Will Maclean: D’Arcy Thompson Zoology Museum

September 2012

Publication: The Times

D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson (1860 – 1948) was undeniably a man of great intellectual stature – a polymath in the true sense of the word. For thirty-two years he held the Chair of Biology (later Natural History) at the University College Dundee; and from 1917, until his death, the Chair of Natural History at the University of St Andrews. In total, his professorial appointments amounted to 64 years. Bearded, blue-eyed well and over 6’ tall he was a commanding presence. As a teacher he was gifted and inspiring, if intolerant of dullards and laziness. Regarded with great affection, as a kenspeckle figure he was often to be seen striding around the streets of St Andrews with a parrot on his shoulder.


The D’Arcy Thompson Zoology Museum is appropriately dedicated to one of the University’s greatest professors (his only real intellectual equal for many years was Patrick Geddes). Given the international importance of Thompson’s work the limited, diminutive size of the museum comes as something of a surprise. The space also doubles as a teaching facility, underlining a lack of facilities, which differs little from the situation in D’Arcy Thompson’s day.


The small museum reveals a rather sad historic tail of small-minded vandalism and short-sighted planning, according to the Curator of Museum Services at the University of Dundee, Matthew Jarron.  “Although there are many impressive exhibits including material collected by Thompson on his expeditions to such remote and dangerous destinations as the Barents Sea it is estimated that around eighty to ninety per cent of the original collection was lost, simply having been given away, taken or thrown out and burnt,” he says.


Over the years, in an unofficial way – and with a mind-set entirely contrary to past ‘custodians’ of the collection – the university’s museum service has collected artists’ work that complements the scientific nature of this collection. This policy is now set to change with the award of a £100,000 from the Art Fund, which will allow an official collection policy to begin. The first purchased work is Will Maclean’s mixed-media box construction ‘Portrait of a Polymath - D’Arcy Thompson’s Daybook’ – Maclean has also donated a companion piece: ‘Museum of Zoology – Skull Notes’. Combined, the two works provide an important commentary on Thompson’s work and the museum collection. But such is Thompson’s influence that Maclean is by no means the first artist to have been influenced by the biologist’s work, in particluar his magnum opus ‘On Growth and Form,’ published in 1917.  Artists of the stature of Henry Moore, Richard Hamilton and Jackson Pollock have all drawn inspiration from his work.

Over the years Maclean – Emeritus Professor of Fine Art at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design –

has honed his technique but some elements remain the same as those found in, for example, ‘Symbols of Survival,’ which dates from the mid 1970s.  The box construction, replete with drawn and manufactured elements, as well as found objects (in the tradition of artists such as Joseph Cornell) provides the basis for a narrative. Here, in both works, the predominant ‘ground’ is a grey-white wash into which objects have been embedded and drawn. In ‘Portrait of a Polymath’ this includes fishing lures while the drawn narrative combines the suggestion of a metronome, musical notation and geometric diagrams.


Over the years the importance of art as factor in the understanding of science and vice versa has become increasingly obvious. These works, deeply thoughtful and painstakingly executed, demonstrate the continuing importance of that dialogue.