A Giant Galápagos Tortoise
Recently I was fortunate to be allowed behind the scenes at the Oxford University Natural History Museum to draw this giant Galápagos tortoise.
If this tortoise was over a hundred years old (some lived over 200) that would mean he would have been pottering around a remote island, happily munching vegetation and growing big and strong, as far back as the early eighteenth century. It made me uncomfortable to think of him and his kin being slaughtered for meat or to fill the curiousity cabinets of European collectors, in the same way I feel guilty admiring all the beautiful things in the V&A Museum collected from our former Empire. Looking at his cracked shell, slightly battered skulls, and crumbling toe bones, I though of the thousands of Oxford scholars that must have poked and prodded and measured these bones. But the experience was also humbling as, although he was obviously long dead, it was like meeting a messenger from the past, a reptile ambassador from the age of the dinosaurs. And what a nice place to meet him -within the same building that had held the key debates on evolution between Huxley and Wilberforce in the 1860s. No wonder his skeleton seemed to be grinning, his kind had lived through all of our phases of Homo sapiens and didn’t need change much compared to us.
He was spectacular to draw, one of those occasions where I find myself having a conversation with the subject in my head as I explore his shapes and shadows and character. But hopefully the staff didn’t hear me talking out loud. I took a bit of licence in removing the rather savage-looking slice through his shell that must have been made after he was killed, so scientists could take him apart. I’m not sure why, other than a piece of me felt that this tortoise deserved a little bit of his dignity back. The drawings are on A1 paper, which was as big as I could easily carry to work and on a train to Oxford, but I left feeling that I’d like to make bigger drawings, life-size ones, to show even more detail if possible.
Thank you very much to the staff of the OUNHM, and to my lovely friend Emily for putting me up on my much-needed escape for London to a world of ivory towers.
The tortoise’s Victorian label
‘Testudo elephantopus guntheri’
‘Baur’ refers to Georg Baur a vertebrate paleontologist who in the late nineteenth century classified different sub-species of Galápagos tortoises.