Sketches from Hastings

I’ve lived in Hastings for nearly eight months now, and I am still continually struck by how beautiful it can be. Travelling around, and coming home, I welcome the sight of the sea, and the rise and swell of the East and West hills.

Not had much time to do anything but work and catch up with life, but here are a couple of quick drawings I did months ago and have just got round to finishing off. The first is Pelham Crescent, the street where I live, and the second is what used to be Broomham Hall, now Buckswood School, where I work. More to come, hopefully.

Pelham Crescent, Hastings. Leila Battison, 2013.

Pelham Crescent, Hastings. Leila Battison, 2013.

Buckswood School, Guestling. Leila Battison, 2013

Buckswood School, Guestling. Leila Battison, 2013

Artist spotlight – Marie Robinson

So I’m meant to start travelling this evening, and haven’t thought about packing yet, so what better way to distract myself/everyone else, than to draw your attention to some of the most awesome paintings I’ve seen in a long time.

Marie Robinson is a wife of a friend and fellow Morris Dancer, and she paints some astounding stuff, mostly in oils, always in intricate and perfect detail.  Myself, as someone with an aversion to paint and colour, I am astounded by what she can achieve with a few brushstrokes.  On her website, she has a variety of lovely collections, my personal OCD favourite is this pair of spoons.

Spoons - Jumble, Marie Robinson

Spoons – Jumble, Marie Robinson

Spoons parallel, Marie Robinson

Spoons parallel, Marie Robinson

I love the collections, and there are plenty more over at her website, check them out.

But what really, really, gets me going, is her landscapes.  Again, something I would never be able to attempt myself, they are breathtakingly beautiful in themselves, but what Marie has gone one step further and done something I have been hankering to see for a long time.  Modern landscapes.  Clouds and rolling hills are beautiful, but are not particularly representative of the skies we see every day.  Skies that are criss-crossed with contrails and modern views of rural landscapes are just as, if not more beautiful, in my humble opinion, than the flawless Constables and Turners.

The beauty of Turner’s work is owed partly to the global effects of the Indonesian volcanic eruptions between 1812 and 1815, and he captured a brief, beautiful period of time.  Marie is doing the same today with the effects of our extensive intercontinental air travel, and our gradual spread into rural England.

So, with her permission, I reproduce a few more of my favourites from her website.  I hope you too will be tempted to go and check them out, go to her exhibitions, and buy her beautiful paintings.

Cherwell Valley Rising Mist, Marie Robinson

Cherwell Valley Rising Mist, Marie Robinson

February Evening Flight, Marie Robinson

February Evening Flight, Marie Robinson

October afternoon - Aynho Wharf, Marie Robinson

October afternoon – Aynho Wharf, Marie Robinson

Marie can be found at

Radcliffe Camera in Pen and Ink – A tribute…

… to the last eight years of my life.  And it has taken me nearly a year to get round to finishing it, what with that pesky thesis getting in the way.  Anyway, in the vacuum-like calm of the post-thesis lull, I finally got round to tuning back into Radio 4 and picking up my Stabilo again.

Radcliffe Camera, Pen and Ink on paper

Radcliffe Camera, Pen and Ink on paper


The Radcliffe Camera, affectionately known as the ‘Rad Cam’, is one of the most iconic buildings of Oxford University.  It is a reading room of the Bodleian Library, being chiefly the home of antiquated law and sociological texts as far as I know.  As a result, I, as a scientist, was treated only to the subterranean delights of the Racliffe Science Library, and none so internally or externally picturesque as the Rad Cam.  Nevertheless, as an undergraduate I found several excuses to work in there whilst revising for finals.  The silence in there is oppressive, and personally not conducive to concentration, as I contemplated the changing pitch in readers’ footsteps as the perused the shelf.  At least I went there, and I spent many more hours working on it, than I ever spent working in it.



Phylogeny made beautiful again

If you study evolution and palaeontology, whether it is diplodocus or drosophila, hadrosaurs or hominids, at some point you are likely to make use of, or even make your own, phylogenetic tree.  These trees are really the holy grail of evolution studies, showing the relationships between species, what evolved from what and, in some cases, how long ago their common ancestor lived.  They can be built by comparing similar characters in a creature’s appearance, like number of legs, or how they reproduce.  Alternatively, modern evolutionary biologists use the information-rich genetic code in living organisms to make and compare many trees, ultimately resulting in one that most accurately represents the true course of evolution.

Making a tree inevitably involves a lot of number crunching, but the resulting diagram is elegant and informative.  Try this general one of eukaryotic life

Phylogenetic Tree of Eukaryotes

Here, Bacteria have been used as an ‘outlier’ to compare all the other members of the Eukaryotes. Each branch marks an evolutionary ‘divergence’ – a novel change that created that group of organisms.  For instance, the invention of chloroplasts led to the all the members of the plant kingdom, just as the invention of feathers led uniquely to birds. The fewer the number of branches between two creatures, the more closely related they are.  For instance, we are more closely related to cows and whales, than we are to marsupials.

