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D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson (1860-1948) was a pioneering Scottish biologist whose work had a profound impact on 20th century art.


He was an extraordinary polymath who combined interests in biology and mathematics with classical art and literature. His ground-breaking book On Growth and Form was published in 1917 while he was a Professor at University College, Dundee (now the University of Dundee). It has since been described as “the greatest work of prose in twentieth century science”. On Growth and Form laid the foundations for the study of mathematical biology, but also provided inspiration for generations of artists. As the critic Herbert Read told Thompson, “you have built the bridge between science and art”.

34 artworks

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Professor D'Arcy Thompson's Theories
© Tracy Tinker. Photo credit: Aberystwyth University School of Art Museum and Galleries

D’Arcy believed that the shape of an organism was like “a diagram of forces” and its formation was the result of physical laws operating according to predictable mathematical patterns. His controversial Theory of Transformations sought to demonstrate the mathematical relationships between related species by ‘transforming’ one to another through simple distortions.

Professor D'Arcy Thompson's Theories c.1965
David Tinker (1924–2000)
Acrylic on canvas
H 199 x W 260 cm
Aberystwyth University School of Art Museum and Galleries

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Professor Sir D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson (1860–1948)
© University of Dundee Fine Art Collections. Photo credit: University of Dundee Fine Art Collections

D’Arcy Thompson was born and educated in Edinburgh. He initially enrolled at Edinburgh University to study medicine, but biology was his real passion and he soon moved to Cambridge to take a degree in Natural Sciences. At the age of just 24 he was appointed to the first Chair of Biology at the newly established University College, Dundee. He spent over 32 years in Dundee, building up an impressive Museum of Zoology and developing his ideas of applying mathematics to biology. In 1917 he moved to the University of St Andrews to take up the Chair of Natural History, spending the remaining 31 years of his life there and becoming a much-loved (and increasingly eccentric) figure in the town.

Professor Sir D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson (1860–1948) 1950
David Shanks Ewart (1901–1965)
Oil on canvas
H 126 x W 86 cm
University of Dundee Fine Art Collections

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D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson as a Child
Photo credit: University of St Andrews

As a child, D’Arcy grew up with a fascination for the natural world but also a love of art. His uncle, George Clark Stanton, was an artist and painted this charming study of the young D’Arcy aged about four or five, showing his vivid ginger hair. One of D’Arcy’s schoolfriends, the future physiologist Diarmid Noel Paton, was the son of the great historical and mythological painter Sir Joseph Noel Paton. An early research interest of D’Arcy’s was animal symbolism in classical art and he later knew and corresponded with many leading artists including Laura Knight and Stanley Cursiter.

D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson as a Child 1864–1865
George Clark Stanton (1832–1894)
Oil on panel
H 23.5 x W 19.5 cm
University of St Andrews

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United Leaves
© the artist. Photo credit: University of Dundee Fine Art Collections

The first artist to respond directly to D’Arcy’s ideas was the Dundee symbolist painter George Dutch Davidson. In 1900, D’Arcy commissioned Davidson to paint a series of murals for his study at the University, but sadly Davidson died before the work could be carried out, leaving just a pencil study for the first mural, showing Orpheus surrounded by animals. This study (and particularly Davidson’s stylised rendition of leaves in it) later inspired the artist Marion Smith to create a sculptural piece, Missing Leaves (which you can also see on Art UK), and this companion print, United Leaves.

United Leaves 2013
Marion Smith (b.1969)
Etching on paper
H 30 x W 20 cm
University of Dundee Fine Art Collections

The sculptor Henry Moore was the first major artist to discover D’Arcy Thompson’s book On Growth and Form. He first read it as an art student in Leeds in 1919, returning to it in the 1930s when it had a huge influence on his use of biomorphic shapes. Sculptures such as this one give the impression of having grown organically.

