Vanna Bartlett has recently published a fascinating book, ‘Arthropedia: An Illustrated Alphabet of Invertebrates’, which tempts us to marvel at the diversity and beauty of those smaller creatures that we quite often dismiss or simply overlook. The artwork is superb, the need for such an accessible work unquestionable. I feel privileged to be able to present Vanna’s insights into how the book came into being and her work as a naturalist and artist. Enjoy.
I am a wildlife artist and naturalist based in Norwich, where I have lived for most of my life. I work in a variety of media including linocuts, portraying the wildlife around me. My prints have been exhibited at the Norwich Print Fair, the Birdscapes Gallery in Glandford near Holt in Norfolk and also in the Society of Wildlife Artists’ annual exhibition ‘The Natural Eye’ in the Mall Galleries in London. My linocuts have been used as designs for Christmas cards for the RSPB and Amnesty International. I have been interested in natural history for as long as I can remember and have always enjoyed trying to capture the wildlife I see on paper. Art and wildlife are the perfect partners for me; studying something as I sketch it gives me a greater understanding of how it moves, and sitting still and watching as I sketch allows me to observe behaviour I might otherwise miss. As a naturalist, I am very much a generalist. I have a particular interest in insects and have recently got hooked on solitary bees, I have recorded 70 species in my garden.
My book ‘Arthropedia: an Illustrated Alphabet of Invertebrates’ is the culmination of three years’ work on top of many years watching and drawing wildlife. It is my homage to the wonderful invertebrates that share our planet and deserve to be given space to live out their amazing lives.I started working on the book in 2016, although it was a project I had long been interested in. The first year was largely research, deciding what species to illustrate and seeking out those I hadn’t yet seen but wanted to include, while also working on rough designs for each plate. Year two was spent drawing out, inking and then painting each plate, while year three was devoted to writing the text. I soon realised that further artwork would be needed, so I also worked on the black and white line drawings that intersperse the text. Amazingly, all was accomplished on time although I completed the last plate, K, a month late. The aim of the book is to celebrate and raise awareness of some of the amazing invertebrates that can be found in Britain. I hope it will inspire others to take an interest in these diverse and fascinating creatures, to go on and make their own discoveries and, like me, want to help protect these ‘little things that make the world work’.
What event triggered your interest in the natural world?
I’ve been interested in wildlife for as long as I can remember. My eldest brother used to collect caterpillars to rear into moths and he also had an old bath in the garden full of pond weed and all sorts of aquatic creatures, so I was exposed to the wonders of the nature from the very beginning. We also had a whole series of Time Life books that covered all aspects of the natural world and I spent many happy hours poring over them as I grew up. One of my earliest memories is of newly emerged Elephant Hawkmoths hanging on the curtains in his bedroom. When I was a child I used to collect and rear caterpillars too. Garden Tiger moths were my favourites and we had their ‘woolly bear’ caterpillars living on the lupins in our garden in Norwich.
Give a sketch (pardon the pun) of a typical day in your life
If I’m working on something like the colour plates in the book, then I prefer to paint in the mornings. The light in my studio is best for fine detail work in the morning and by afternoon I generally find my eyes are too tired for this kind of close work. It is easy to get distracted by things in the garden so I have to discipline myself not to go out until I’ve finished, although I generally allow myself a quick wander round before I start work. Our garden is a haven for us as well as the wildlife so I spend as much time as I can just observing and recording the various creatures in it.
When I’m not drawing or writing, I like nothing more than to take my sketchbook out into the garden on a quiet day and just sit and sketch whatever catches my eye for a couple of hours. Normally, we try and get the train out into the Norfolk countryside once a week to look for other wildlife. Visiting the Brecks to see Adders and solitary bees is a favourite trip.
You have recently published an absorbing and excellent book ‘Arthropedia: An Illustrated Alphabet of Invertebrates’ which you must be very proud of. Tell us what first inspired you to do this and the process involved in selecting which invertebrates to feature.
