An illuminated Origin of Species

November 13, 2011 • 9:51 am

Here’s a felicitous combination of art and science that looks really cool. Kelly Houle, a calligrapher and natural-history artist in Arizona, has embarked on a daunting project: producing a complete hand-lettered and illuminated manuscript of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. She briefly describes the project here, with a nice video, and the project’s full website is here. I find it pleasingly ironic that the technique used for so long to produce artistic Bibles is now being applied to a book that’s actually true.

You can see specimens of Kelly’s work on her website.  Here’s a maribou stork (Leptoptilos crumeniferus; oil on board, reproduced, as are all illustrations in this post, with permission of Ms. Houle, and all are copyrighted):

Here is Chrysina gloriosa, also called the “glorious scarab”:

And a sample page of the manuscript with a cotton plant.  Kelly tells me that this (and the drawing) is just a preliminary sketch to get a sense of the layout:

And the book will be big!  Here’s an idea of how large each page will be:

This manuscript will be a one-of-a-kind production that will deserve a place in a library or other institution. What better book to turn into art than the best science book of all time? (I’ve signed on as a gratis scientific advisor.)

Given the length of The Origin (Kelly’s using the first edition), she estimates it will take her five to ten years to do the whole thing. She’s trying to raise $9000 by November 17 to create the first ten pages, and has nearly reached this goal.

If you like this project, please make a donation to get it started. You can make your pledges here, and you get a nice gift even with pledges as low as $10.  For only $30, for instance, you get eight embossed gold greeting cards like this one (you’ll recognize Darwin’s sketch of the first “tree of life” in history):

And for just $250 you get an original 8″ X 10″ illuminated, hand-painted picture of your favorite beetle. Where else can you find a bargain like that?  The artwork alone is worth far more. And check out what you get if you can spare $600!

Here’s Kelly at work; if you have any questions for her about the project, put them in the comments, for she’s promised to answer.

57 thoughts on “An illuminated Origin of Species

  1. Very cool!

    (Off topic: I had the weirdest dream today .. something about a post here about John Haught and how evolution must be true, because of ‘God’ .. really strange).

  2. Has Kelly sought funding from across the pond? The Royal Society, the Royal Society of Arts, RS of Medicine, RS of Chemistry? Or “English Heritage”, who curate and own Darwin’s Down House?

    A few large donations could see her over the next few years.

    1. Thank you, Steve. This is an important point, and one I have thought about quite a lot. In this book I will bear witness to the war of nature with an unflinching eye and aim to represent it with respect and sensitivity.

      1. Thank you. Your work is beautiful and remarkable in its own right—I’m really looking forward to seeing more!

        1. Kelly, the teasers shown here are astonishingly beautiful. from the layout to the colors to the just-right amount of detail. Your stork is extraordinary too. I wish I could paint half as well.

      2. How concerned are you in your work with the distinction between art and illustration?

        Where this distinction is made and as the title implies “Contemporary Botanical Illustration” by Rosie Martin and Meriel Thurstan) your works are of this sort, first a scientific representation.

  3. Concerning the page with cotton: “Kelly tells me that this (and the drawing) is just a preliminary sketch to get a sense of the layout”

    Preliminary sketch? Almost sounds like she’s apologizing for that page. This book is obviously going to be spectacular if her standards are that high.

    Too bad I won’t be able to afford it. Sniff.

    Maybe there’ll be a paperback someday?

    1. (hands ARACHNO a tissue)

      In addition to publishing a high-quality limited edition, I will be making the book available as a free ebook in the spirit of encouraging more people to actually read it.

      1. Kelly, I am in awe.

        I know I would want to have the high-quality limited edition, but a free e-book edition too? I am a-fizz with admiration.

        Your work is extraordinary. Superb.

  4. Fantastic! I am a retired medical and natural science illustrator myself so you can take my word for it that Kelly is an excellent artist doing a special project so dear to us all. She probably belongs toThe Guild of Natural Science Illustrators. Check out their web site to see more sensational nature illustration, bugs, birds, and worms. Darwin wrote a great book and many others as well, but they all would have been better with illustrations.