Reclining Figure 1938
Henry Moore (1898–1986)
Bronze
H 10.5 x W 22 x D 12.5 cm
Leicester Museums and Galleries

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Sculptural Objects
© The Henry Moore Foundation. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2021 / www.henry-moore.org. Photo credit: University of Dundee Fine Art Collections

The influence of D’Arcy’s work can be strongly seen in Moore’s graphic works, including a series of Transformation Drawings in the 1930s and prints such as this one featuring mathematical and organic forms. This lithograph was created for the School Prints series – a scheme that aimed to bring high-quality contemporary art into schools. Moore’s print used a pioneering technique in which the artist drew directly onto a series of transparent plastic plates.

Sculptural Objects 1949
Henry Moore (1898–1986)
Lithograph on paper
H 49 x W 76 cm
University of Dundee Fine Art Collections

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Herbert Read
© the estate of Patrick Heron. All rights reserved, DACS 2021. Photo credit: National Portrait Gallery, London

Moore began discussing On Growth and Form with the art critic Herbert Read, who perhaps did more than anyone to spread interest in D’Arcy’s work among artists. Read wrote about it in his book Art and Industry (1934) and lent his copy of On Growth and Form to artists that he thought would be particularly inspired by it. This imaginative portrait of Read was by Patrick Heron, another artist who would be inspired by D’Arcy’s work.

Herbert Read 1950
Patrick Heron (1920–1999)
Oil on canvas
H 76.2 x W 63.5 cm
National Portrait Gallery, London

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Oval Sculpture
© Bowness. Photo credit: The Pier Arts Centre

In particular Read introduced On Growth and Form to many of the St Ives circle of artists in the 1930s. For these pioneers of abstract art in Britain, D’Arcy’s work shared their concern with revealing hidden structures of life. One of the group was Barbara Hepworth, who believed that modern art and science shared a common progressive attitude. Her long-term friend, crystallographer J D Bernal, wrote of her work: “There is an extraordinary intuitive grasp of the unity of a surface even extending to surfaces which though separated in space and apparently disconnected yet belong together both to the mathematicians and the sculptor.”

Oval Sculpture 1943
Barbara Hepworth (1903–1975)
Plane wood with painted white concavities
H 34.9 x W 46.2 x D 29.9 cm
The Pier Arts Centre

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Linear Construction in Space No. 1
© the artist's estate / Tate Images. Photo credit: Kettle's Yard, University of Cambridge

Naum Gabo was particularly enthusiastic, purchasing his own copy of On Growth and Form soon after coming to Britain in 1936, and is known to have discussed its contents appreciatively with friends and fellow artists. Like Hepworth, he believed in the creative affinity between science and art, and the intricate nature of constructions such as this closely resembles the illustrations in On Growth and Form of the skeletons of radiolaria.

Linear Construction in Space No. 1 1944–1945
Naum Gabo (1890–1977)
Acrylic plastic & nylon thread
H 30.4 x W 30.4 x D 6.2 cm
Kettle's Yard, University of Cambridge

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Landscape Composition (Objects in Relation)
Photo credit: Pallant House Gallery, Chichester

The painter Paul Nash also owned a copy of On Growth and Form. In this painting an egg-like form leans against another object of similar shape covered with a grid that looks remarkably like one of D’Arcy’s transformation diagrams.

Landscape Composition (Objects in Relation) 1934
Paul Nash (1889–1946)
Tempera on hardboard
H 13 x W 15.5 cm
Pallant House Gallery

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L & CH
Photo credit: Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales

The Hungarian-born László Moholy-Nagy spent two years in Britain in 1935-7 and met some of the St Ives artists. This may have been where he discovered D’Arcy’s work, which he embraced enthusiastically. He began to incorporate its ideas into his teaching in Chicago and made references to On Growth and Form in his posthumously published book Vision in Motion (1947), which helped spread D’Arcy’s influence to a new generation of artists.

