Sunday 5 February 2012

A Butterfly Season

Thanks to the generosity of my cousin - with whom I was staying in Derbyshire earlier in the weekend - I have a fine new butterfly book to get me through the winter. Butterfly Season 1984 by David Measures is a beautiful volume, an illustrated journal of a season spent observing, painting and drawing butterflies as they lived their brief lives in a variety of habitats, most of them close to the artist's home in Southwell, Nottinghamshire. Measures, who became fascinated by butterflies after he began studying the iridescent properties of their wings, was the first artist to paint these lovely insects not as minutely denoted dead specimens but as living creatures in their environment - and in flight. This was an all but impossible challenge to which Measures rose with brilliant success, not by creating finished paintings but by catching the fleeting impressions which are all that we usually get of those restless beauties, the butterflies. He worked en plein air, chasing about after his flitting subjects, carrying only a few sheets of paper on a drawing board and a small box of watercolours, and working often with his fingers and nails, with spit to thin his colours. Often, to get close to the butterflies, he worked crouching, kneeling or lying down. If his subject flew off - as they do - he would give chase, reposition himself and try again, until it flew off again...
Measures' first butterfly book (which I've had for years) was the delightful Bright Wings of Summer, a general introduction to the life of butterflies, with illustrations that were like nothing I, or anyone else, had seen before - vivid impressions of, as he puts it, 'the outdoor, free-flying, daytime activities of butterflies in the wild'. In Butterfly Season, he published his unedited field notes with the painted sheets from his notebook, all dashed off on the spot, with more or less impressionistic sketches of the butterflies, depending on how long he had sight of them - he would always stop when a subject flew off and was lost, never finishing from memory, for fear of generalising and falsifying. The sheets are also embellished with the handwritten notes Measures took at the time, and, to complete the evocation of time and place, washes and sketched-in details loosely denoting the setting in which the butterflies were watched and painted. As Julian Spalding writes in the introduction, 'his eye is not taking in just [the butterflies], incredibly difficult though this is, but the whole scene, the quality of light, the type of vegetation, even the alertness of the butterfly itself to its surroundings, to the antics of another insect or to any sudden movement that could be dangerous...'
David Measures died last year. There is a fine obituary here.

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