Bird of the Year 2014: best performances in a supporting role

Happy New Year, everybody.

Keen followers of the Bird of the Year Awards will notice a change in the categories this year. Butterflies and moths receive a disproportionate amount of my insecty attention, so I think it makes sense to split them out into their own category. Realistically, I could just split all invertebrates into ‘butterflies and moths’ and ‘other’, but I think it’s good to sit back at the end of the year and try to think of an interesting spider or slug or sea urchin or something.

Best Plant

I went on a lovely holiday in Portugal in the spring, and I mainly chose the timing for the flowers. Everyone goes to the Mediterranean at the wrong time of year. It may not be as hot at the end of April as it is in August, but the whole countryside is full of flowers and birdsong.

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So I was walking along the Atlantic coast of Portugal, and the cliffs were covered in drifts of rockroses — pale yellow, strong yellow, white, pink — but there was also French lavender, thrift, big Spanish broom, little compact mounds of broom with pale yellow flowers, maybe eight or nine different orchids, wild gladioli, amazing vivid blue pimpernels. And sometimes I’d put my backpack down and get a great waft of wild thyme.

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But I have to pick one. Among the various orchids, I was pleased to find these plants of a tongue orchid which is normally burgundy red:

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But perhaps perversely, I’m not going to pick a flower; my plant of the year is the cork oak:

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The numbers on the bark are to keep track of when each tree’s bark was last harvested. The combination of the dark naked trunks and greyish bark sleeves is rather charming, I think.

Best Butterfly or Moth

I made an effort to tick off a few more British butterfly species this year, and had four life firsts. But they were very much butterflies for the connoisseur; by which I mean they look… unspectacular. The names give you some idea: Essex Skipper, Small Blue, Grizzled Skipper, Dingy Skipper. The Small Blue is indeed remarkably small, but it’s not very blue; the Essex Skipper is distinguished from the Small Skipper by the colour of the undersides of the antennae; and the other two skippers are grizzled and dingy.

I also saw  green hairstreak for the first time in Britain, which is a genuinely pretty butterfly, with iridescent green underwings; but I have seen them before in France. And a few attractive moths, like Clouded Buff, and this Buff Ermine, seen here on the classic habitat of a railway station toilet door:

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But the winner is again from Portugal, a kind of butterfly I have wanted to see for years because it’s an exotic-looking European species not found in the UK: a Festoon. To be exact, this is a Spanish Festoon:

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It’s rather a worn specimen, and it’s a terrible picture taken with my phone through my binoculars, but it’s my butterfly of the year.

Best Insect (other)

The most exciting non-lepidopteran insects I saw this year in the UK were ruby-tailed wasp (so shiny!) and velvet ant (actually a furry wingless wasp, dontcha know). Although the most photogenic might be this dor beetle:

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But I also saw some good beetles in Portugal, like this spotty hairy chafer which I think is probably Oxythyrea funesta (but usually when I think I’ve identified an insect and I consult an entomologist, they tell me I would need to check its genitalia under a microscope to be sure):

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And there was this grotesque mammoth which, I learned later, is an oil beetle:

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But I’m going for this spiky beetle as my best insect (other) for 2014. According to the coleopterist I consulted on Twitter, it’s probably Sepidium bidentatum:

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Best Invertebrate (other)

So I was walking along in Portugal and thought oh, what’s that pink flower the bumblebee is feeding on…

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As it turns out, the bumblebee was not the one doing the feeding. That is a pink crab spider, possibly Thomisus onustus.

But my invertebrate of the year is the wasp spider Argiope bruennichi. These have been spreading rapidly across the south of England in the last ten years, helped by a combination of global warming and, I learn from Google, new-found genetic diversity after global warming allowed previously isolated populations to interbreed. It may be a sign of the coming apocalypse, but it’s a handsome beastie which I’ve been trying to see for a couple of years:

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Best Reptile

I saw a grass snake trying to eat a frog in the woods at Bookham Common. I did take a couple of pictures of snake belly in thick grass, but they’re not worth sharing.

Best Fish

No, I’ve got nothing.

Best Amphibian

I’ve seen the usual common frogs and toads — lots of tadpoles in the pond this year — but nothing notable.

