Stay at Home Series: Sarah Gillespie RWA

Stay at Home Series: Sarah Gillespie RWA

We asked our artists to share what they are working on and how they're are keeping busy during this unprecedented time. Here, Academician Sarah Gillespie shares the story of her new book of mezzotints, MOTH, published just before Covid-19 changed our lives:


About a year ago, the eminent poet Alice Oswald sent me a poem about a moth. I invited her and her husband Peter for tea in my studio and, in return for her extraordinary poem, gave them a mezzotint of a Poplar Hawk-moth. That might have been that... except that the conversation and the dark beauty of her poem worked their way under my skin and would not leave.

I can't honestly remember when I first started drawing moths. It feels as if they found me rather than the other way around – their mysterious and fragile lives somehow speaking urgently of a world we live in and yet refuse to see. However, for the last year, against all sensible advice, I have found it impossible to make work about anything else. The more I looked, the more I drew and the more I researched, the more urgent it became.

We have around 2500 species of these exquisitely-patterned wild creatures in the British Isles. They inhabit our nights, they play a crucial role in ecosystems as pollinators, recyclers and food for birds and bats, yet they are so often overlooked, misunderstood and unloved. It's estimated that we have lost around a third of our moths since the First World War. Some, like the Garden Tiger, whose caterpillar is the main food of the much-missed cuckoo, have declined by up to 80% or more since the 1970s. About 50 species have gone extinct altogether.

So over the course of a year I have made some twenty mezzotint engravings of British moths – all of them common, but all of them in decline. These moths are taking flight around the UK from March this year (see below for dates).

The link between Alice Oswald and me in human terms is the book designer Kevin Mount. Kevin encouraged me to put all the mezzotints, together with Alice's poem, into an artist's book. We added a conversation I had with the Buddhist writer Gay Watson about my choice of mezzotint as a medium and the value of paying attention. Kevin Mount’s contribution reaches well beyond book design; his aesthetic, care and attention to detail are, to my mind, beyond compare and I hope that together we have made something worthwhile. Moth is not a catalogue, nor a monograph, nor is it a natural history book. I hope that it is instead a quiet entreaty to wake up from our sleep and to pay close attention to our world – unlearning what biodiversity expert Matthew Gandy calls the 'sensory elimination' that characterises everyday life.

I had three exhibitions of the 20 Moth mezzotints lined up to coincide with the book. The one at Groundwork in Norfolk – Britain’s leading gallery for art and the environment - opened and closed a few days later. The second, at Greenhill Arts here in Devon has been cancelled. Strangely, I’ve felt quite calm. Everyone has had their lives disrupted in some way or other and exhibitions seem minor in the grand scheme of things. The important thing is that we have time to reflect.

The Moth book was published almost exactly the week in early March that Covid-19 hit the UK and yet it has been a godsend. It seems that people – stuck indoors, feeling frightened and uncertain have time at last to consider our place in the natural world and what impact we might have been having with our relentless light and busyness. I’ve been busy sending them out all over the world and yes, even in the midst of lockdowns they have reached people in Spain, Antwerp, Australia, New York and even a tiny island off Vancouver island!



A 60-page artist’s book, published by The Letter Press in a limited edition of 300, with each copy numbered and signed by the artist. Moth contains extraordinary reproductions of all the moth mezzotints, and a new poem from Alice Oswald.

Designed and typeset in Jenson by Kevin Mount and printed on Symbol Tatami 170 gsm paper, with a wrap-around jacket.

If you would like to pre-order a copy of Moth at the price of £45 + P&P, please email me directly at

‘To notice moths and make subtle visual differentiations between similar species or spot their cryptic patterns resting against the bark of trees, is a process of unlearning the degree of sensory elimination that characterises everyday life’ - Matthew Gandy, Professor of Geography at Cambridge University