So to a graphically minded palaeontologist, a phylogenetic tree is quite a thing to behold, but there is a way of making them even better.  For many, more detailed trees, you may be dealing with specific species, and lots of them.  Take this now-famous ‘megatree’ of all the dinosaurs:

Dinosaur Phylogenetic Tree. Lloyd et al Royal Society

While it is undoubtedly a breathtaking piece of work, with a striking design, its usefulness is questionable to all but the most dedicated head-tilting members of the vertebrate palaeontological community.  More and more trees are appearing with more and more information crammed into them, and they are no longer the elegantly informative diagrams they once were.

But there is a growing trend to making phylogenetic trees beautiful and readable again, using silhouettes of the creatures being compared, rather than, or in addition to, their names.  And hopefully this graphically gorgeous trend will continue with the launch of PhyloPic a new open database of life form silhouettes for use in phylogenetic and other applications.  Here’s an example:

Rangifer tarandus (reindeer) from PhyloPic

The open source database is encouraging submissions from registered users (registration is as easy as pie) of silhouettes of any creature, in solid black, to be used under a creative commons license.  Users can search the database for the latin or the common name, and download the image in a variety of sizes and manipulable formats.

At the moment, the search and browse facilities are still a little clunky, and the database is  rather sparsely populated with some odd looking silhouetted.  What on earth are these?

Mystery silhouettes from PhyloPic

They are, in actual fact (from left to right): a single-celled symbiotic euakryote, a placozoan, a human baby, a choanoflagellate, and a pterosaur.  Perhaps a little more contecxt will make these silhouettes a little less mysterious.

Needless to day, as an artist and a palaeontologist, I heartily approve of this new resource and I know I’m not alone – the young palaeo-community has got silhouetted ants in their pants with excitement over it.  I will certainly be contributing some images over the coming weeks, and I encourage any other artistically minded palaeontologist, zoologist or miscellaneous scientist to help to build this wonderful database.

Browse or contribute to PhyloPic here:

Camels in the Cambrian? A Geology Mnemonic

Sitting camel

Sitting camel. Indian ink on paper. Copyright Leila Battison 2012

How did you learn the geological timescale?

Geology is not a standard subject in the UK Curriculum, so those few students who arrive at university having done it at GCSE or A-Level, have usually been taught it by non-tradtitional means.  They are more exposed to the whim and wit of their teacher than they would be in any other subject.

In fact, it was partly the charisma and enthusiasm of my A-Level Geology teacher that prompted me to apply to Geology at university, and…well, the rest is history.  Initially planning to take science subjects and apply for biochemistry, I chose Geology at A-Level on a bit of a whim – having always enjoyed physical geography.  Imperceptibly, as the weeks passed, all thoughts of biochemistry slipped away, and I realised I’d been a geologist all along.  Starting it at university was a bit of a shock to the system, and it was only then I realised my love affair was not entirely with the subject, but also with the teaching (not the teacher, I know how that sounds), and I was suddenly deprived of it.

Amongst the physical memories: Shap granite on the front desk, the poster about petroleum play (tee hee) and the river delta tank – some lessons still remain.  By far the most useful was a handy mnemonic for remembering the order of the geological time periods.  I was surprised to find later that not everyone learnt this, and I admit I have rather come to depend on it, reciting it inside my head whenever I need to pluck a series of periods out of the air.  It goes like this:

Camels Often Sit Down Carefully, Perhaps Their Joints Creak – reciting upwards from the base of the Phanerozoic goes through Cambrian, Ordovician, Silurian, Devonian, Carboniferous, Permian, Triassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous.  In fact, this only really covers the Palaeozoic and Mesozoic, but they are always the trickiest ones to remember. Nevertheless, my choice to research the Palaeozoic and Precambrian is in part due to the fact that I have no idea of the order of the things in the Tertiary.  Perhaps it is possible to become too reliant on a mnemonic…

Let me tell you one of my favourite things about this little phrase.  It is clever when it come to C’s.  You have three periods beginning with C – the Cambrian, the Carboniferous, and the Cretaceous.  Now if you didn’t know and you were given an acrostic-style mnemonic that dealt only with the first letter, you would be left in the dark while you were guessing whether the Cretaceous or the Carboniferous came first.  But this is great in that the C’s are padded out – CAMels for the CAMbrian; CARefully for the CARboniferous, and CREak for the CREtaceous.  Neat, huh?

So no, it won’t help with your Vendians or Ripheans, or with your Palaeogene or Pleistocene, but it is a super little phrase which played a big part in shaping my career.

I’d love to hear any other suggestions, especially something that can help ease my distrust of the Cenozoic…?