The book is a project that I’ve been working on for quite a number of years, returning to it every once in a while as I debated over its format, content and, most importantly, what medium I would use for the artwork. I’ve always liked old books with hand coloured engravings, especially entomological works like Moses Harris’ ‘The Aurelian’, so the use of pen and ink drawings that could then be painted with washes of watercolour was an obvious choice to get the fine detail I wanted. The symmetrical layout of the design for the plates was influenced by Ernst Haeckel’s ‘Art Forms In Nature’, a beautiful book bringing together scientifically accurate portrayals of various life forms in a deliberately artistic arrangement – Haeckel’s idea was that scientific work could reach a wider audience if it was artistically portrayed.
I wanted to raise awareness of the amazing diversity and beauty of our invertebrate fauna, and an illustrated alphabet seemed the perfect choice to appeal to as wide an audience as possible. I have been interested in and fascinated by insects for a very long time. I have never understood why so many people who profess to like the natural world seem to only be interested in birds or big cats and have to have ‘wildlife experiences’ by travelling half way around the world and completely dismiss the wonders on their doorstep.
This is why I created the book. It is a celebration of the everyday creatures that live practically right under our noses, that are often reviled and misunderstood and yet are such a vital part of the natural world. All the invertebrates depicted in the book are species that can be found in Britain and ones that I have personally encountered. A lot of them were from my own garden and there is a definite Norfolk bias (the book was also published and printed in Norfolk by Mascot Media and Swallowtail Print respectively), but part of the point of the book was to showcase what can be found on your own doorstep.
There are specialities and rarities from other parts of the country that I have been fortunate to find. It is designed to whet the appetite and encourage people to discover invertebrates for themselves. Above all, I’m hoping the book will raise awareness of these amazing creatures and encourage more people to take an interest in them and want to help conserve them. The book can be bought via the website www.arthropedia.co.uk
You work with various art media. Would you tell us how you view the relative merits of each as a tool for expressing how you feel about the subjects you depict?
As an artist it is really interesting to try out different media. Each has its own challenges and foibles that you have to adapt to your own capabilities as an artist. Each new medium that I try has an influence on future work. For a long time I worked in watercolour on botanical paintings of the fruits and vegetables that we grew on our allotment. It is a very disciplined medium to work with in this way, but I enjoyed the challenge of such fine brushwork. For wildlife paintings I preferred acrylics where I could indulge in large canvases with a more personalised creative feel to them, heavily influenced by swirling interlocking William Morris wallpaper designs. Acrylic is very forgiving and you can easily alter things as a painting progresses, so it was a nice change to not necessarily over-plan a painting but to let it evolve as it went along. It is also liberating to stand at an easel and wield a large brush when you’ve been used to hunching over a delicate watercolour using a 0000 size brush to paint the tiny hairs on a leaf. Nowadays I love linocuts because they force me to look more closely at colour and shape, disregarding a lot of detail, and creating a much more graphic design. For really fine detail I don’t think you can beat pen and ink drawings though, which is why I chose them for the book illustrations. I will always return to the simple pencil for sketching and drawing, something that is readily to hand and easily portable, the ideal accompaniment on a field trip.
What do you consider the greatest challenges facing wildlife today?
I would have said climate change, but it isn’t really that simple. Basically, human beings are the greatest threat to wildlife. There really are too many people on the planet, but it is the way we exploit resources and destroy the natural world that is the problem. Wealthy countries use up far more resources than poorer ones, with the divide between the haves and the have nots getting ever wider. Better use and distribution of everything from food to housing to land would help improve things. Climate change will see a huge displacement of people and further pressure on the natural world. The planet’s natural ecosystems have taken a real battering over a long time and have reached tipping point. The massive decline in invertebrate numbers is only just becoming ‘mainstream’, and we are still trying to get world action on climate change. It has been really encouraging to see the school climate strike activism started by Greta Thunberg gaining momentum, but there is still a long way to go. We all have a part to play, but without leadership from governments acting on a global scale we face an uphill struggle.
You have recently started blogging. Share with us why you’ve chosen to connect in this way. Do you see your use of this medium developing over time?
