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Capturing the fragility and beauty of British moths

The peppered moth has gained particular fame as an example of natural selection. During the Industrial Revolution, these moths became notably darker, losing their ‘peppered’ quality in response to the dark smoke emitted by burning coal and thus improving their camouflage. Over the past 50 years, they’ve once again become lighter The peppered moth has gained particular fame as an example of natural selection. During the Industrial Revolution, these moths became notably darker, losing their ‘peppered’ quality in response to the dark smoke emitted by burning coal and thus improving their camouflage. Over the past 50 years, they’ve once again become lighter Sarah Gillespie
20 Aug
2021
Artist Sarah Gillespie used the historic mezzotint technique for her collection of British moths, highlighting both their beauty and the pressures they face

Determined to use her talents to draw attention to the plight of English moths, artist Sarah Gillespie spent two years researching, drawing and engraving these often-overlooked creatures.

Although these images look a bit like photographs, Gillespie actually used a technique called mezzotint to create each print. Mezzotint is a labour-intensive engraving technique used widely between the 17th and early 19th centuries. Each print is created using a copper plate, worked over with a fine-toothed tool (a ‘rocker’) so that the entire surface is roughened. Creating different tones then involves gradually rubbing down the rough surface of the plate to various degrees of smoothness; this reduces the ink-holding capacity of certain areas. 

Moths play vital roles in their ecosystems as pollinators, recyclers and food for bats and songbirds. Moth caterpillars are an especially important part of the diet of young chicks, including those of most of our familiar garden birds, including blue and great tits, robins, wrens and blackbirds. Yet in just 35 years, the British moth population has been reduced by a third due to a mixture of habitat loss, intensive farming, commercial forestry and light pollution. It’s thought that since 1914, around 62 species of moth have become extinct in Britain alone. Numbers of the well-known garden tiger, the pink-striped blood-vein and the white ermine have decreased by 92 per cent, 73 per cent and 70 per cent respectively.

Sarah Gillespie Four Dotted Footman mothThe four-dotted footman moth, so named for its four dark spots. When at rest, only three spots are visible, with the other hidden within the fold of the wings

Sarah Gillespie Privet HawkmothThe privet hawk-moth is the UK’s largest resident moth, with a wingspan of 9–12 centimetres. It has a pink-and-black-striped abdomen and hindwings

Sarah Gillespie Small Phoenix Sarah GillespieThe small phoenix moth, identifiable by its dark, wedge-shaped markings, is common in the British Isles

Sarah Gillespie White Ermine Sarah GillespieThe white ermine moth can be found in most rural and urban habitats, and generally flies from May to July. According to Butterfly Conservation, numbers are down by 70 per cent

Sarah Gillespie White Plume mothOne of the largest of the ‘plume’ moths, the white plume has wings that are divided into separate ‘fingers’, each of which is finely feathered

The exhibition, Sarah Gillespie: Moth, will be held at Castle Howard, North Yorkshire, from 29 May to 5 September

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