Treasures from the past. Explorer's club & the American Natural History Museum

William Leigh's plein-air African preparatory painting, for the ANHM diorama.

Late afternoon in New York, I meet with Arctic expedition fellow and friend, Martin, who was to show me around the legendary Explorer’s Club for the first time. My recent ELYSIUM Arctic expedition led me to meet some exceptional people, some of which are members here, including club fellow Sylvia Earle, one of the first female members.

The building itself is beautiful, and the artefacts, paintings and displays held within it transport you into a world of adventure and a spirit of discovery. Its history is fascinating. Initially it was a gathering place to unite and promote exploration, and over the years with growing membership and after several headquarters, they settled in this Jacobean townhouse at 46 East 70th Street in 1961. 

We had hardly begun our tour when I stopped dead in my tracks. We were half way up the first set of stairs and I had a strange déjà-vu. The walls were covered with landscape paintings that looked familiar. I had seen them before, but as bigger paintings, and with an added element: the ones I’d seen had animals in front of them.

In the stairwell of the explorer's club, NYC. Saddle between Karisimbi and Mt Mekino, Congo 1926. William Leigh.

Still stunned by the déjà-vu and struggling to place them, I kept staring at the paintings. Martin was a little put-off by me being stuck in the stairwell. We didn't have all day, and I had another four floors to see. He acknowledged the paintings as "Leigh's sketches" and then it hit me, even though I barely heard what Martin was saying. I had seen these before, but as murals in the extensive wildlife halls of the American Natural History Museum (AMNH). This sparked off the same excitement I had about ten years, when I first visited that museum.

AMNH diorama. Big horn sheep. Hall of North American mammals.

Ten years ago, a good painter friend of mine (Ted Minoff) had advised me to go the AMNH: Specifically the various halls of animals from different continents. I didn't know what to expect, and as a lover of natural history, I revelled in the sight of animals from all continents under the same roof. But as a painter, I was transfixed the displays what they call dioramas. I was not prepared for I what I discovered. Each window display had a selection of animals in a sculpted habitat. Sculpted branches, real earth & rocks, and a background mural to create the right atmosphere. But what I was really here to see were the painted wall in the background. I could hardly believe what I was looking at, as I stood there, probably with my mouth wide open.

AMNH diorama: Oryx in the plain of Africa.

The quality of the paintings in these dioramas was so exceptional, that you felt you were looking out at different parts of the world. The sense of depth and realism was so believable and enjoyable to look at. No sooner had I stopped drooling that I asked myself “who is this genius?”. I had just come from the MET and the Frick, where I had been looking at many of my favourite landscape and portrait painters, and I wondered: “Why is no-one talking about THESE masterpieces in the AMNH? And these are just ‘backgrounds’".

Now ten years later, standing in the explorer's club, I was facing the original sketches that were done in preparation for these Museum masterpieces. This was William R Leigh, one of the few expedition painters employed by the AMNH, one of the many un-sung heroes of naturalist painting from the 19th/20th C. Ten years earlier, I had no idea that these paintings would lead me down the rabbit hole that is diorama painting. After being an expedition painter myself in the Arctic in 2015, these paintings now had a very different significance for me. 

The origin of Dioramas goes back to 1822 France, with Daguerre (later known for his Daguerreotype camera) developing a theatrical experience for audiences in a highly specialised theatre.

As far as early animal dioramas (in the U.S), we have pioneers such as William Hornaday, John Rowley, and Frank Chapman. Chapman is a good way to start this introduction, because of his connection with New York's AMNH, and the instigation of dioramas in parallel with animal conservation and public awareness.

Frank Chapman (1864 - 1945)

Chapman was an ornithologist, but also an outspoken conservationist, and was particularly worried about how birds were over-hunted. He lived in a time when, for example, the day after Christmas, a tradition encouraged everyone to go out and shoot as many birds as they could. When you consider the geographical stretch of a whole country such as America, which has everyone going out at Christmas killing birds randomly and in mass, you can understand how Chapman was concerned. He was an early whistle-blower on species extinction and habitat destruction, and the first dioramas that he conceived were to raise public awareness. They stayed simple, but his vision grew, and they became the start of a grand tradition.

AMNH. Whitney hall dome as it was originally presented. Conceived by Chapman.

Chapman employed artists and taxidermists to create beautiful dioramas, to inspire people to feel connected to these stunning species, and transmit a love for these creatures. He was denouncing species extinction and habitat destruction over a hundred years ago.

