Not long into her talk, Jane Hall quoted the famous William Morris saying — ‘Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful’. The breathtaking beauty of her work is perhaps obvious to any viewer. The time, dedication and sheer patience that it takes to produce her life-like insects is remarkable. Morris’ reference to utility, though not perhaps immediate apparent, will soon become clear.
Jane trained in embroidery at Loughborough and her work, which has expanded, grown and developed since then, is now concerned with the minute replication in stitch of butterflies, flowers and fairies. On average it takes 8-10 weeks to create only one of her precious butterflies, time, she says, spent listening to radio plays and imagining in her wonderful garden studio at her home in Dorset. This studio is filled with everything Jane needs, an abundant amount of cotton-reels, needles and trays of real butterflies which met their deaths naturally.
The talk was commenced by demystifying the materials she works with, namely silk, chiffon and organza. These were then passed around for the audience to appreciate. She demonstrated that the Japanese needles she uses are specially designed with flat heads and round eyes; so they do not damage the ever-so delicate fabrics. Jane referred to her work as ‘studies’, ‘still-lives’ or ‘portraits’, using anthropomorphic language which transforms these butterflies into beings as human as you or I — and thus deserving of these artistic terms.
Just as inspiriting is her profound knowledge about the creatures she has dedicated her life observing. Jane was full of stories about the lives, biology and history of her marvellous animals. She demonstrated how the Peacock butterfly has markings, which upside-down look like owl’s ears, in order — miraculously — to catch predators off-guard. This was made clear by a skilful 180° rotation of the projector, a feat which everyone enjoyed. There was another tale about the belief that butterflies soured milk, one generated by superstitious farmers concerned with the lore of fairy kind.
And so, we return to William Morris, and having ‘nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful’. Jane admits to becoming more and more invested in nature conservation, the environment, extinction and reintroduction. In the United Kingdom, it is clear that the butterfly is very tangibly in peril. According to charity Butterfly Conservation’s 2015 study, ‘70% of the species are declining in occurrence…and 57% declining in abundance since 1976’. Jane’s artistry is another way of engendering interest and maintaining the butterfly’s position in the front of the mind. Her passion in conservation was typified by the symbiotic relationship between the Large Blue and the humble ant — a fascinating and surprising story.
It was apparent that Jane’s love of these fairy-creatures does not stop at drawing, painting and sewing. Instead it is a passion which has been honed from childhood: from the days of sending letters to the birds, by way of the hedge on the way to school; inviting them to tea. The excavation of a field— removing 350 tons of top-soil — was in order to design a butterfly garden and magical fairy-house. Over a decade ago Jane made a shimmering golden wedding dress over 8 months, which is now deservedly resting in Mompesson House, Salisbury. Her latest undertaking is a work that will span years — a butterfly cabinet and ‘her piece of Heaven’: an homage to the cabinets of curiosity or kunstkammers of the 16th century. The eventual dream will be layers upon layers of butterflies: pressing up to the glass in a complimentary wooden frame made by Rupert Brown.