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Darwin 200 Artist in Residence: 2009

John Dyer was appointed as an official artist in residence in the South West for the United Kingdom's Darwin 200 celebratory year.

John Dyer painting lemurs for darwin 200

Brian Stewart and Falmouth Art Gallery were also responsible for a year of exhibitions, events and a community education programme dedicated to celebrating another notable bicentenary which had strong associations with Falmouth. ‘The most important journey of the nineteenth century – perhaps the most important journey ever – was undertaken by Charles Darwin (1809–1882) on the Beagle between 1831 and 1836,’ said Brian, referring to Darwin’s famous voyage during which the wildlife he encountered, especially in the Galapagos Islands, was instrumental in the formulation of his ideas about natural selection, leading to his Theory of Evolution. ‘Little known is the fact that throughout his voyage Darwin sent specimens back to this country via the Packet mail service which was still based at Falmouth. The Beagle finally returned to Falmouth on 2 October 1836, and so the town is central to the Darwin story and the publication of The Origin of Species, both of which are celebrated worldwide.’


The ‘Darwin 200’ project was mounted in partnership between Falmouth Art Gallery and various other tourist attractions in Cornwall, including Newquay Zoo and Penlee House Gallery and Museum in Penzance, and was funded by a generous grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund. John’s role, as well as giving support to the whole project through the John Dyer Gallery, was to be the official Artist in Residence for Darwin 200 and to create a series of paintings at Newquay Zoo, which caused great excitement as they had never had one before. He was also very involved in organising the ‘Darwin 200’ Big Art Competition, for which children were invited to submit their Darwin-inspired drawings which were then displayed online and in exhibitions at the National Maritime Museum Cornwall and Falmouth Art Gallery.

John’s paintings from the days he spent at the zoo were shown at Falmouth Art Gallery in ‘A Day at the Zoo’, one of four exhibitions held there during its year-long Darwin-themed programme. Also on display was Beagle in the Bay, a delightful painting which sums up the whole ethos of ‘Darwin 200’ as it manages to tell several stories at the same time. HMS Beagle , the two-masted brig on which Darwin made his epic voyage, is seen in Falmouth Bay at the entrance to the Carrick Roads, flanked by St Mawes Castle and St Anthony Lighthouse on one side and Pendennis Castle on the other. The bearded Darwin – depicted as the more familiar venerable naturalist of later years rather than as a young man of 27, his actual age when he returned from the expedition – stands on the deck, waiting to welcome Brian Stewart who is sailing out to greet him, accompanied by a real beagle. All around the ship are examples of the wildlife Darwin saw on his travels: above him fly exotic birds, including the Galapagos finches whose variations in beak size from island to island prompted his first thoughts about ‘the fixity of species’; a penguin stands beside him on the deck and a Galapagos turtle swims towards the ship; while in the foreground are all manner of sea creatures and brightly-coloured tropical fish. The little figure swimming amongst the fishes refers to the ‘Underwater Cornwall’ exhibition of photographs by Mark Webster, another of the year’s special features, while the palm trees on the surrounding shores are a reminder that Darwin’s specimens were not the only exotic items being imported into Falmouth at much the same time.

As Artist in Residence at Newquay Zoo, John was keen to celebrate the biodiversity it is helping to maintain. While he acknowledges that the idea of animals kept in captivity is controversial, his experience at Newquay Zoo convinced him that zoos do have a positive role to play. ‘Many of the animals are now housed in open enclosures so they can exhibit their natural pre-programmed behaviour. My Darwin paintings focus on the animals at the zoo from the perspective of the animals, the fun and enrichment a family gets from interacting with the animals and the fact that every person must surely leave with the wonder of diversity. Without zoos, we would not be as connected to wilderness areas and would have no way of potentially re-stocking these areas with animals in the future.’

Both John and his elder daughter Martha-Lilly, who spent the best part of a week accompanying him into the animal enclosures, certainly had fun interacting with the animals. Martha-Lilly remembers it as ‘an amazing experience’. While John painted, she would ‘sit and watch or take photographs and try to engage with the animals. Some of them were very inquisitive. The meerkats spent most of the time poking their fingers through the holes in our Crocs and even tried to take one of my Crocs into their burrow! While we were in the ring-tailed lemur enclosure, one of them climbed up the easel and placed its paw on the paint leaving a print.’ John has left the lemur’s paw print for posterity, visible at the top of Cherry-Picking Lemurs. 

Other animals which John particularly enjoyed painting were the penguins. ‘The Humboldt penguins really are very funny and have a great sense of timing. About half an hour before the keeper arrives with their fish, they all queue up in anticipation – none of the zoo’s visitors can spot any penguins then as they all hide in the corner by the gate!’ But John found that the most interesting experience was the ‘Wild Breakfast’, for which he had to arrive before 5 a.m. to see the animals waking up. ‘The first thing I noticed was the activity in the zoo with torches before we were allowed in, as apparently some of the animals like to spend the night working out how to escape! We were taken on a tour by Mark Norris [Newquay Zoo’s Head of Education, seen here holding the torch] and told to look out for the peacocks drying their tails as the dawn breaks, and red pandas climbing up the trees for a bit of early sun. For the other animals it is a race to see who can warm up and get moving first before another one has them for breakfast!’ These sights and stories informed John’s large painting Zooing Around which for him ‘captures the whole experience of my ‘Darwin 200’ residency’. John has included a portrait of himself at the easel, and a ‘Happy Birthday’ banner for Darwin. In this painting, he has cleverly adapted the complex layout of the zoo to include nearly all the resident animals as well as some visiting bats and seagulls. From Newquay Zoo’s point of view, it was a great opportunity to see the work they do with the animals interpreted and displayed in such a positive way. Mark Norris commented that ‘it has been a brilliant experience and one that we hope we can repeat again in the future’.

At a more serious level, John feels that his Darwin-inspired paintings have ‘more than any other, brought together the wide creative and geographical journey I have been on over the past twenty years since my visit to the Amazon rainforest’. The sight of many wild animals and birds in their natural environments, in Costa Rica, Brazil, the Philippines, Australia and Peru, helped him to form connections with the animals he was seeing in the zoo. ‘The zoo paintings record the moment, but also naturally form part of a wider set of work exploring the world. Each new piece benefits from previous experiences of painting on location. What I learnt on that first environmental journey [to the Amazon] was that we are intrinsically connected to the eco-system and we have to work with it and alongside it. My subsequent travels have all focused on the balance between nature and man, and the paintings celebrate the success stories.’

Article courtesy of Kate Dinn.
Read all about John Dyer's life and work in the book 'Painting the Colours of the World' by Kate Dinn.