging two month voyage across the Atlantic to Suriname, a Dutch colony in South America in 1699. No mean feat at the age of fifty-two, especially as she had had to raise the funds to cover the cost herself. Already known for her 1679 tome on butterflies and moths, her purpose was to study its insects in their natural habitat.
She and her daughter resided in the hot and humid climate of Paramaribo, the Colony’s capital, and went into the surrounding forests to garner specimens. These they watched transform into butterflies, accurately recording the process in detailed drawings, which also include their host plants. She also studied the lizards, snakes and crocodiles she came across too.
Illness forced her to return to Amsterdam in 1701, bringing specimens back with her. Over the next four years she worked to bring her findings to publication with Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium being published in 1705 to great and deserved acclaim. The vellum plates on display – a mixture of printing and hand-painting – were luxury versions of the plates in Metamorphosis and were acquired by George III for his library.