Guest post: STILL LIFE WITH FOSSIL SEAFOOD ~ Exhibited at the Royal Academy


I was delighted to find my photograph Still Life with Fossil Seafood accepted for the Royal Academy “Summer” Exhibition this year. They say “summer” but it has only just opened to the public and goes on until 2 January. So, maybe more of a Devensian or Anglian summer, but with shorter days. However, when you go into the show it has the colour and energy of the brightest summer. It is also available to view online here.

I am a geologist by training (St Andrews) but couldn’t get a job in geology  in those days because of my gender. My careers advisory officer advised me to apply to the BBC, which I did and much of the rest is history. After working variously as a studio manager, producer, reporter, general presenter etc, I eventually melded my two halves and started writing and presenting programmes about geology and writing a few short books and newspaper features. In my spare time and on holidays I collected fossils and minerals with my husband, Des Maxwell Clark.

I think I will have to admit that it was the aesthetic quality of fossil and mineral specimens that had drawn me into the subject in the first place. The shape and form of some of the things we study are outstandingly beautiful, and the stories they can tell breathtaking and often epic. I would argue that as well as being scientifically important the specimens of our trade are like natural pieces of art, and not just any old art but the highest quality art.

Very occasionally my Mother accompanied us on fossil collecting trips and although she enjoyed the shape of ammonites, she was always hankering for lunch and would ask if they would have been good to eat when they were living. This rather charming thought has not left me. Yes, they may well have been utterly delicious.

A film I presented for the BBC’s Natural World series was named Postcards from the Past by my producer (Roger Jones) – the concept that fossils are like postcards from journeys of continental drift taken through earth history. If you know how to read them they will unfold great adventures and maybe some warnings about the extremes of climate that are possible on our planet. During the making of this film, specimens became the key way to engage the public with our science, alongside reconstructing environments of the past using archive film. (I called it operation Lyell in reverse!)

After taking early retirement I turned to fine art and became known for my photographic art, re-imagining famous works of art as photographs, using careful framing to add to the illusion of an updated oil painting. (See my website for more examples.) I had made well over 40 of these and already had three hung at the RA. But after visiting some particuarly gorgeous still life paintings in the Rijksmuseum and the Wallace Collection in London, I felt the traditional still life was a genre I could not ignore. The concept of fossils as food and geology as a series of aesthetic objects suddenly clicked in my brain with the need to shoot a still life, and so I started choosing pieces from our own collection and arranging them on the kitchen table on a small Dutch table carpet I had inherited from my Belgian Aunt.

I tried a variety of ammonites, but it was soon clear that strong ribbing and serpentine coiling was going to work best, so involute samples went back in the cabinet pretty quickly. All the best still life paintings have a lobster, and it just so happens that about 45 years ago my husband found a fine specimen of Meyeria magna on the Isle of Wight (I believe this beast has undergone a name change) so that had pride of place. I had to have another arthropod so my prize trilobite (pet name Nelson) went in the front. I needed some grapes, so used some carnelian and soapstone ones I’d bought in a charity shop, plus a rather fine piece of haematite from Florence Mine in Cumbria. A glistening cut lemon is often featured, and for that I substituted two slices of polished  Scottish agate. Instead of silver vessels I used geodes from Morocco and a cluster of quartz xtals from Cornwall. Oysters – we need oysters, so Gryphaea was the obvious one to use there. (Hmm, I hate raw oysters, but love them cooked, I bet Gryphaea would have been nice prised out of his shell with a very strong oyster knife,  wrapped in parma ham and fried!! Yummy.)

Orginally I’d planned to shoot the whole thing in candle light having previously shot an homage to Mary Anning that way. But it didn’t seem quite right this time. So the following morning I got up bright and early to find the eastern sun shining beautifully on my set. I made a few fine adjustments, put a reflector in and pressed the shutter. That was it. Job done.

Of course the hidden message in the traditional Dutch Still Life genre is the memento mori – that reminder of the fate that awaits us all, that we’re all gonna die… In my still life I have gone further, as firstly you can’t get more dead than a fossil and secondly the image is in fact a memento mori for the whole planet – there are at least two mass extinction events represented in there and, well everyone, another mass extinction does appear to be a fate that awaits as all. Think on it, I am telling my audience.

The reaction to the image has outstripped my expectations. Comments and enthusiasm from people that saw the image in the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter made me feel this was the one I should choose for my RA application this year. I was right. It has gone down very well indeed. The framed image sold at one of the early private views, nearly a week before it opened to the public and orders for unframed prints (£120) are streaming in.

