Nick Jeffrey Financial Times Butterflies

Financial Times, Nick Jeffrey


"The most famous examples of this are Damien Hirst's butterfly paintings, which feature dead butterflies stuck on to a glossy painted canvas, and his intricate montages of butterfly wings, one of which David Beckham is reported to have bought for £250,000 two years ago. Meanwhile, last month the Gagosian gallery in London's Kings Cross sold a diptych of Hirst canvases, both 7ft by 7ft, featuring assorted dead butterflies stuck in household gloss. The price was $1.3m.


Damien Hirst Psalm Print: Benedictus Dominus


The paintings, "The Agony and The Ecstasy", one black, one white, were created last year and sold within days of the opening of the Hirst show, called Imageless Icons: Abstract Thoughts. Four privately owned "Bilotti Paintings", on display at the Gagosian Gallery (until 26 March), feature butterflies pinned on to large canvases that are also strewn with soil, pages from the Bible, pens, razors, pills and other symbols of agony, ecstasy, religion, life and death.


So what's the appeal? Butterflies, of course, are symbolic of many things: chaos theory (does the flap of a butterfly's wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?), the ephemeral nature of life (a butterfly's life-span is, typically, less than a fortnight), short-term love (butterflies flit from flower to flower) and miraculous make-overs (ugly, sometimes poisonous caterpillar transforms to butterfly by way of a chrysalis.) Besides, taken at face-value butterflies, with their bright or subtle colours and markings, are simply beautiful.


For those whose budgets aren't up to paying millions for a Hirst original, however, other artists are producing more affordable butterfly art.


Nick Jeffrey, a 29-year-old self-taught artist based in Battersea produces three-dimensional pieces featuring butterflies mounted on perspex rods in mirror-backed perspex boxes. His customers include television presenter, Kirsty Young, who bought four, priced at about £350 each.


Nick Jeffrey Approach to Kompira-san


In contrast to Hirst, one doesn't need an understanding of semiotics to decipher Jeffrey's work; he cites his ex-girlfriend, Xandie, as an inspiration. "I was wanting to make a present for her and found myself in London's Butterfly House [at Syon Park] and thought 'how beautiful'," he explains. He made his first butterfly artwork last summer and has not looked back.


Not that it's all free-flying in the world of butterfly collecting. While the butterflies in Jeffrey's pieces are captive-bred, mounted butterflies in frames from, say, Portobello Market might have been caught in the wild, and the ethics of killing wild insects to make something to hang on the wall is a contentious issue, even among entomologists.


Nick Jeffrey Morpho Rise


However, Stuart Hine, manager of insect information at the Natural History Museum, which has 30m insect specimens of which an estimated 8m-10m are butterflies or moths, says displaying insects at home can be a good thing. According to Hine, if people have some scientific knowledge of the insects they display, it can "inspire others to be interested in the environment and conservation".


"I wouldn't want to see a world where we don't display any items like this," he adds, but warns buyers to check that butterflies (or other insects) aren't endangered and on the CITES list.


Papua New Guinea has developed a thriving industry where villagers encourage an increase in the butterfly population by growing (or not cutting down) the plants upon which the insects lay their eggs. This is called "ranching" rather than farming as no fences or enclosures are involved: butterflies come and go as they please - until they're caught, that is."