“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.
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.
“People appreciate a well-built machine”
As you root around the items on Julia Hadden’s stall, you’re filled with a feeling of bliss, because they’re so beautiful, as well as sadness, a nostalgia for an era that we never knew. Those items document a time when kids would get their mums to pack up sandwiches in greaseproof paper first thing, then they’d disappear for a carefree day making mischief on their bikes, away from the prying eyes of adults. Those items commemorate a time when objects had a certain rightness, solidity and functionality, and were made to last. Like many stalls, Julia’s is a little history lesson, all by itself.
Your stall is named after Major Taylor; who was he?
He was an American cyclist, the first man black man ever to win a World Championship, in 1898. He was the first black man to ever be part of an integrated team and to have commercial sponsorship. He went on to cycle all over the world and got paid huge amounts to do it – but in America, other cyclists would try and knock him off his bike, one competitor tried to choke him on the velodrome, or if he won, they would give the trophy to the white man who came after him. He self-published his own autobiography – and then lost all of his money in the Great Crash of 29. He died a pauper at 53 in a horrible run-down hospital and was buried in an unmarked grave. Finally in the 1950s they exhumed his body and put up a monument to him. He was an amazing man.
How do you track your stock down?
There are such things as cycle jumbles, just for cyclists, and I get some stuff there. I’ve got people who know me and bring me items, and then there’s items from run down shops – because a lot of bicycle shops went out of business and just left their stock in the basement. Car boots and things like that, anywhere and everywhere.
This part of Broadway market is quite new, how long have you been here?
Seven months. It’s taking a little while but it’s finally a stable amount of people. And now people know about it they come out and hang out on the grass and have a nice lunch, it’s much quieter than the main market, calm, with more of a leisurely atmosphere.
Why cycling items and ephemera?
I had an old bike that was my mum’s, an old English Phillips Sit up and Beg. She’d had it years and years, I went it to get it repaired at a shop and they ruined it. Everybody told me, That bike’s so old, you should just throw it out! So I bought a vintage cycling repair book and did my own bike up. Then I looked for pieces to go on it, and the new stuff was really badly made or too expensive, so I started to get vintage stuff. Then people started to ask me where I got these items, and finally I figured, if other people are interested in it, I’m sure there’s a market for it!
Your stall commemorates a part of the English lifestyle, and manufacture, that’s gone, although people like Brooks saddles say they’re bringing it back.
The old Brooks leather saddles were much better made, the leather these days has a certain PVC coating on it. You don’t get that quality any more. The older stuff lasts longer., and it looks nicer too. I get a lot of older men who come to the stall and go, Ooh, I remember this, I remember that item. An era of well-made bikes, a lot of time and care went into building them well, rather than welding them really quickly. And making them as beautiful as possible.
What’s the best thing you’ve found recently when you’ve been rooting around for stock?
It was a Boys’ Own magazine with an article in it, called Cycle Sailing. It shows you how to build a sail for your bicycle, so you can go and sail around. I haven’t tried it yet, but I’ve got quite a few friends who want to find a field and build one and try it out as a sport.
So when the pressures of life get too much, you can get on your bike and…
Sail away! Yes!
The Major Taylor stall is at the small courtyard, off Broadway market, Saturdays and Sundays. You can reach Julia on email@example.com; twitter @majortaylortalk