Best Mammal

An Egyptian Mongoose in Portugal. I just googled this to check, and apparently it was always assumed that these were an introduced species in Iberia — because of a lack of fossil evidence and the distance from the nearest wild African populations — but there are fossils in North Africa, and recent genetic testing suggests the Iberian mongooses are the descendants of some of those North African animals that presumably crossed over at Gibraltar in the Pleistocene, when there was no sea there.

Either way, it was a neat surprise; I didn’t know they were there.

Best Ecosystem

Obviously the Portuguese cliff-tops were great, the pine scrub was a delight, but my choice is the steppes of Alentejo, where I went with a hired bird guide for a great days birdwatching. I imagine in summer they are baked dry, but when I was there it was gently rolling green fields with flowers forming great hazy patches of colour. I only took a couple of pictures and they don’t do it justice, but here’s one I took through a telescope, admittedly with the saturation punched up a bit, that gives you some idea.

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There are actually some birds in that picture, which is why I took it; but they can wait for the main Bird of the Year 2014 post.

Bird of the Year 2012: best performances in a supporting role

I guess I should post this before the end of January. Not a lot of outstanding sightings to report, though.

Best Plant

I was quite tickled to see some Marsh Mallow plants down in Kent. Because, yes, they are the original stuff that marshmallows were made from.

Best Insect

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This Poplar Hawkmoth was a pleasing find, and my most unexpected sighting was probably a Marbled White just across the road — are they breeding somewhere nearby? was it lost? — but insect of the year might as well be Swollen-thighed Beetle, Oedemera nobilis:

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Because it’s a fun-looking thing, because it has a great name, and because I posted a picture of it on Twitter and the Natural History Museum popped up to tell me what it was. I took that picture when I was out birding, although I later found more of them in the garden, so its clearly a common enough critter. Fun though.

Best Reptile

I went on a twitch to see the Baillon’s Crake which was at Rainham Marshes for a few days. I didn’t see the crake, but while I sat for about three hours in a packed hide staring at the fringes of the water, I did at least see a grass snake. Which was a nice treat.

Best Mammal

There are various places I regularly go which supposedly have water voles, but you hardly ever actually see them; or if you do it’s just a brown nose swimming across a channel from one reedbed to another. But on the same abortive crake twitch, I did find a couple of voles, sitting calm as you like just about eight feet from the path, chewing away at some iris leaves.  In fact if I hadn’t stopped to watch them for a while, I might conceivably have seen the crake, which showed not long before I got there… but it was still nice to see the voles.

Best Invertebrate (other), Best Fish, Best Amphibian, Best Ecosystem

I got nothin’.

Harry’s advent calendar of insects, day 19: Death-watch Beetle

Imagine, it is the early nineteenth century, on a still summer night in a creaky timber-framed cottage in the English countryside; and you are awake, sitting up with a sick child and a single flickering tallow candle for light.

And quiet but persistent, from somewhere in the darkness, you hear a noise.

It’s not surprising it might seem like a sinister omen.

Especially not surprising when you learn about some of other omens of death just in Oxfordshire:

local omens include crocks rattling, a spider making a ticking noise, two black crows on a line, a knock on the door with no-one there, crickets rapidly leaving a house, a dog howling, the clock striking 12 during the second sermon or hymn (Adderbury), fire burning with a bright hole in the middle (Stoke Row), a coffin shape formed in ironed linen or a loaf of bread, and a candle guttering and the grease spiralling to form a winding sheet.

It was taboo to wash clothes on Good Friday or New Year’s Day, to wash blankets in May, or to seat 13 at a table. People dreaded a picture falling from a wall for no apparent reason, scissors falling point downwards, or a glass ringing (indicating the death of a sailor). Dressmakers avoided accidentally stitching a hair into their work. It was bad luck if the eyes of a corpse remained open, or the corpse stayed in the house over a Sunday, or the funeral had to be postponed. People encountering a funeral procession would walk a little way with it to avert bad luck.

Plants associated with death include flowers with drooping heads such as snowdrops, dead flowers found outside and picked up, red and white flowers in a vase (especially in hospitals where they were described as ‘blood and bandages’), flowers blooming out of season, fruit trees blossoming twice in one year, or out of season, lilac brought in, parsley transplanted or given away, and red hot pokers blooming twice.

