Thursday, 7 July 2011

Dem bones...

The other day I mentioned to someone that, when we were children, my older sister had a pickled bat in her bedroom.  Now I know that sounds totally wacky out of context but, for my teenage sibling who excelled at Biology, the obvious thing to do with a dead (but otherwise perfect) pipistrelle that had been found in the garden was to preserve it in formaldehyde and keep it in a jam-jar in her room.  It then formed part of a display that would have been at home in any scientific laboratory or natural history museum. If my memory serves me well the pickled numbers included a fish eye and a chicken’s foot, which were given space alongside various dried butterflies, a sheep’s skull and a tank full of (thankfully alive) African aquatic toads.  It may sound like something out of the set of a horror B movie or even some strange herbal medicine emporium but as she was my big sis it seemed normal to me, and nurtured a keen early interest in all things natural.

Well, if only I had realised the value of drawing such things from life then rather than just drawing characters from my imagination, I could have sneaked into her room and filled a sketchbook with studies of these fascinating objects too.  But I think perhaps it did spark a rather subtle fascination for bones.  Now, I’ve no desire to see or find any human bones, although I did like looking at the repro human skeleton we had hanging up in the art-room at school, but I do rather like it when I’ve been digging in the garden and come across a tiny bone from a small rodent or perhaps a bird.  They are so fragile and yet so strong, so insubstantial looking and yet so robust.  When you look at a bird’s skull, a casing so fine that it seems more delicate even than eggshell and the connecting bones as thin as a thread of cotton, it is a wonder that the bird itself could ever have been so strong and so unbreakable to get through its life at all. 

It’s with some embarrassment that I recall using bones to make my own jewellery.  It seemed right at the time – listening to music that was part tribal, part goth (Southern Death Cult being favourite) – to accessorise with perhaps strange ancient or ethnic objects, especially anything that could be found for free.  So, my mum boiled up some chicken bones from a roast dinner, and a friend from college brought in some of his dog’s old teeth, and I strung them together with some wooden beads.  This is a drawing I did at the time of the necklace I wore daily (usually teamed up with some earrings I’d made from the smaller bones).

And here are a couple of birds’ skulls that I found in recent years.  Proof that my fascination with natural history has remained is evident in the fact that I felt compelled to keep them (although not in my bedroom).   I think the small one is from a goldfinch and the larger one from a starling.  Whilst I would always prefer to see these wonderful birds alive and well in my garden every day, I sometimes look at these skulls just to remind myself of how amazing these delicate little creatures are underneath their beautiful feathers.  And if I were ever to find a dead bat in the garden, I might just be tempted to pickle it as well.


  1. Love the idea of a bedroom that doubles as a natural history museum! I share your fascination with animal remains - such beauty to be found here (v. impressed that you can identify the birds).
    Nice drawing too.

  2. Hi A, and thanks. I'm quite into the idea of kitting out the living room with similar samples one day. Maybe I'll just have to satisfy that urge with a trip to the Natural History Museum instead. Glad to know you also appreciate animal remains. I've buried quite a few little creatures here myself too (they seem to come into the garden to die in peace!) that if anyone were to excavate at some point in the future they might wonder...


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