The Noah’s Ark Frieze

Regular Winterbourne visitors will have noticed a transformation in the Nursery!  From January to June 2023, artist Sarah Moss has been at work creating a magnificent artwork which links directly to a set of objects in our collection.

The Winterbourne Noah’s Ark
The Winterbourne Noah’s Ark

This Noah’s Ark was made in Germany in the 1870s.  It belonged to the Nettlefold family and was probably played with by John Sutton Nettlefold and his siblings.  The Ark was passed on to John’s sister Grace, who gave it to her children to play with.  After passing through the hands of several generations of children, it came into Winterbourne’s collection in 2017. 

A section of the frieze above the washstand
A section of the frieze above the washstand

As the centrepiece of our refurbishment of the Nursery in 2023, we asked Sarah Moss to create a children’s frieze, taking inspiration from the Noah’s Ark.  The frieze was completed in June 2023, and the Noah’s Ark is now on display alongside it.

The Ark alongside the frieze

Curator Henrietta interviewed Sarah about the project.

H: Sarah, when we approached you with the idea of a Noah’s Ark frieze, what were your initial thoughts?

S: Although I have concentrated on printmaking over the last 20 years, my background is in graphics and illustration, so I felt this was something I could do and would enjoy.  I have had a lifelong interest in natural history and the environment, very much encouraged by my dad who probably took us to every zoo in the country on family holidays.  We would often to Scotland and see the ospreys nesting, as well as wildcats and red squirrels.  All my childhood drawings were of animals and particularly birds.  My dad had a Readers’ Digest book of British Birds, which I worked my way through copying each illustration.

Sarah Moss at Work

H: How did you set about finding source material? Were there particular books that helped you to focus your ideas?

S: I was very keen to get the style of illustration right for the period.  I looked at Edwardian children’s book illustrators, such as Arthur Rackham, William Heath Robinson, Carl Larsson and Jessie Wilcox Smith.  Illustrations from this period would have key elements in common, realistic but simplified depictions, relatively flat colour with little shading and a thin dark outline around each figure and object.  During my research, I was particularly fortunate to find an American writer and illustrator called Elmer Boyd Smith.  In 1905 he published his version of Noah’s Ark.  After managing to get a copy from the States, this book has been my primary influence.

Illustration by Elmer Boyd Smith (Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

H: Narrowing down your choice of animals must have been a daunting task.  What influences led you to your final selection?

S: Having established the depth of the finished frieze, I first drew an African elephant and a giraffe as the largest and tallest animals that would feature on the frieze.  This gave me a scale to work to.  I then went about making an extensive list of the animals and birds that I wanted to include.  I tried to include animals from every continent, particularly endangered species such as pangolins, as I wanted the frieze to be an environmental statement. 

Preparatory drawing of pangolins

I also wanted to include animals that children in particular would recognise from their garden, local parks or from the Wildlife Conservation Park.  I have to cite my two granddaughters as project managers at this stage.  Elizabeth, 8, and Stella, 2, both made a big contribution with many suggestions.  Omission of Elizabeth’s guinea pigs would mean trouble and Stella was very insistent that ‘The Ugly Five’ must appear.  They are from one of her favourite Julia Donaldson stories about a spotted hyena, a warthog, a wildebeest, a lappet-faced vulture and a marabou stork.  Of course I put in personal favourites;  the ospreys had to feature as well as ‘Birmingham Roller’ racing pigeons.

H: Can you describe the artistic process, from drawing to finished painting?

S: I traced each animal and bird on to separate tracing paper ready to lay out on to the wall.  Tracing paper would allow me to adjust the animal to walk in either direction depending on which side of the room I finally placed them.  Before starting, I did a small trial section of the frieze at home on my studio wall to test out the paints.  I decided to use the same type of emulsion paint that the walls were decorated with, as I felt that would be the most compatible.  Painting small detail with emulsion has its challenges but I felt it was worth it to ensure that the paint adhered well.

Painting the first stage

Working out the final layout was a process of trial and error.  I tried to place the larger animals at regular intervals and then put the smaller animals in-between.  I found I needed a lot more birds than I initially drew up.  Transferring the images also proved a little more tricky than planned as the walls in the nursery have a distinct texture in places which makes it difficult to get the smaller details to show.

The biggest challenge, however, has been one of scale.  As most of these animals and birds are never seen together, working out the relative sizes has been very difficult.  Also allowing for some perspective too, added to the constant dilemma.  I’m hoping that any discrepancies in sizes with the forgiven!

H: Thank you, Sarah, for giving us such an insight into your work! 

A section of the frieze above the cot