L & CH 1936–1939
László Moholy-Nagy (1895–1946)
Oil on canvas
H 96.5 x W 76.1 cm
Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales

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Glacier Vortex
© by courtesy of the Barns-Graham Charitable Trust. Photo credit: Southampton City Art Gallery

Uniquely among the modernist artists who were inspired by On Growth and Form, Wilhelmina Barns-Graham actually knew D’Arcy when she was a child in St Andrews. However it was only when she moved to St Ives in 1940 that she “discovered his wonderful enlightening book Growth & Form.” She was particularly drawn to his ideas on the relation between inner space and outer form, and his discussion of spiral growth patterns and the golden ratio informed many of her works.

Glacier Vortex 1951
Wilhelmina Barns-Graham (1912–2004)
Oil on canvas
H 60 x W 71.5 cm
Southampton City Art Gallery

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Ode to the North Wind
© the artist's estate. Photo credit: Dundee Art Galleries and Museums Collection (Dundee City Council)

Another Scottish artist based in England, William Johnstone was perhaps the first to introduce ideas from On Growth and Form into British art teaching, firstly at Camberwell School of Art & Crafts and then at the Central School of Arts & Crafts. His promotion of Basic Design principles was inspired by Bauhaus artists such as Paul Klee, who had also been enthused by D’Arcy’s work. Johnstone employed Victor Pasmore to teach at both of these art schools, and may also have introduced him to On Growth and Form.

Ode to the North Wind 1928/1930
William Johnstone (1897–1981)
Oil on canvas
H 71.1 x W 91.4 cm
Dundee Art Galleries and Museums Collection (Dundee City Council)

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Chromatic spiral
© estate of Richard Hamilton. All rights reserved, DACS 2021. Photo credit: Tate

In 1942 D’Arcy Thompson published a long-awaited second edition of On Growth and Form (which had been out of print for many years). It was enthusiastically reviewed by Herbert Read, but it may have been through Moholy-Nagy’s book Vision in Motion that a group of young artists at the Slade School of Fine Art after the war discovered D’Arcy’s ideas. They included Richard Hamilton, who was profoundly influenced by On Growth and Form, and in 1951 staged a landmark exhibition called Growth and Form at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London. It featured a range of scientific models and imagery, much of it drawn from D’Arcy’s book.

Chromatic spiral 1950
Richard Hamilton (1922–2011)
Oil on wood
H 54.3 x W 48.5 cm
Tate

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Collage
© the Henderson estate. Photo credit: Tate

Nigel Henderson first read On Growth and Form in 1949 and it was he who suggested it to Richard Hamilton as a theme for an exhibition, describing it as a “very timely… piece of intellectual scaffolding.” Henderson contributed various pieces to the Growth and Form exhibition, as well as documenting the show through his photographs.

Collage 1949
Nigel Henderson (1917–1985)
Oil and photograph on board
H 33.7 x W 38.1 cm
Tate

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Contemplative Object (Sculpture and Relief)
© trustees of the Paolozzi Foundation, licensed by DACS 2021. Photo credit: Pallant House Gallery, Chichester

Eduardo Paolozzi first discovered On Growth and Form in the late 1940s while he was living in Paris with William Turnbull, a fellow graduate from the Slade. Paolozzi had a particular fascination with biological forms and molecular imagery – his sculptures from this time explore the complex development of living forms.

Contemplative Object (Sculpture and Relief) c.1951
Eduardo Luigi Paolozzi (1924–2005)
Plaster
H 24 x W 47 x D 20 cm
Pallant House Gallery

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Heavy Insect
© the estate of William Turnbull. All rights reserved, DACS 2021. Photo credit: The Ingram Collection of Modern British and Contemporary Art

The Dundee-born sculptor William Turnbull was staying in Paris with Paolozzi when he discovered D’Arcy’s work. He too was fascinated by organic form as well as contemporary developments in molecular chemistry and nuclear physics, and the two sculptors explored many of these ideas together. Turnbull also designed a poster for Hamilton’s Growth and Form exhibition.

