Back To The Egg
Words Richard Benson
Photographs Andy Sewell
Father-and-son team Peter and Andy Holden have neatly dovetailed their two careers in a fascinating study of the art of nests – and what it says about our own homes and relationships…
When Andy Holden was a kid growing up in rural Bedfordshire in the Eighties, he wasn’t much interested in ornithology. Nothing unusual about that, you might think, until you find out his dad Peter was famous for, um, being able to get kids interested in birds. Peter Holden worked for the RSPB for 40 years. He made its Young Ornithologists Club (membership: 168,000) the biggest children’s wildlife organisation in the world, and started the Big Garden Birdwatch. He was the bird man on blue peter during its seventies/eighties glory days for god’s sake, and yet there he was, forced to return home from the BBC Television Centre of an evening to find his long-haired avian-indifferent son engrossed only in art and bloody rock music.
Parents always say they don’t mind this sort of thing, but many of them are a bit deflated by it and Peter was one of them. ‘Initially quite disappointed,’ is how he describes the feeling now. ‘But then I was always involved in education at the RSPB,’ he says, ‘and I noticed that children often don’t follow their parents’ interests. It’s amazing how many children are interested in birds when their parents aren’t at all. In fact very often parents get interested through the child.’
As it turned out, as Andy took up the study of art and started playing in bands, Peter didn’t reciprocate; instead he and his wife just let him use their utility room as a studio, Mrs Holden tactfully closing its door when the family had visitors. Andy went off to Goldsmiths, and began to make a name for himself when one of his works was included in Tate Britain’s Art Now exhibition. Peter was made an MBE in the 2009 New Year’s Honours list. And then, in 2010, Andy was invited to make a presentation at the London Festival of Architecture. He was working at home in Bedfordshire at the time, and on walks that winter began to notice birds’ nests that had been uncovered as the leaves fell. ‘And I think as the talk was for a conversation around architecture,’ he remembers, ‘the nest suddenly appeared like the perfect subject.’
He asked his dad if they could go through his many, many slides, looking for images of nests. Andy began reading up on nest building, and he and his dad began talking. In the end, they did the presentation together. Seven years later, after several further joint lectures, that presentation had become Natural Selection, an exhibition in the former Newington Library in south London that was one of the critical hits of 2017. ‘A show of marvels,’ said the Observer; a ‘glorious and multi-layered testament to father and son teamwork’, opined The Art Newspaper. It seems that everyone you meet who has seen Natural Selection feels a strong, emotional response to it. Andy Sewell, the nature photographer who took the photographs on these pages, met Andy Holden when they were both children – their parents were friends, and when they met up, the two Andys would play. Curiously, when they met for the shoot, both had been working on projects exploring the literal and metaphorical meanings of nests; Sewell’s last book and exhibition being titled Something Like A Nest. Sewell admires the way Holden’s work ‘can be enjoyed literally, but also as metaphors and symbols. Often when we think about nature and landscapes, we’re thinking about something else besides – sometimes we’re looking at how we look at things. I love how Andy’s work does that.’
Natural Selection is now touring the country. When we met Andy to talk about it, he was supervising completion of the set up, a few hours before it opened at the Towner Gallery in Eastbourne; all around us drills drilled, hammers hammered, and Andy, who has the air of a young and eccentric professor, had to break off every now and again to supervise the positioning of a display cabinet or the pointing of a spotlight. This setting up had already taken him two weeks; his and his dad’s show having grown into an extensive, multi-faceted affair that now occupies five sizeable rooms.
It is of course about a good deal more than bird-nest construction. Natural Selection comprises four sections: Super Normal Stimulus, A Natural History of Nest Building, A Social History of Egg Collecting, and How The Artist Was Led To The Study of Nature. Super Normal Stimulus features turned wood sculptures based on the wave forms of birdsong, and old photographs of a baby Andy looking at his dad’s bird magazines. A Natural History of Nest Building is a film version of Andy and Peter’s nest lecture, followed by a collection of various kinds of nests. A Social History of Egg Collecting features another film, The Opposite of Time, that documents how the peculiarly British pursuit of egg collecting, or oology, went from artistocratic hobby to a stigmatised and outlawed activity now seen as a kind of addictive, antisocial behaviour. Finally, How The Artist Was Led To The Study of Nature recreates in porcelain the illegal egg collection of a notorious oologist called Richard Pearson, which was destroyed by the RSPB in 2007.
Andy calls the exhibition ‘an aggregate of facts and interpretations of these facts’ that raises the questions of ‘what is innate and what is learnt in behaviour generally, and what is natural and what is cultural but seen as natural?’ These questions, he says, go back to the first conversations he and his dad had over the slides in 2010. ‘We found that my dad had never really looked at the construction process, but that was the part that interested me most. I started thinking about nests as sculptures, or as things that were made, and that involved the birds making decisions.’
‘ I started thinking about nests as sculptures, or as things that were made, and that would involve the birds making decisions…’
Like most ornithologists, Peter saw nests as the result of evolutionary imperatives. For him they are functional, just a part of a bird’s phenotype – that is, the individual set of characteristics that arise from the interaction of a species’ genes with their environment. Andy, however, saw nest building as a more creative act, one that might indicate impulses that are closer to those of humans than evolutionary scientists would allow. The lecture he subsequently wrote and delivered with his dad is in fact a subtle debate between these two points of view, with Andy repeatedly raising interesting and not-conventionally scientific speculations about bird behaviour.