Not only was Chapman the first to use dioramas to bring conservation awareness into the public arena, but he was also the first to use artists for the process. He believed that artists could capture much more with paint, than photographers could with their cameras. Until then, scientists would typically employ photographers to capture visual information. Chapman was uniquely sensitive to how artists captured not only the scene, but could also capture the mood and atmosphere better than photographers. Of course, we are referring to a period where photography was in its relative B&W infancy. So understandably, the painters had the colour advantage.

AMNH. Whitney Hall. Guillemots and Seagulls and the odd Puffin.

Interestingly enough, even today in the era of modern colour photography, there is a territory of believability that still is out of reach of photography. And this has to do with how cameras fall short of the “lived experience”. This is the realm of the eye + brain partnership, which is not the territory of the mechanical camera, however advanced and versatile it may be. I hope to expand on this subject in the future, but for now, let’s stick to dioramas.

Chapman, being an ornithologist, was instrumental in developing the bird halls of the museum. This passion for birds also attracted the interest of a unique public figure: then President of the United States of America, Teddy Roosevelt. The President was a keen naturalist and bird enthusiast himself. It is through this quick friendship that Roosevelt recruited Akeley for a one-year trip to Africa.

It is thanks to Chapman that artists were even considered to go on expeditions. And it is this choice that enabled the next generation of naturalists to continue the tradition. Akeley perpetuated this idea, and it’s thanks to him that we have come to know Leigh for his dioramas.

U.S President Roosevelt and Carl Akeley in Africa.

U.S President Roosevelt and Carl Akeley in Africa.

Carl Akeley was to keep Chapman's diorama tradition alive at the AMNH, but he was interested in developing his wing: The African Hall. He travelled to Africa to gather information for his great vision of the African Hall, but regretted that he didn’t have a painter with him. For his next trip, he tried to recruit an artist. The first painter wasn’t interested, and the second died before the planned trip. Chapman was desperate for an artist before his imminent departure to east Africa.

At the time Leigh was teaching a class in NYC, and his student Johnson was working at the AMNH. Johnson mentioned the whole “Chapman needs a painter for Africa” thing. Leigh was intrigued, applied, and invited Chapman to his studio. Leigh was recruited on the spot.

Leigh describes their initial meeting:

“We agreed that my part in the expedition would be to paint with perfect fidelity to nature: to bring to bear all the skill and knowledge I had gained during a lifetime, and thus try to make the backgrounds as convincing as the mounted animals. I was to depict the remote regions of the Belgian Congo, as wild and magically beautiful as any spot upon the globe where the gorilla dwells; the flowery swamplands of Kenya overlooked by the jagged peaks and glaciers of Mt Kenya; a waterhole in the semi-arid northern reaches of Kenya.”

“The backgrounds of the groups must be as correct as the animals themselves!’ said Akeley.”

Seated on the opposite side of the table I felt a glow of pleasure that this man was indeed the born artist of whom I had heard and read: an idealist, scientist, and poet combined. The fire radiating form Akeley light a flame of enthusiasm in all of us.”

What followed was a working relationship that led to some of the most astounding works out in the field, along with dioramas that would set the highest standards. Leigh never enjoyed painting more, as the conditions here were ideal.

“Previously when painting in Arizona, S. Dakota, New Mexico, Wyoming, I had to lug my paint box, umbrella, canvas and campstool myself…often for miles. But in Africa I was king! I had a gun boy, who carried all my luggage, while I carried the gun.”

Serengeti plains, WIlliam Leigh

When distances were great, he used a covered truck, carefully positioning his fresh wet painted sketches, covering them with a wagon sheet to protect them from dust and rain. 

“In the field the boy would take the gun, and sat down back of me to keep guard, for in a land like Africa there is never any telling when, while engrossed, some creature may start stalking you from behind.”

In these studies of the Serengeti plains, the paint is thick, the application deliberate. It reveals a committed effort to capture the scene with the utmost fidelity. Leigh is finding also the structure of the landscape, the specific patterns created by varying plant species, the specific design of clumps of trees in the distance. Not much is left to interpret by the viewer, but somehow it is no less poetic. 