The blog is a natural extension to the book really. There are so many fascinating invertebrates to discover and learn about, they could fill several more books. It was really difficult at times to decide what to put in the book and what to leave out, and I kept finding new species after I’d finished a chapter. With the blog I can keep on adding more species as I find them, adding more observations and information and thereby giving a bit extra to those who bought the book if they want to read more. Not everyone will be able to afford to buy a copy of the book, so the blog is a free resource that I hope will encourage people to look at and value invertebrates. The blog is written along the same lines as the book, the main difference is that it features photographs rather than illustrations, although I do try and showcase relevant artwork where I can. The blog can be found via the website
What do you consider to be your greatest success?
Getting my book published. Three years work finding the invertebrates, designing and painting the colour plates, writing text, making the line drawings and then just getting the book to the printers as lockdown was brought in, it very nearly didn’t make it.
What would you consider to be your deepest regret?
While cycling in Ireland several years ago I almost ran over a Goat Moth caterpillar that was rapidly crossing the road. I didn’t know what it was at the time, and only later discovered that the name ‘Goat Moth’ refers to the fact that the caterpillar smells of goat. So my regret is that I didn’t sniff a Goat Moth caterpillar when I had the chance. (I have since read that not all of them smell goaty so I may have been disappointed if I had sniffed it!).
What advice would you give to a budding wildlife artist?
Spend as much time as you can just watching your subject and getting to know how it moves and behaves before attempting to draw it, then ‘explore’ its shape in sketches, trying to capture its ‘essence’ or ‘jizz’ as birdwatchers say. If you have a garden, start a garden wildlife sketchbook (or one for your local patch) and make a point of sketching as often as you can, getting to know your local species throughout the seasons. Every artist has their own strengths and weaknesses. Draw subjects that you feel engaged with and try different media if you can to find what best suits your individual abilities. Experiment. If you don’t try you won’t know, Getting things wrong and knowing why is often more important than getting things right.
If you could be anywhere in the world at this moment where would it be and why?
Right now (the beginning of May) I would like to be in the Norfolk Brecks looking for solitary bees and other invertebrates. A couple of years ago we spent time watching the nesting behaviour of Osmia bicolor. These solitary bees nest in empty snail shells and cover the shell with plant material once they’ve finished, possibly to camouflage the nest but also perhaps to help regulate the temperature (or it could be both). In the Brecks they use pine needles, and we were able to observe one bee collecting needles and then flying with them to deposit on her snail shell nest. It would be really nice to go back and see this behaviour again.
What is your favourite or most admired animal (or group) and why?
I got hooked on solitary bees a few years ago, partly because I discovered a species in my garden that was pretty scarce in Norfolk. The more I learnt about bees the more fascinated I became. Watching a nesting aggregation of bees is fascinating, not only for the bees themselves, but also because they have various parasites that invade their nests and deposit their own eggs. These so-called cleptoparasites include other species of bee as well as solitary wasps and ‘shadow’ flies that follow the female bees around in order to find their nests. Also, bees tend to like nice weather, nice flowers and often nice places, so it is a pleasure to spend time watching them.
Who or what are your heroes/heroines/greatest Inspirations?
I don’t really go in for heroes, but I’d like to sing the praises of all the amateur naturalists out there who dedicate their time to finding, observing and recording the species they love and generously sharing their knowledge. Without them our understanding of the natural world would be so much the less.
Recall your most exciting or memorable wildlife spotting encounter.
One of my best days out with wildlife was on a trip to Surrey to look for Wood White butterflies. We stayed in Chiddingfold so only had a short walk of a couple of miles or so to reach the reserve. We managed to ‘bag’ a Wood White the day we arrived, late in the afternoon, so the next day the pressure was off and we could enjoy just wandering around the woods and taking in everything we could find. The first thing we encountered was the amazing Rhyssa persuasoria, the UK’s largest ichneumon wasp. We saw several of these magnificent insects including a mating pair (the male is much smaller than the female and far less impressive). Next up we encountered a Broad-bordered Bee Hawkmoth in a woodland glade, another first for both of us. We eventually started paying attention to the Wood Whites that we had come to see, but again distractions appeared. First off, there were loud croaking noises coming from the bushes alongside the track followed by an incredible whistle which I recognised as the call of a Nightingale. Sure enough, one soon put in an appearance, and before we knew it there was an adult feeding two youngsters in the middle of the track just a few yards away. At the same time we had become aware of solitary bees foraging around our feet on red clover flowers. They were zippy little things and their behaviour signalled to us that they were males. They refused to settle, but as they buzzed back and forth we noticed how long their antennae were and it dawned on us both that they were Long-horn Bees, a pretty rare species and one that we had longed to see. Finally, one stopped for long enough for us to be sure and we got some photos and I even managed a few sketches, working rapidly every time one alighted. This was a real prize indeed and totally unexpected. We really didn’t know what to look at, bird, butterfly or bee. It was a lovely dilemma but I have to admit that the bees won hands down.