The magpie, he notes, is the most common predator of birds’ eggs in the British countryside, and yet it is one of very few that takes the precaution of adding a protective roof; ‘Perhaps it is a case of it takes one to know one.’ Great Crested Grebes and swans engage in what appear to be ritualised, dance-like movements when they build nests, almost as if performing. Social weaverbirds create communal structures that bring to mind blocks of flats. Most persuasively of all, the bowerbird builds structures to attract a mate that have no protective or nurturing purpose, but seem designed to impress on aesthetic grounds, arranging found objects – shells, leaves, beetle wings – to decorate the ‘nests’, and have been seen ‘painting’ them with the juice of berries. These constructions – an enlarged example of which sits at the midst of A Natural History of Nest Building, and in effect at the heart of the show – are the only known structures built by non-humans that are not used as homes or shelters. Although they are created to attract mates, they sit outside the usual rules of natural selection, being chosen not for objectively measurable size or strength, but on the basis of individual preference, each individual sensibility being offered up for judgment.
Even Darwin admitted that this seemed a case of birds engaging in something close to the supposedly uniquely human activity known as ‘art’, or at least the appreciation of beauty. ‘This [nest-building] shows,’ he wrote rather tight-lippedly in The Descent of Man, ‘that they must receive some kind of pleasure from such things.’
The bowerbird, Andy explains, is ‘the transition point for the show’. Its nest building and the inspection that goes with it can be seen as natural, evolutionarily-driven instincts that create social behaviour; but they can also be seen as social behaviours masking and connecting to nature. Where, the show asks, might our own behaviour fit into all that? Both A Social History of Egg Collecting and How The Artist Was Led To The Study of Nature pursue this question, asking if the taking of eggs from nests and keeping them in carefully documented and classified collections might be a behaviour comparable to that of the bowerbird. ‘The show pretends there’s a distinction between the natural history of nest building and the social history of egg collecting, but as it goes on, you feel the natural and the social are not as distinct as we might think.’
You might also end up wondering why all this is in an art gallery. ‘For me, there has to be a connection between art and nature,’ says Andy. ‘We ask [in A Natural History of Nest Building] if the bird knows what it’s doing when it builds the nest. That’s a question I ask myself when I’m making sculptures; how much of this is instinct? How much is conscious? Of course it’s knotted together.’
‘I found there was an equivalence between my dad’s enthusiasm for the natural world and my enthusiasm for art’
Natural Selection also does a lovely job of recording the different visual languages and styles that expressed changing attitudes to nature in general. The film The Opposite of Time plays on a small screen that stands in front of a larger one, on which are shown landscape paintings from different periods, chronologically arranged; in the Natural History of Nest Building fi lm, Andy’s beard, Clarks ‘n’ corduroy look evokes memories of the academics and experts in the democratic, educational TV programmes of the Sixties and Seventies; and the signage and display keys are reminiscent of the children’s books published in the post-war natural history boom. If you think about that boom, and the accompanying growth of natural history citizen-science in projects like the Big Garden Birdwatch, though, you might reflect that eggs and nests were given a fairly low profile, especially compared with the pre-1950s period, when egging and nesting were common pastimes. This is quite correct.
Ever since the RSPB’s rapid expansion in the Sixties, Peter tells me when he too arrives at the Towner to watch the preparations, ‘the big message has been, ‘don’t get too interested in eggs and nests. In the past they were really worried that egg collecting would have a revival, and saw themselves as custodians, ensuring that laws were enforced. So nests have been something of a mystery, particularly for those recent generations who have had very limited contact with the natural environment.’
Helen MacDonald picks up the point in her essay, On Nests and Eggs, in the exhibition catalogue, explaining she ‘was raised at a time when the acceptable amateur bird appreciation activities had shrunk to watching, feeding, and counting them… nests weren’t things that were meant to be found. They were carefully maintained blind spots, redacted lines in familiar texts… Nests were secrets.’ It’s a paradox within the exhibition; we might think of birds’ nests as commonplace things constantly invoked in images of homeliness and domesticity, but in fact they are quite hidden, ignored by scientifically minded ornithologists, kept distant by the RSPB, often quite a shock to find, like something stolen or that we weren’t meant to see. One way to enjoy Natural Selection is to take it at face value, an introduction to the wonder and variety of these structures, from the twiggy cups of the blackbird and the tubular shapes of the weaver, to the guillemot’s egg that, being shaped so that it’s very hard to knock off a cliff ledge, effectively bypasses the need for a nest with its own inbuilt defence mechanism.
Somewhere in the background to it all, connected by metaphor, is the Holdens’ home-nest in Bedfordshire and the story of Andy and Peter’s relationship. Andy, like his dad, has thought a lot about what the experience has taught him about influences and inheritance. ‘I came back to birds after studying sculpture and finding my own way through,’ he says. ‘To understand the nests I had to understand birds more, and I found there was an equivalence between my dad’s enthusiasm for the natural world and my enthusiasm for art. What’s inherited might not be the subject matter, but the way you approach the subject, or your drive towards it.’
He hopes the show will transcend its specific origins and become more about influence in general – and ‘about how, to think about the natural world and our relationship to it, we might have to place ourselves within that framework, rather than outside, peering into a space called “nature”.’