Many death omens were associated with birds: birds coming into the house, tapping on the window, flying into a closed window or flying down a chimney, cocks crowing at midnight, crows or owls perching near the house, and a robin perching on a chair.

They must have lived their lives surrounded by a constant swirl of portents, good or bad. Presumably most people, most of the time, shrugged it all off; but you can imagine if you were stressed, or depressed, or worried about someone’s health, you would find yourself seeing threatening signs everywhere.

That’s what the adult beetle looks like. 7mm long, mottled brown, slightly hairy. They make the ticking sound to attract mates by banging their heads against the timber.

And it might be an omen; not of death, but of some expensive renovation work. Because they are woodborers and if the adults are banging their heads against your beams, it probably means that their larvae are munching away, hollowing them out.

» The recording and the photo are both © Gilles San Martin and used under a CC by-sa licence.

Harry’s advent calendar of insects day 15: Aspidomorpha miliaris

I found Udo Schmidt’s amazing beetles photographs on Flickr and was like a kid in a candy store. I was very tempted by this longhorn beetle which looks like it was upholstered for a 1970s bachelor pad, or this one which is clearly a piece of military hardware. Or this scarab, apparently on his way back from a rave.

But then I found the leaf beetles, the Chrysomelidae. This is the insect of the day: Aspidomorpha miliaris, from India.

Amazing. Let’s not stop there! Here’s a bonus leaf beetle, Eugenysa colossa, from Peru:

And one more for luck, also from Peru, Stolas discoides:

All pictures are © Udo Schmidt and used under a CC by-sa licence.

 

Harry’s advent calendar of insects, day 2: Rose Chafer

In My Family and Other Animals, Gerald Durrell’s book about life as a nature-obsessed child in Corfu, there’s a description of the ‘rose-beetle man’: a dumb peddler of, among other things, metallic green beetles on lengths of thread, sold for small children to play with, buzzing around in circles like little aeroplanes.

This is the Rose Chafer, Cetonia aurata. My own particular memory is of seeing one fly over a pub garden in Bristol when I was a student.

I can’t remember the name of the pub, or precisely where it was, or exactly who was with me; but it was summer, and the sun was shining, and I was with friends, and there was this amazing big metallic green beetle buzzing over the garden. So it’s a happy memory. Vague but happy.

» Big Metallic Green Beetle…Rose Chafer (Cetonia aurata) is © Mgeorge733 and used under a CC by-nc-nd licence. Cetonia aurata is © etrusko25 and used under a CC by-sa licence.

A palate cleanser

OK, enough with the all the Murdoch-ery. Time for something a bit more wholesome.

Summer isn’t a great time for birding; you can tell when summer is well and truly here because bird bloggers start posting pictures of moths. Moths are like birdwatcher methadone.

So it seemed like a good time of year to check out a dragonfly sanctuary. 23 species have been recorded there — half the British list — although to be honest, there are a fairly limited number I would have any chance of identifying. In the event I only saw a handful of species; some small blue damselflies, plus Banded Demoiselle, Emperor Dragonfly and Brown Hawker. But Banded Demoiselle and Brown Hawker are particularly gorgeous, so it’s always nice to see them. The Brown Hawker has a bronze-brown tint to its wings which looks amazing when it catches the light: like a warm halo around the insect.

And there were lots of butterflies around, too: Peacock, Red Admiral, Comma, Meadow Brown, Gatekeeper, Large Heath, Small Skipper. Nothing very remarkable, but nice to see. The best butterfly was Small Tortoiseshell, a species which used to be common as muck but which is depressingly scarce in the south of England these days.

And lots of flowers. I can’t identify most of them down to the species level, and didn’t try, but for example: loosestrife, willowherb, vetch, yarrow, mallow, bedstraw, deadnettle, teasels and thistles. What fabulous names they have.

The photo, incidentally, is of cinnabar moth caterpillars and soldier beetles on ragwort flowers. One of the beetles is Rhagonycha fulva; the other looks like it has darker wingcases, in which case it’s probably Cantharis rustica. But I’m relying on a pocket guide to the insects of Britain and Western Europe, so anything I say should be taken with a pinch of salt.