Heavy Insect 1949
William Turnbull (1922–2012)
Bronze
H 52 x W 84.5 x D 22.2 cm
The Ingram Collection of Modern British and Contemporary Art

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Spiral Motif (Subjective Landscape) in Black and White
© estate of Victor Pasmore. All rights reserved, DACS 2021. Photo credit: National Galleries of Scotland

Victor Pasmore may have discovered On Growth and Form through William Johnstone, who employed him to teach at both Camberwell School of Art & Crafts and the Central School of Arts & Crafts. Pasmore became fascinated by natural patterns such as waves and spiral forms. In 1954, Pasmore was appointed Master of Painting at the Department of Fine Art in King’s College, Newcastle (now Newcastle University). Richard Hamilton had recently joined the Design School there and the two artists worked together to devise a revolutionary new Basic Design Course. On Growth and Form was a key text for this, and students were set exercises based directly on its ideas. The course was soon taken up by art schools across England and Wales.

Spiral Motif (Subjective Landscape) in Black and White 1951
Victor Pasmore (1908–1998)
Oil on wood
H 80.6 x W 22 cm
National Galleries of Scotland

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Curved Form, Black and White
© estate of Adrian Heath. All rights reserved, DACS 2021. Photo credit: Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre

A post-war graduate of the Slade like Richard Hamilton, Adrian Heath had also spent time in St Ives and was closely associated with Victor Pasmore and other Constructivist artists. It is no surprise, then, that On Growth and Form became an important influence on his work in the 1950s.

Curved Form, Black and White 1954
Adrian Heath (1920–1992)
Oil on canvas
H 75.5 x W 63.5 cm
Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre

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Oiseau (Bird)
© Salvador Dali, Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí, DACS 2021. Photo credit: National Galleries of Scotland

It was not just in Britain that artists were reading On Growth and Form. The Surrealist artist Salvador Dalí was fascinated by D’Arcy’s descriptions of radiolaria, sea urchins and the patterns made by drops of milk. He referred to On Growth and Form repeatedly in his 1948 book Fifty Secrets of Magic Craftsmanship.

Oiseau (Bird) 1928
Salvador Dalí (1904–1989)
Oil, sand, pebbles & shingle on board
H 49.7 x W 61 cm
National Galleries of Scotland

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Number 23
© The Pollock-Krasner Foundation ARS, NY and DACS, London 2021. Photo credit: Tate

In America, the abstract expressionists also embraced D’Arcy’s work. Jackson Pollock owned a copy of On Growth and Form, and may have been particularly interested in its analysis of drops and splash patterns. Although Pollock’s paintings appear random and chaotic, like the natural world D’Arcy describes they are actually the result of a carefully ordered structure.

Number 23 1948
Jackson Pollock (1912–1956)
Enamel on gesso on paper
H 57.5 x W 78.4 cm
Tate

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Bull III (Taureau III)
© FLC/ ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2021. Photo credit: Tate

Many architects have been directly inspired by D’Arcy’s ideas, including Frank Lloyd Wright, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Buckminster Fuller, Frei Otto and Norman Foster. For Jørn Utzon, architect of the Sydney Opera House, On Growth and Form was so fundamental to his practice that it was “the only book he specifically recommended new staff to read”. Le Corbusier began to draw on D’Arcy’s work with his Project for a Museum of Unlimited Growth in 1931 and 20 years later he performed the official opening of Richard Hamilton’s Growth and Form exhibition.

Bull III (Taureau III) 1953
Le Corbusier (1887–1965)
Oil on canvas
H 161.9 x W 113.7 cm
Tate

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Taking a Wall for a Walk
© Andy Goldsworthy, courtesy Galerie Lelong & Co. Photo credit: The Forestry Commission

As well as painters and sculptors, On Growth and Form has influenced artists in other fields, including some of the pioneers of computer art such as Roy Ascott and Desmond Paul Henry (not currently represented on Art UK). Land artists in particular have been drawn to D’Arcy’s exploration of natural patterns - Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (1970) is perhaps the most celebrated example, and much of Andy Goldsworthy’s work shows a strong influence.