The show is on until 2 January, but to visit physically you have to book a slot in advance. It is well worth going. Look out for some other interesting artists such as Bristol-based Emma Stibbon RA who is interested in rapid geological change and active landforms. Her multi-layered prints are a science in themselves and very beautiful. Geology and art are natural soulmates.

Review: T. rex ~ Back to the Cretaceous

This 1998 film was made for Imax, and the DVD version has been remastered from the original 70mm stock. It maintains the 4:3 Imax format and runs at 44 minutes. Directed by Brett Leonard.


The film is voiced by Ally Hayden, the dinosaur-loving teenage heroine, who works as a museum guide but really wants to be out in the field with her palaeontologist father, Dr Donald Hayden. In an early sequence, she is in the museum, she is talking to visitors while information screens play behind her (she refers to cladistics, and birds as dinosaurs to the visitors). This is intercut with scenes of her father at his dig, in which he and his assistant find some interesting fossils in a crevice exposed when his assistant has an accident and loosens some rock. They turn out to be dinosaur eggs.

When she is at home her father phones her – from the “Dinosaur County Store” complete with model T. rex with flashing eyes – to say he has been delayed but when she asks to join him, he refuses. We are then back in the museum in her father’s laboratory, and she wants him to look at her science project, about parental care in T. rex, but he rejects it, as he thinks it is based too much on speculation. He leaves her at his desk where one of the new dinosaur eggs is resting on the table; she accidentally breaks the egg and a brown gas escapes.



What happens next is unclear whether it’s a hallucination or time travel, but Ally wanders through the museum alon and the exhibits seem to come alive, including a roaring T. rex skeleton. She then finds a doorway into a forest where she meets a group of Parasaurolophus, complete with colourful crests. Back in the museum again, she is looking at some paintings and one – Knight’s ‘Leaping Laelaps’ – comes alive, taking her into the forest where she meets a figure sitting at an easel, painting.

It is Charles Knight himself. She points out that his T. rex was “a bit off”, he had given it three fingers when it had two and he replies that Barnum Brown had brought back an incomplete skeleton so they had made an educated guess. She does ask, however, why he had called Archaeopteryx a “little dinosaur” and how did he know? He talks about anatomy, understanding skeletons, watching animals – and imagination.

Back in the museum, her father is now looking for her and they can hear each other but he can’t find her. She is in the Ladies, runs the tap to wash her face and is again transported back in time.

This time she emerges in what seems like a tent and meets Barnum Brown. They are on the Red Deer River, on a barge, drifting down the river while on the shore, the dig goes on. He explains the principle of sediments and dating fossils, and when she asks him why the dinosaurs disappeared, he thinks it could have been volcanic eruption or earthquakes creating conditions on the planet that the dinosaurs could not have survived. The layer of ash they can see in the cliff marks the end of the Cretaceous.

She is back in the Ladies’ room but another door takes her into a misty primaeval forest. And there are T. rex footprints.

She is seen by a Pteranodon who hovers, then flies away. Following a mountain stream deeper into the forest, she hears a deep roar and tries to escape through the vegetation, catching her silver locket on a bush as she does so. This is intercut with her father and museum guard trying to find her in the museum.

Ally then finds a nest with eggs, recognises it as a T. rex nest but as she checks it, a Ornithomimus is trying to steal one of the eggs. She defends the nest but then the mother T. rex appears. There is much roaring and the Ornithomimus takes an egg, chased by the T. rex. In the struggle, the egg is thrown clear, and Ally catches it – and presents it back to the mother.

The mother recognises her help and Ally is able to stroke her nose. Just then, the sky is filled with falling meteors, then a huge flash, more roaring from the T. rex and a massive wall of ash is approaching… Ally is thrown clear and is back in the museum with the T. rex skeleton, and her father.

Her father now compliments her on her project and promises to read it properly, and they leave. He gives her back her locket… when she asks where he found it, he replies enigmatically “the late Cretaceous”. As they leave, the egg on the desk starts to shake and split open… and a T. rex chick hatches out.


In the film’s favour, the protagonist is a teenage girl who loves dinosaurs, and it isn’t the scare-fest of other dinosaur films; she sympathises with the mother T. rex, and the human figures she meets in the past are sympathetic – Charles Knight and Barnum Brown are able to give background information and interact with her, giving a sense of them having the best knowledge of their time.

It was filmed in the Dinosaur National Park in Canada, and credits the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology and Phil Currie as Curator of Dinosaurs, and the NHM LACM, with Lawrence G Barnes as Curator of Palaeontology.

It’s a fun way to spend 45 minutes with the DVD, although it was clearly designed for a 3D Imax experience, with the dinosaurs appearing in the audience space. The story works, although the switching between the museum and the forest feels a bit choppy. Some of the CGI is a bit strained, but then, the film is over 20 years old.