Restoration Blog / Behind the Exhibition: Q&A with Walter Dalkeith
Behind the Exhibition: Q&A with Walter Dalkeith
We caught up with Walter, The Earl of Dalkeith, to find out more about his latest exhibition “To God & To Nature”, open in The Loft until 3rd January.
We are delighted to host your exhibition To God & To Nature. Can you tell us a little about this project’s inception and what inspired you to create it?
Prior to discovering the books from which this series was born, I knew nothing about George Edwards and the work he created over two and a half centuries ago. I was struck by the beauty of the drawings within and inspired by a sense of discovery in unearthing this body of largely forgotten work.
I felt the need to not only learn more but also in some way give others the opportunity to enjoy and feel inspired themselves. It was only after I had taken some initial photographs and spent time with the books that I began to envisage something greater than simple reproductions. That was when the concept of the series started to materialize.
Can you explain a little about who George Edwards was and how he came to draw these incredible creatures?
George Edward’s was born in 1694. In his early years he travelled extensively through mainland Europe, studying natural history, and producing coloured drawings of the creatures he encountered. It was through the great naturalist Sir Hans Sloane (whose collection formed the basis of the British museum) that he became librarian to the royal College of Physicians in 1733 and started working on the books we have today.
Edwards’s fascination and dedication towards understanding the natural world was almost a duty he felt compelled. In his work he states that, ‘Amongst the many acts of gratitude we owe to God, it may be accounted one, to study and contemplate the perfections and beauties of his works of creation’. This dedication to nature is one of the many aspects, which make his drawings so wonderful and inspiring.
How would Edwards have been able to see such a wide variety of animals in this very specific period of 1743 to 1764?
The 18th Century was a time of large-scale European exploration and expansion that covered all corners of the globe. With this, there was a growing interest and market for the wild creatures that were found in these new lands.
George Edwards barely needed to step further than the London Docks to encounter a huge variety of wildlife that was arriving on ships from around the world. They came in all states of condition with many not surviving the journeys back in captivity. Some alive, others stuffed or preserved in spirits.
For each animal, George Edwards details to the best of his knowledge where they came from, who owned them and what condition they were in when he made his drawings. The books give a wonderful insight into what London was like at the time with exotic creatures populating barbershops, coffee shops and people’s homes.
Your collection creates fantastical situations that amalgamate a number of Edwards’ birds and animals where they would never have appeared together in the natural world. Can you describe the creative process behind your themes and the animal groupings?
When I started the process of envisaging new compositions, two themes materialized in my mind initially. The first being the extraordinary accumulation of animals appropriated from their natural environments into one area and following this, the impact this must have had on the people at the time.
The books were created for creatures that had never before been described or drawn and the thought of how they must have fuelled the imagination was a basis for forming the fantastical situations.
The nature of creating the series meant that it was hard to know what was coming next and each piece was a voyage in creative discovery. I preferred to let my subconscious direct me in the compositions and it was only when I started to look back at the completed pieces that I began to unravel the variety of emotions I had been evoking. I could then see all 22 works as a whole with interlinking relationships and bonds forming between them.
Can you enlighten us into your technical process that lifts these beautiful birds and animals from these ancient books and breathes new life into them to become the images we can see today?
My artistic goal for each image was to construct a seamless composition between each element so that on first glance the final image may seem as a picture rather than a combination of blended photographs. The creation of each piece was a painstaking process (often days) of work on Photoshop to cut, layer and blend all the photographs together. Many of the pieces have more than 10 photographs.
Ensuring I achieved accurate and consistent colours from each drawing took experimentation in varying light conditions while working with very old books posed its own photographic challenges. It was also very important for me to have each individual image and the series as a whole rooted in photography, almost to relate to modern wildlife photography. Making sure that there were selected elements that were not in complete focus and working to create depth was a way to achieve this.
I also enjoyed the limitations that working on a set of books posed. Being limited to a set number of backgrounds, plants, rocks and animals in workable poses meant I had to push my creative envelope to bring all the different elements together in a way that I felt worked while being careful not to duplicate.
These are beautiful prints. Are there plans to develop further the imagery you’ve created in this collection?
Because of the limitations I placed on myself in terms of the format of the prints, there are a large number of creatures I really wanted to showcase but just couldn’t make work compositionally. By expanding into other formats, I would love to return to the books and find ways to bring so many of the other wonderful drawings to light.
What inspired you into fine art and photography?
I find photography to be a very tranquil experience that allows me to connect with greater attention to the natural world. I love the feeling of discovery and adventure that each project brings whether during a shoot or back in the editing suite. It is my small artistic contribution to the world.
Can you give us a little insight into how you’ve honed your skills through your body of work?
Practice practice practice!
What will you be working on next?
I am currently working on some landscape images I took back in 2015 of the imperious Huang Shan Mountains in China. It sometimes takes time to figure out how to achieve the vision you have in your mind’s eye when taking the photograph! I then want to embark on a photographic project to capture the beauty of the Scottish Borders.
Walter Dalkeith’s “To God & To Nature” exhibition is FREE to view in The Loft until Friday 3rd January. Prints are available to purchase in store and £5 from every print sold goes directly to Children’s Hospices Across Scotland.