Taking a Wall for a Walk 1990
Andy Goldsworthy (b.1956)
Stone
H 140 x W 8000 x D 66 cm
The Forestry Commission

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In the Beginning
© the artist. Photo credit: David Oudney / Art UK

Over the past decade, the University of Dundee has been building a collection of art responding to D’Arcy’s work, much of it acquired thanks to an Art Fund RENEW grant. Peter Randall-Page’s sculpture In the Beginning is situated at one of the entrances to the Carnelley Building which houses the D’Arcy Thompson Zoology Museum. Inspired by cells multiplying, it is made of Kilkenny limestone and contains numerous micro-fossils such as foraminifera, the organisms that first inspired D’Arcy’s interest in applying mathematics to biology.

In the Beginning 2009
Peter Randall-Page (b.1954)
Limestone
H 92 x W 100 x D 101 cm
University of Dundee Fine Art Collections

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Portrait of a Polymath – D'Arcy Thompson's Daybook
© the artist. Photo credit: University of Dundee Fine Art Collections

Will Maclean is Emeritus Professor of Fine Art at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design in Dundee. Much of his work concerns the symbolic meanings of artefacts from the past, so museum collections have always held a fascination for him. D’Arcy Thompson’s desire to collect, catalogue and explain the natural world formed the basis of a series of mixed media box constructions made by the artist in 2007-8. The various elements featured here represent different aspects of Thompson’s work and interests, including morphology, marine biology, geometry and Classics.

Portrait of a Polymath – D'Arcy Thompson's Daybook 2008
Will Maclean (b.1941)
Acrylic & mixed media on board
H 60 x W 124 cm
University of Dundee Fine Art Collections

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Coded Chimera – Morphs of Cat and Crocodile
© the artist. Photo credit: University of Dundee Fine Art Collections

Coded Chimera was a research project by sculptor Bruce Gernand, working with the Natural History Museum and the Cambridge Computer Lab. The project explored the ideas of morphogenesis (the study of biological dynamics) pioneered by D’Arcy. Inspired by the iconic transformation diagrams, Gernand used digital scans of zoological specimens and customised computer software tools to morph different animal forms to create hybrid shapes. The rapid prototype models that resulted make connections between the processes of sculpture and D’Arcy’s ideas of growth and form, but they also link to the ancient cultural tradition of the chimera.

Coded Chimera – Morphs of Cat and Crocodile 2010
Bruce Gernand (b.1949)
Plastic
H 4 x W 60 x D 4 cm
University of Dundee Fine Art Collections

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Aggregation 24
© the artist. Photo credit: University of Dundee Fine Art Collections

Andy Lomas is an artist who also works as a special effects designer (among many film and TV credits, he was a CGI supervisor on Avatar). Generated by computer algorithms, his artworks stem directly from D’Arcy’s study of organic forms and the simple mathematical rules that affect their growth. The shapes are created by a process of accretion over time - they are grown by simulating the paths of millions of particles flowing in a field of forces.

Aggregation 24 2005
Andy Lomas (b.1967)
Digital print on paper
H 60 x W 60 cm
University of Dundee Fine Art Collections

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Cluster
© the artist. Photo credit: University of Dundee Fine Art Collections

The imagery of this painting suggests cellular forms, but its layers of overlapping shapes imply a blurring of what is solid and what is transparent. The technical process of making the work is a major concern to artist Mark Wright. He uses different paints and techniques to create compositions that have a three-dimensional quality, but one that is impossible to pin down on closer inspection. The gradual growth and form of the painting itself is of vital importance in his practice, echoing D’Arcy’s ideas.

Cluster 1998–1999
Mark Wright (b.1962)
Oil on canvas
H 214 x W 214 cm
University of Dundee Fine Art Collections

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Snail
© Alex Flett. All rights reserved, DACS 2021. Photo credit: University of Dundee Fine Art Collections

Sculptor Alex Flett created the first version of The Snail as an art student in 1969, after reading On Growth and Form. The early version was destroyed and Flett created this new version especially for the D’Arcy Thompson Zoology Museum. Its spiralling design is based on the Fibonacci sequence of numbers, which is often found in nature.