Wildlife round-up

I’ve actually done quite a lot of birding this spring, making the most of the freakishly hot weather, but I haven’t really blogged about it. So here are some pictures and whatnot.

First, some audio; this is all recorded with the built-in microphone on my phone, so apologies for the quality. These are marsh frogs, Rana ridibunda, at Rainham Marshes in Essex.

A nightingale, at Brede High Woods in Sussex, with what I think must be a blackcap in the background.

Birdsong in the evening at my local train station. A mixture of chiffchaff, song thrush, blackbird, and automated train announcement.

Another nightingale, this time from the Lee Valley, with ducks and geese in the background.

Man Orchid. So called because the flowers look like little men, although it’s hard to see that on this photo (even more amusingly man-like is the Italian Orchid, which isn’t actually Orchis berlusconii, but probably should be).

Some kind of broomrape. Maybe Ivy Broomrape? There’s something deeply fascinating about these parasitic plants.

A couple of Little Grebes.

An out of focus peacock on blackthorn.

Some sea-kale, growing down on the shingle by the sea-side at Rye.

And bringing us right up to date, a beetle I found in the garden today which I don’t remember seeing before. This is the Wasp Beetle, Clytus arietis. I initially thought it was some kind of parasitic wasp hunting for food or somewhere to lay its eggs, so I guess the mimicry is working.


Wasp beetle a video by Harry R on Flickr.

Summer Chafer

The summer chafer, Amphimallon solstitialis, is a hairy beetle:

I’d never heard of this species before, but I saw one on Wandsworth Common yesterday and looked it up. Not quite as exciting as its friends the cockchafer and rose chafer, but still one of the more interesting beetles I’ve seen in the UK.

Incidentally, Wikipedia tells me that the cockchafer, quite an amusing name in itself, is ‘colloquially called may bug, billy witch, or spang beetle’. Spang beetle is particularly fine.

» The picture is Hugo the Summer Chafer, posted to Flickr by HaPe_Gera and used under a CC attribution licence.

Ladies, stags and owls

Last week — last Thursday, I think? — I was walking along the road and saw a butterfly go past which I thought was maybe a Painted Lady. Not actually my first of the year, because I’d only recently returned from Provence where I saw *thousands* of ’em, but still quite pleasing because they’re a migrant species resident in North Africa, and while they are not actually a rarity in Britain — some turn up every year — they’re not especially common either.

Then the next day there were a few in the garden, and mentions of them started popping up on the blogs and Twitter feeds of the handful of British natural history bloggers and twitterers I follow. And so I started thinking maybe this was going to be one of those years, when all the conditions come together and they are suddenly all over the place. Something that became very clear when I saw this tweet from @SallyCourt on Sunday:

An incredible sight at Strumpshaw Fen today with hundreds, probably thousands of Painted Ladies flying west. Also Swallowtails + H Dragonfly

In fact over the past week we’ve been in the middle of a massive movement of painted ladies across the whole country. Apparently it’s because they had good weather for thistles in Morocco over the winter. It probably isn’t a coincidence that I saw quite so many of them in Provence; I didn’t think that much of it at the time, since they’re a more common species in the Mediterranean, but there were an awful lot there. Maybe some of them were the same ones that are now fluttering across England.

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It hasn’t been particularly obvious that they’ve been migrating in my garden; there are a few flowers they like and so I’ve been seeing them fluttering back and forth, in no apparent hurry to get anywhere. But while it might appear to be the same three butterflies going round and round in circles, I guess it has probably been a whole sequence of new ones.

Today, after a couple of days of rain when I guess all the butterflies have been sensibly laying low, I saw one fly past outside the window, so I went along to the local park. And sure enough, there they were. Not in their thousands, but a regular stream of them passing through, looking much more determined, flying more or less straight by, heading about NNW. One every few minutes rather than one every few seconds, but once you knew what you were looking for, it was still quite striking.

Here’s an intriguing snippet about painted ladies from my butterfly guide:

Reported occasionally from Iceland, which has no indigenous butterflies.

I bet a few will make it to Iceland this year.