    1. Thank you, cgosling! I plan to use part of the money from this initial fundraising campaign to join several professional organizations in both science and art. I look forward to becoming a member of the GNSI and finally getting a copy of their illustration manual–it is amazing!

  5. That’s gorgeous. I wonder if the final version will also be on vellum. Darwin’s ghost is grateful that his book finally gets some illustrations. Will it be a First Edition?

    1. Thank you! Yes, I will be writing the unabridged first edition. As far as vellum goes, I think it’s beautiful, but considering the size of this book and the nature of its content, I didn’t feel right about using animal skins. Instead, I’m using a very high-quality hot-pressed cotton paper, which happens to be the best paper in the world for both calligraphy and detailed watercolor painting.

  6. What a great idea! I can’t wait for my full-size Illuminated Origin title page! Only 1 left. Better hurry. I like the
    “adopt-a-beetle” option too but I wouldn’t know what beetle to choose. Any ideas?

      1. Got the last one. I have a place for it right between my Bacon and Murakami. Both about the same size.

        It will make a nice a nice transitional form–rock it Kelly!

      2. Hmmm. Okay, then I’ll take number 202,411. Is that a good one? But seriously, I wish you the best of luck on this amazing and enormously significant undertaking. I second the call to all you millionaires, give big!


  7. Wonderful! I heard someone on television reading from the closing paragraphs of the Origin and my vestigial fur prickled and I realised that for me this had become a beloved and familiar scripture, as resonant as anything from the KJV.

  8. Fabrizio Brascugli reblogged this on Le ali della farfalla and commented: Dorato, artistico, illustrato, come si s’addice a un manoscritto rarissimo, magari chiuso in qualche cripta e ritenuto pericoloso, perché una sua comprensione profonda rischia di essere corrosiva. Sicuramente da avere e magari collocarlo accanto a una Bibbia illustrata, se si ha spazio e luogo adatto in casa. I disegni sono splendidi e l’arte e può essere scientifica.

  9. Such nice photographs, showing a stork and beetle so clearly, much better than…

    What a fucking second, THOSE ARE PAINTINGS!?!

    Sweet FSM she is amazing. As soon as I start my job I’m getting some of those beetle pictures and framing them, they’re just so amazing.

    Will there be a high quality print of that book available when it is done? It’s far too beautiful to be left collecting dust in a museum, it MUST be admired and appreciated by people everywhere.

    1. I would happily pay hundreds of dollars, if necessary, for a good-quality photographic edition of this book. I am in awe of her work, and the intelligence and aesthetic behind it.

      This is an astounding marriage of art, science, and literature. It is modern and historical, visual and verbal, beautiful and intellectual.

      I whole-heartedly agree; this will be a treasure for whatever museum or library eventually gets the original, but I would like to see this made available to all in an appropriately high-quality photographic edition. I know I would love to turn the pages of such and edition and revel in the myriad beauties of each page, and pass it down to my daughter and her family some day….

  10. This project reminds me of Grayling’s The Good Book: a secular version of “sacred” texts. I love that this gives a foundational document the treatment it deserves, presenting it with majesty and pomp.

  11. After suggesting Kickstarter as a potential source of funding, I did a little research. There is a Kickstarter project for raising $3000 … which has already reached nearly $11000.

    And now I’ve just moused-over some of the original post, which does in fact link to the Kickstarter page.

  12. So glad WEIT is one of my first internet stops each morning. Reading this post and being able to offer a tiny bit of funding to such an inspired and inspiring project really started my day off on the right foot. When this project is finished, I hope it doesn’t end up too far away in a locked cupboard. I can imagine making a special vacation trip planned around visiting the home of the illuminated manuscript. To see it full size, in real life would be stunning.

    Thank you for creating this, Ms. Houle and I’ll look forward to updates as you post them through Kickstarter!

    Jen Audette

  13. Such an elegant concept, a beautiful idea, like the original really. The sample page in Jerry’s post is breathtaking and truly illuminates the great man’s masterwork. I’m already longing for the completed artwork to be reproduced one day and published in an impression that would fit onto a bookshelf or a coffee table, it would surely become a bestseller. The original artwork could be housed at The British Library perhaps(another possible source of funding), or Down House, as per comment No7 by Dermot C.

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