Snail 2012
Alex Flett (b.1950)
Wood
H 34 x W 34 x D 89 cm
University of Dundee Fine Art Collections

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Objects for a Memory System for D'Arcy Thompson
© the artist. Photo credit: University of Dundee Fine Art Collections

Lindsay Sekulowicz undertook an artist’s residency at the D’Arcy Thompson Zoology Museum in 2012 co-organised with the Barns-Graham Charitable Trust and the Royal Scottish Academy. She was particularly interested in memory and neuroscience, spending time at Ninewells Hospital in Dundee and the Sea Mammal Research Unit at the University of St Andrews. The body of work she ultimately produced explored the fact that much of D’Arcy’s museum collection was lost when the original museum was demolished in the 1950s. By drawing representative specimens and creating sculptural pieces that symbolise others, her intention was to create a memory system that would help to re-create the extent of the original collection in people's minds.

Objects for a Memory System for D'Arcy Thompson 2012
Lindsay Sekulowicz (b.1984)
Plaster, ceramic, pewter & found objects
H 100 x W 100 x D 30 cm
University of Dundee Fine Art Collections

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Five Fold Symmetry
© the artist. Photo credit: University of Dundee Fine Art Collections

Renowned for her work using drawing as a scientific tool, Gemma Anderson is fascinated by what she terms “isomorphology”, the study of shared patterns across different natural forms and the role of the artist in helping scientists to understand these. D’Arcy’s work is therefore central to her practice. In 2013 Anderson visited Dundee for a short residency at the D’Arcy Thompson Zoology Museum, which resulted in a series of etchings inspired by the collections.

Five Fold Symmetry 2013
Gemma Anderson (b.1981)
Etching on paper
H 41 x W 34 cm
University of Dundee Fine Art Collections

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Trifolium Repens L – Top View – No. 10
© the artist. Photo credit: University of Dundee Fine Art Collections

Macoto Murayama is a Japanese artist who cultivates ‘inorganic flora’. His extraordinary images are created after dissecting real flowers in minute detail and studying them under a microscope. His drawings are modelled in 3D imaging software then rendered into 2D compositions on Photoshop before being printed in large scale. This example, showing the structure of the white clover flower, is from a series directly inspired by D’Arcy’s interest in the mathematical structure of natural forms, first exhibited at the University of Dundee in 2016.

Trifolium Repens L – Top View – No. 10 2016
Macoto Murayama (b.1984)
Digital c-print on paper
H 100 x W 100 cm
University of Dundee Fine Art Collections

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Scarus, Pomacanthus (Portrait of D'Arcy Thompson)
© the artist. Photo credit: University of Dundee Fine Art Collections

Students at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design make frequent use of the D’Arcy Thompson Zoology Museum and many respond directly to D’Arcy’s ideas and collections. Fine Art student Darren McFarlane created this unusual painting as part of a module in Art, Science & Visual Thinking. It takes David S Ewart’s portrait of D’Arcy Thompson (shown above) and subjects it to one of D’Arcy’s own transformation processes!

Scarus, Pomacanthus (Portrait of D'Arcy Thompson) 2012
Darren McFarlane (b.1992)
Oil on canvas
H 91 x W 61 cm
University of Dundee Fine Art Collections

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D'Arcy Thompson Zoology Museum
© the artist. Photo credit: University of Dundee Fine Art Collections

New works of art are regularly added to the D’Arcy Thompson Zoology Museum Art Collection and we continue to encourage artists to explore D’Arcy’s ideas and collections for inspiration. This bronze work was recently placed at the entrance to the museum. Visit www.dundee.ac.uk/museum/zoology/ to find out more.

D'Arcy Thompson Zoology Museum 2017–2018
Ray Byrne (b.1961)
Bronze
H 50 x W 30 x D 3 cm
University of Dundee Fine Art Collections