So that was good. My other good local sighting was this (apologies for the rubbishy iPhone photo):

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That’s a Stag Beetle. There are many species of stag beetle worldwide, so to be exact it’s Lucanus cervus, but in the UK it’s just Stag Beetle because we only have the one species with proper antlers. There is also, to be pedantic, the lesser stag beetle, but that’s much less interesting.

South London isn’t exactly a wildlife stronghold for many species, but stag beetles are increasingly rare nationally and doing pretty well around here, so it’s good to see one. It’s also good to see them because they are just fabulous little beasties.

While I’m on insects, a few things from Provence. We saw lots of butterflies, most of then just too hard (or too much work) to identify: blues, fritillaries, either Pale or Berger’s Clouded Yellow and so on. But also Swallowtail, Scarce Swallowtail, Red Admiral, Brimstone, Orange Tip. And this, the Southern White Admiral; another iPhone picture but it has come out looking surprisingly good. Most of the time they didn’t actually look that blue, but the light was obviously catching it just right.

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As well as butterflies, there were a few other things; lots of burnet moths flying around, which are always nice, and the Narrow-bordered Bee Hawkmoth I mentioned earlier. Those big black ants which are one of my earliest memories of southern Europe. And one critter that was a real puzzle. Take a look at this:

Now maybe you know what that is, but it confused the hell out of me. It looks most like a dragonfly, sort of, and it flies rather like a dragonfly, but the head isn’t right and look at those antennae! They were almost enough to make me think it was some kind of weird clearwing moth or even weirder butterfly — but it just doesn’t look right for either.

Thankfully for the sake of my sanity, my mother’s superior Google skills came to the rescue when we got back: it is an owlfly. A what? I’d never heard of them. They are related, Wikipedia informs me, to the lacewings and antlions, something which is not at all apparent when you see them sitting with their wings spread like dragonflies, but which makes more sense when you occasionally see one with its wings folded.

» All the pictures except the last were taken by me. The last is Libelloides coccajus, uploaded to Flickr by and © Le pot-ager (Philippe Vannier).

Poem

The whitethroat on the gorse bush knows 
the opposite of cold is song;
the beetle on the burnet rose
knows the whitethroat to be wrong.

Glow-worms

I have returned. Not that I went very far: my sister lured me to Hampshire with the promise of glow-worms. Wikipedia tells me that the glow worm we have in the UK is a species of firefly, but they don’t fly, or flash; the females are wingless, and sit in the grass glowing to attract the flying males. 

I suppose if you live somewhere where the fireflies are a bit more spectacular, the glow worm might seem a bit underwhelming, but they are what we have and I’ve never seen them before, so I was very pleased. This is Andrew Marvell, and one of my favourite poems:

The Mower to the Glow-worms

Ye living lamps, by whose dear light
The nightingale does sit so late,
And studying all the summer night,
Her matchless songs does meditate;

Ye county comets, that portend
No war nor prince’s funeral,
Shining unto no higher end
Than to presage the grass’s fall;

Ye glow-worms, whose officious flame
To wand’ring mowers shows the way,
That in the night have lost their aim,
And after foolish fires do stray;

Your courteous lights in vain you waste,
Since Juliana here is come,
For she my mind hath so displac’d
That I shall never find my home.

We also went for a couple of nice walks; lots of butterflies, lots of flowers, woodlark, stonechat, a pair of peregrines. And at Mottisfont Abbey, this moth, a Scarlet Tiger. So it was a very satisfactory trip all round.

Some local insects

Earlier in the season, most of the damselflies were blue ones; now they’re all blue-tailed:

This bit of south London is, slightly unexpectedly, a stronghold for the increasingly rare stag beetle. At this time of year you tend to see them flying overhead in the evening; but the weather has been so miserable that I haven’t really been outside much in the evenings. I did see one crawling across the pavement a couple of days ago, though. This, however, is not that species; it’s the more common lesser stag beetle, which is not nearly as big, and even the males don’t have antlers.

