Remains of a different time

Liz Botterill moved to Whitstable from London over two years ago and has recently relocated to Birchington, near Margate, to be closer to her place of work at Kent’s Natural History Museum, The Powell- Cotton. In her spare time she enjoys sketching and taking photographs on her travels along the Kent coast.

The first photo I took when I arrived in Whitstable was of a hoard of oyster shells on the stony beach, contradictory in their pearly smooth and craggy rock-like texture. Later I was overwhelmed by the sunset. The rich pink and yellow colours in the evening, literally like viewing the world through rose tinted glasses. The sea has an eerie pale grey calm which blends into the sky, it doesn’t quite look real, like a watercolour painting. There weren’t the crashing waves I had envisaged when I previously imagined moving to the seaside but it’s beautiful nonetheless.

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Sketch of Reculver Towers by Liz Botterill

I visited the Turner Contemporary in Margate a few days after moving to Whitstable, when the exhibition of J.M.W Turner paintings was on. He also had a thing for the East Kent Coast sunset. On the way there I noticed a ruin on the edge of the coast, the jagged remains of a church, which I later discovered is Reculver Towers . I have cycled the coastal trail from Whitstable to Margate many times and these twin towers are the perfect stop for a picnic, sketching and photo opportunities. This flat stretch of Kent differs so much from the rest of the county.

When I was interviewed for my job at the Powell-Cotton Museum, I arrived early and was taken on a tour. My eyes couldn’t quite believe what they were seeing – and they still don’t each time I walk in.

I had expected to see at least one quirky Victorian taxidermy cabinet, instead I found myself surrounded by vast natural scenes of African wildlife, painted dioramas of landscapes with real trees, bushes and rocks, giraffes, zebras, antelopes, a whole wall of primates swinging from branches.  Even now when I take a walk through the galleries I think I spot something new, such as a small rodent sitting beside one of the larger mammals. People have different views on taxidermy but it is hard to deny that these dioramas are a work of art. Roland Ward, the taxidermist employed by Major Powell-Cotton, was considered the very best in the world, and an artist. He himself titled his autobiography ‘A Naturalist’s Life Study in the Art of Taxidermy’.

Powell-Cotton Museum

Diorama created in 1930’s

I felt a glimmer of sadness wondering how the animals got to be here but hunting was a usual activity of the upper classes in the era the museum was built. Given that there were many big game hunters at this time, I have never seen anything so spectacular created by any other person. Because of this, I perceive the museum as almost a tribute to the species, rather than simply a trophy collection of the man who hunted them.

Pottery by the Zande artist Mbitim (collected in the 1930s)

Pottery by the Zande artist Mbitim (collected in the 1930s)

There are more fascinating displays of hand crafted objects from various parts of Africa and Asia, collected in the early 1900s, which give a historical insight into the artistry of these communities and their way of life. There are some beautiful and rare items to be seen in Quex House. I was blown away by the decadent furnishings and decoration in the Oriental Drawing room and my mind boggles at the money and time spent delivering these large, ornate items from distant countries.

In the summer I often took the train to work and cycled the coastal route back to Whitstable. I recommend everyone in East Kent to take a ride along the coast. You can also go further and follow the Viking Coastal Trail all around the Isle of Thanet. There are so many inspiring views and places to visit along the way.

Whitstable sunset by Liz Botterill

Whitstable sunset by Liz Botterill

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