Investigating Nature Diaries and Journals, Saturday 16th July

Posted on 19th July 2016


When we were planning this project Kate thought it would be a great idea to get some inspiration from nature diarists of the past…she was so right. Off we set on a minibus to the Great North Museum in Newcastle to look at examples of botanical drawings and field sketches from the archives of the Natural History Society of Northumbria. June Holmes, the amazing archivist, had selected a fantastic range of examples for us to investigate all day.


We got to see really first rate scientific botanical illustration by Margaret Dickinson and Sarah Dickson and who both set out to accurately paint the UK flora in the mid to late Nineteenth Century, right through to small vignettes of countryside scenes by Thomas Bewick…and there was a slightly awkward moment when I asked June-the-archivist if it really was a drawing of an Eighteenth Century man having a pee up the side of a shed until June laughed and said Thomas Bewick was known for his sense of humour.


Some of his original extraordinarily fine woodblocks (made from boxwood) were there to be seen and it was a delight to see the actual block and then the print it made, although I noted the man having a wee hadn’t been made into a woodcut.



And then all the things in-between. Bird nesting habits as observed by James Alder (The Dipper Diaries), interspersed with notes on his personal life.

One of the tiny notebooks (I forgot to note who wrote it) had quick annotated scenes sketched in pencil (I particularly remember the fish drying in the air by a cabin) that when we leafed through turned out to be from a holiday in Norway…well if you didn’t have a camera and the ability to Facebook how else would you record your holiday?


That turned out to be an interesting point; children in the 1970’s were better able to draw what they saw than children of the same age today (yes children’s classwork was in the archive too), but I wondered if that was partly due to how easy it is now to take a photograph – cue discussion on the importance of looking and noticing being more important than the method of recording.


Some diaries had pieces of pressed plant, the odd small photo and even, in one case, newspaper cuttings.


And then there was a book of hand-coloured butterfly wings – only half a butterfly to save time colouring presumably, and a book of molluscs, and even a squid (we would have been richer if it had been poorly – about sick squid richer).

Having been totally inspired by drawings, sketches, notes, pressings, and paintings we then literally walked round the corner in the museum to see the winners of this year’s North East Wildlife Photography Competition…which we discussed before dispersing to wander round the rest of the museum.

And then back in the bus home, tired, but bubbling with inspiration.

There is more information about the Natural History Society of Northumbria Archives here and yes they are available for all to visit and study – just contact June Holmes.