This is a hoverfly. Like most hoverflies, it’s a wasp mimic; they nearly all have black and yellow stripes, but they don’t sting. This is more spectacular than most, though; the large size and brownish colour are its attempt to look like a hornet. I think it does quite a good job, although looking at it closely like this it’s obviously a species of fly. We don’t actually have any hornets around here—I’m not sure I’ve ever seen one in the UK, although they do live here—so I don’t know how effective the mimicry is.

And here’s a holly blue. You can see the abdomen curled around on the ivy; presumably it’s laying eggs. It’s lives on the holly and the ivy, which is very Christmassy of it.

Wildlife round-up

I was pruning back a rosemary bush to get rid of what I vaguely thought were frost damaged leaves left over from winter, so I’d have some less manky rosemary to cook with, and found these:

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Which I immediately recognised from a photo in the London Wildlife Trust newsletter, though I couldn’t remember what they were called. It turns out they’re Chrysolina americana, the Rosemary Leaf Beetle.

Pretty, aren’t they? Something I’d be much more enthusiastic about if the little bastards weren’t eating the rosemary that I want to eat. Apparently they’re native to southern Europe and can’t fly, but have become an established pest in England, especially London, over the past ten years. No doubt they got here on rosemary and lavender plants (which they also eat) and I guess they must crawl from plant to plant, guided perhaps by their sense of smell. The suggestion is that they’ve only become established over the past decade because global warming has brought milder winters, so they’re a harbinger of doom as well as a pest. Here’s one of the grubs, and a rare shot of part of my hand:

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You can also see some of the damage, though it was a lot worse than that on other parts of the plant.

More evidence of spring, apart from the randy beetles: I’m up to four butterfly species for the year (Small White, Brimstone, Peacock and Comma). On the bird front, I saw my first summer visitors of the year last week; Chiffchaffs singing in the woods. Although according to that page, a few hundred of them now overwinter each year in southern England—probably another sign of global warming—so perhaps the ones I saw haven’t come from Africa after all.

There are ducklings and cootlings in the park, and a pair of Little Grebes—a contender for the cutest bird in Europe— haphazardly dragging around bits of weed as though they were about to build a nest. Which is exciting because it’s the first time I’ve seen them there. My sense is that they are becoming more common in London; certainly in my copy of the Atlas of Breeding Birds of the London Area from 1977, the Little Grebe map doesn’t have many orange blobs on it. That, at least, probably isn’t anything to do with climate change. More likely the grebes are adapting to city life.

Modigliani at the RA

I went to see Modigliani and his models at the Royal Academy today. In a sense, there was nothing very surprising about the exhibition since Amedeo Modigliani only really seems to have painted rather stylised portaits and very pink nudes, including this one of Joan Collins from 1917:

It (she?) looked pinker in real life.

The stylised portraiture is intriguing, because although the basic characteristics were fairly consistent — long neck, rounded shoulders, elongated face — and the paintings all have the Modigliani look about them, the overall effect varied considerably. Some came across as caricature, including this one:

Others have a rather impersonal quality that suggests that the particular model is almost irrelevant, that the subject is just a generic woman. This portrait of his lover/common law wife, Jeanne Hébuterne, seems to me to tend to fall into that category, although not as much as some of his other pictures of her:

To get a sense of how stylised the portraits are, this is a photo of Jeanne Hébuterne:

Many of the portraits did manage to look like portraits — like they showed a real personality rather than a caricature or a blank —but I didn’t note down any titles in the exhibition and haven’t managed to track down good pictures on the web to use in this post. Which is a bit unfair on Amedeo, but them’s the breaks. I did enjoy the exhibition; the best of the paintings have a real presence to them, and they’re never less than likeable.

The most intriguing of his stylisations is perhaps the blank eyes. Some of his portraits have irises, but most have blank eyes. I can only guess that he chose to leave the eyes blank because otherwise they were too distracting. In that sense they unbalance a portrait.

In Green Park (the nearest tube station) I was amused to see that someone had scratched out the eyes on a movie poster in what I would like to believe was a reference to Modigliani, but was probably just because they were bored. I didn’t have a camera, but here’s a reconstruction:

And finally, a bonus picutre. When googling Modigliani, I discovered Cyclommatus modigliani:

I assume the beetle is named after some other Modigliani — an entomological relative — but you never know, perhaps it was named by an art-loving beetlist.

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