“It’s difficult to say if an insect is happy…”

 

In recent years there’s been a trend towards the macabre in markets – skulls, anatomical models, spooky stuffed animals seem to have proliferated, perhaps in reaction to the well-scrubbed Mid Century look that’s been fashionable for the last two decades. On first glimpse, Benjamin’s stall at Broadgate market, packed with dead butterflies displayed in dark wood cases, embodies that look. But appearances can be deceiving. Benjamin’s love of butterflies predates any fleeting trends – and in his case, they’re a celebration of life, as well as death.

Why butterflies?
It’s always been a hobby and an interest. I’ve got no academic background in it, but ever since I was little I used to collect native species. and rear them through.It’s a fascination that’s never died away.

Do you grow these butterflies?
I do, but that’s nothing to do with this. I work at Stratford On Avon butterfly farm, a typical tourist place, and when the butterflies die, I pick them up from the floor. Unlike everyone else, who before they frame butterflies have killed them, mine have lived their life, albeit in captivity, in a good environment.

There is so much imagery around butterflies, the intensity of the colour and the shortness of their life, is that part of the attraction?
There are so many areas that are attractive. Obviously the whole metamorphosis thing captivated me as a child, all the different stages of their life-cycle and the incredible changes… that was the main thing. And as I got older there was so much to learn about them. As a subject, it seems to have all the beauty you find in art, the patterns in the wings and all the colour. And also scientifically there’s so much  you can learn about biological evolution, about mimicry. Whenever I feel like I need to go and learn I can dive into that again. For me it’s a subject that ticks a lot of boxes.

Where did you grow up, and how did you become obsessed with butterflies?
I grew up in Kings Heath in Birmingham. Every year I would go out find caterpillars, keep them, rear them and release them.

I think the first time I did that I was about eight. It’s a memory that really stays with me  I was out with my mum, she’d always tried to interest me in that kind of stuff,  and we saw a female comma butterfly. It’s quite a common butterfly, but a beautiful one, Polygonia Comma; it laid a single egg. And I watched the whole process from the first day the caterpillar emerged, right through to when it emerged from its pupa, then I released it. As an eight year old, that’s something that stayed with me. I did it every year with different species. And more exotic species you can import and do the same thing with.

Is there any one species you have a special affinity with?
It varies all the time. My favourite at the moment is Medusa Procris, a very, very beautiful, Asian butterfly, from a family, Limenitids, the patination on the underwings is perfect for my taste – that’s the species I like most at the moment.

There’s a dark, Gothic quality to butterflies in a case.. perhaps it comes from that Victorian attitude, of finding beautiful animals, then you shoot them and stuff them. You’re coming from a different place, but there is a special beauty to a dead animal, isn’t there?
Yeah, the macabre… but to be honest I prefer to see them in the wild, I like to go in the wild and take photos, to go and watch them, their behaviour. But it really helps to have specimens, just last week I was in the Natural History Museum, looking at all the British species to brush up on identification, and having them all in cases is a  great learning tool. But aesthetically I don’t think I’d cover my wall in dead butterflies. Here, their having died naturally makes a huge difference when I’m weighing it up in my mind.

You mount the butterflies yourself, is it difficult to work with them?
Yes – cutting the wings is the difficult part, because  they’re very brittle and love to tear about the wing veins.

Are your butterflies happy?
It’s a very good environment in Stratford, tropical greenhouses with waterfalls, tropical plants and trees. When assessing the quality of life, it’s difficult to say if an insect is happy. A good indication is their behaviour, and you see a lot of natural behaviour, mating, absorbing minerals, a good indication that they’re doing natural things. So from that point of view I’m pretty happy they’ve had a good life.

Benjamin Greenaway is at Broadway Market, Saturdays.

Comments

7 Responses to “Benjamin Greenaway, Butterfly Mind”

  1. Ranon on January 28th, 2012 1:57 am

    Great one Paul, I really loved this one. Really interesting guy who sees so much in the beauty of nature and its processes. Fantastic, please keep this going.

  2. LIzzie on March 7th, 2012 7:36 am

    We love these! I’ve got two!
    I’m trying to find contact details for Benjamin as some friends and me want to buy a necklace for a friends birthday..can you help us? Saturday at Broadway market will be too late!
    x

  3. Sarah on May 1st, 2012 12:46 pm

    Hi! i am also trying to find Benjamins contact details. i have one of his pendants and really want to buy one as a gift also before saturday… Please can anyone help!?

  4. admin on May 1st, 2012 12:55 pm

    We’ve sent you details, Sarah. Good luck.

  5. Kate on December 16th, 2012 7:46 pm

    Hello! Another request for Ben’s contact details if that’s okay?

    Thankyou!

    Kate

  6. Daisy on February 7th, 2013 5:21 pm

    Id love his details too! Pretty please!!!

  7. Tom Ryan on February 20th, 2013 1:53 pm

    I couldn’t find Benjamin’s Butterflies last Saturday at the market, despite looking! I guess he’s either moved or was absent that day. I urgently need more butterflies for a birthday present- could you forward me his details too, please?