Evolution: It’s Behind You! @ Beecroft Art Gallery
Paintings and Drawings by Martin Huxter on the Theme of Evolution
January 16th – March 12th 2016
In 2009 the artist Martin Huxter organised an exhibition in Austria of the work of nine international artists to mark the bicentenary of Charles Darwin’s birth. Huxter’s series of paintings The Further Experiments of Sir John Sebright was inspired by Darwin’s writings on the selective breeding of domestic animals and was produced specifically for the bicentenary exhibition. The series is shown here for the first time in the UK. The Further Experiments of Sir John Sebright
Huxter’s paintings show the imagined grotesque results of the experimental breeding of domestic pigeons and poultry by Sir John Sebright, whose work developing new breeds of domestic animals was admired by Darwin. Sebright claimed that he could breed a pigeon with any desired shape of feather in three years and any shape of beak in six. Interestingly, although Darwin was impressed by the work of Sebright, in The Origin Of Species he warned about the unintentional effects of selective breeding: ‘…hence, if Man goes on selecting, and thus augmenting, any peculiarity, he will almost unconsciously modify other parts of the structure, owing to the mysterious laws of the correlation of growth.’ These paintings are complemented by other bird paintings and by Darwin’s Finches, Huxter’s response to Darwin’s observations on the diversity of beak shape amongst the indigenous finches of the Galapagos Islands. These observations were an important factor in the development of Darwin’s theory of evolution through natural selection.
Hanging in the Imperial Furniture Museum in Vienna is a painting by an unknown artist of Archduke Franz Karl as a boy, holding a nest full of young birds. Franz Karl was the son of the Habsburg Emperor Franz I, who died in 1835, and the younger brother of the new Emperor, Ferdinand. The historian A J P Taylor described Franz Karl as ‘not actually half-witted’ but ‘almost as ill-fitted to rule’ as his elder brother, whose only sensible remark, said Taylor, was, ‘I’m the Emperor and I want dumplings!’
Huxter writes: “It made me think about how Darwinian forces can act on dynasties as well as species. A dynasty like the Habsburgs needed to be able to adapt to changing times to hold together an empire that by 1835 was beginning to creak. In my painting the chick represents the diverse and downtrodden people of the empire rising up to devour their Habsburg masters. Though my instincts would normally cause me to celebrate such an act, as a keen ornithologist I cannot help identifying with, and feeling sorry for, Franz Karl.”
When Charles Darwin published his theory of evolution in his seminal work The Origin of Species in 1859, he was widely ridiculed by the general public as well as the Church and Establishment. Cartoons mocking Darwin, showing him as a monkey appeared in Punch and other satirical magazines. The series of drawings Fossils Old and New are a tongue-in-cheek attempt by Huxter to gently redress the balance and an invitation to consider the relationship between science and religion. In one drawing an opponent of Darwin is himself turned into a fossil.