Review: The Lost Words, The Foundling Museum

Published in Time Out on January 16, 2018

The heart can’t help but sink when you learn that this show was inspired by research revealing that British schoolkids are better at identifying Pokémon than our native wildlife. Adults aren’t much better: only a quarter of us can spot an ash tree. I’m surprised it’s that high.

Happily, ‘The Lost Words’, a collaboration between nature writer Robert Macfarlane and artist Jackie Morris, is a lot less Middle-England finger-wagging than it sounds. It’s a thoroughly winsome attempt to reconnect with wildlife.

Each plant or animal in the show has its own ‘spell’, plus three illustrations: a watercolour study against gold-plate, a delicate evoking of a habitat when the creature is absent, and a full watercolour scene, of a bird in flight, say, or an otter at play.

They’re all very lovely, although – unfortunately for the premise of the show, perhaps – the ‘absence’ paintings, depicting natural habitats when their creatures aren’t actually there, are by far the best: the few strokes suggesting a briar, or the stark trunks of bare trees, are gorgeously elliptical, minimal things. The more fully fleshed, busily inhabited watercolours, in contrast, are at best picture-book charming, at worst a bit naff.

Macfarlane’s ‘spells’, meanwhile, are really acrostic poems, a form unlikely to appeal to anyone who’s left primary school, and bogged down with so much sibilance, repetition and half-rhyme they risk losing the airiness they aim for. He’s written persuasively on the need to preserve archaic nature terms, and there are some delightful examples squirrelled in here – the dandelion, for instance, was once called ‘milkwitch’, ‘evening glow’, ‘windblow’. But that poem also opens with (presumably) his own coinage – ‘dazzle me, little sun-of-the-grass!’ – which made me want to stamp on things.

There is a valid, potent point behind such cutesiness: language is a tool for shaping and making sense of our world. We need these words. But this may not be the best form for them. Macfarlane and Morris have already published a lavish children’s book version, which surely works better, allowing kids to pore over word and image, or enjoy hearing it read aloud. Both poetry and paintings are somewhat over-exposed in the gallery space: too rarefied to really appeal to children, too twee for grown-ups.

Where next?