What it is about the natural world that continues to inspire you?
Everyday can bring a new discovery, especially when it comes to invertebrates as we still know so very little about many of them. Anyone can discover some new behaviour or find a species for the first time in their local area, often by just sitting and watching in their own garden or local patch. I love it that I can step outside and find a species new to me in my own garden that I didn’t even know existed before and there it is, making its home and living out its amazing life cycle literally on my own doorstep.
What new aspects of conservation excite you?
Re-wilding seems to offer lots of potential in the UK. We need to learn to live and work with nature and not constantly fight it with pesticides and herbicides and regimented over-tidy countryside. Different areas of the country will have their own challenges but we should be able to combine growing food with encouraging wildlife to flourish too. Wildlife corridors, linking fragmented nature ’hot-spots’, could make a huge difference relatively easily, along with re-instating proper hedgerows. Locally (and nationally for that matter), I would like to see a much more wildlife friendly approach to our verges and open spaces which are constantly being mown into oblivion.
What are your hobbies/interests outside of wildlife and art?
Wildlife is kind of an all-consuming passion. I can’t walk to the local shop without looking up to watch some bird flying over, stop to sniff a flower or pause to watch a bee at work foraging for pollen on the verges. It’s what makes me tick. I unwind by listening to music, radio plays and watching ‘Scandi-noir’ on the TV. If I’m not watching, sketching or writing about wildlife then I’m probably asleep and dreaming about it!
What makes you happy?
Being outside immersed in the natural world. It doesn’t really matter where, just sitting somewhere nice on a pleasant day, quietly watching whatever wildlife comes my way, preferably with my husband Jeremy for company to share the experience.
What makes you sad?
The fact that we as a species are still destroying the natural world. Climate change isn’t new, species extinction and habitat destruction aren’t new. And yet we carry on treating this planet as though it is an inexhaustible resource that we can continually take from and destroy without any detrimental effect.
Name 3 things on your ‘bucket list’
I don’t really go in for bucket lists. I’m slowly working my way around to seeing all of the butterfly species that breed in Britain. There are only around 50 on the UK list so it’s something that’s achievable in a lifetime, hopefully! Actually I have just two left to complete the list, Lulworth Skipper and Heath Fritillary both of which I have actually seen many years ago but in France. I’m always happy to find new species of solitary bee and enjoy adding to my Norfolk list, especially if it’s in my own garden. If I could see one species though, that would be the Hazel Dormouse. I’ve been enchanted by them for as long as I can remember. Unfortunately they do not occur in Norfolk so I probably won’t get to see one. I have been in woods in other parts of the country that harbour Dormice on many occasions but they are largely nocturnal and a licence is required to handle them anyway. I did once persuade a warden to open up some dormice nest boxes for me, but they only contained broods of Great Tits and some irate Tree Bumblebees!
What would you most like to accomplish and/or be remembered for?
Getting my book published was a huge accomplishment for me personally. It would be wonderful if it helped spark an interest in someone who went on to make a real difference in wildlife conservation or inspired others to take an interest in the natural world, especially invertebrates.
Now that was a good read don’t you think? Thank you Vanna for taking the time to be so thorough and enlightening. You’re a true inspiration to us all.
For more profiles of People Who Make a Difference click here
For a really interesting video interview with Vanna (and many other wildlife champions) visit, Allan Archer’s website or simply click below.