Detail of Serengeti plains: Wilderbeasts, Giraffes

The purpose of these paintings is to be references to take back to the museum. Nothing must be left out. Every effect of light, shade, colour, and pattern is there. In months to come when these works are used as references to paint the walls of the museum half a world away from Africa, every possible design can be reproduced as is without the need for improvising on behalf of the museum staff.  Looking closer, we start discovering that these landscape are inhabited: Buffalo, giraffe, gazelles.

Detail of Serengeti plains: animals and Nature in harmony.

Detail of Serengeti plains: animals and Nature in harmony.

Respecting their colours and tones, Leigh reveals the presence of animals, but also manages to integrate the nature of their camouflage into the harmony of the landscape. We see this with the Thomson gazelles. 

Detail of Serengeti plains: Gazelles in the grass.

The distant plains are also full of life, and Leigh’s dexterity at placing animals in context is admirable. The left panel has a distant family of giraffes. But I had to zoom into my photograph to even know that there was another family of giraffes in the right panel, even further away, suggested by just a few flicks of the paintbrush in a single colour.

Detail of Serengeti plains: Giraffes in the distance

Detail of Serengeti plains: Giraffes in the distance

While Leigh painted, Akeley was planning the set-ups of his dioramas for the museum. In their talks they would say, “We must set a standard to which others will have to rise” and “Only masters can adequately handle the problems involved. The landscape painter who has cultivated a manner is no good… the painted background must display a complete unity with the mounted animals. The painter must make the beholder forget that he is looking at paint, and feel like he is looking at nature itself…the artist must forget himself in his work.”

One afternoon, Akeley called Leigh into his tent, where Mrs Akeley sat with him. Akeley came straight to the point: “I don’t believe anybody is better fitted to do the groups in the African Hall than you are. We’ve been talking it over. How would you like to take charge of the painting, and be the art director of the African Hall?”

Akeley and his wife, with a scale model of a diorama intended for the AMNH

The Explorer’s Club also houses the preparatory paintings for the water-hole. Leigh trained his gun boy to assist him, so he could dedicate more time to studies. He writes: “When we reached the camp in the evening my gun boy washed the brushes efficiently. It was ideal, and incidentally enabled me to complete many more studies than I could have done without such help…. To me it was sheer luxury – matchless privilege- to have nothing to do but paint under these ideal conditions, in ideal weather, in an ideal country – just paint, paint, paint!”

Leigh travelled to the northern part of what was still being called the "Colony". This was the water-hole scene, set in the semi-arid plains of Northern Kenya, just south of what was still called "Abyssinia".

Waterhole group- northern Kenya, William Leigh.

Having travelled to Kenya myself many years ago, these views are a strong reminder of the atmosphere I experienced out there: the stillness, the oppressive mid-day heat and lack of shade and the surprising colours of the rich red soil. Leigh’s depictions are so strong that they almost bring back the smells of the wild, with those musky odours trailing in the air from the migrating wildebeest.

Detail of water-hole group: Vultures in the trees. Below let: Zebras. Below right: Rhino, Giraffes, Ant hills.

Detail of water-hole group: Vultures in the trees. Below let: Zebras. Below right: Rhino, Giraffes, Ant hills.

There’s the familiar sight of vultures scanning for food from the top of trees, while in the distance we see Thomson gazelles, Zebras, Oryx antelopes, Giraffes, and a lone Rhino walking in between the anthills. Leigh does a great job of integrating the wildlife into the landscape in such a way that it mimics our manner of observing the wild.

Detail of water-hole group: Gazelles, Oryx, Zebras.

At first we see the landscape: the open space, the colours and the large obvious shapes. Only then do we start peering further, looking for movement or any signs of life, and start discovering a group of zebra over here, or a family of giraffe over there. 

Detail of Water-hole group: Zebras

Detail of Water-hole group: Giraffes.

The next painting in the stair well of the Explorer’s Club that draws you in is the panoramic view of mounts Mikeno and Karisimbi. Leigh describes the view the day he finds his spot:

“We had a view of Mikeno and the surrounding country which I then thought as the most beautiful view I have ever seen; Mikeno was at her best; she had thrown aside her veil of cloud; her whole summit was sharply outlined against the blue of the tropical sky.”

Gorilla group - Saddle between Karisimbi and Mt Mekino, Congo 1926. William Leigh.

These small studies mark a significant moment on this African expedition. While Leigh was finding his spot for the gorilla diorama, Akeley was lying ill in camp, dying. Leigh made his way back through the jungle to camp, eager to share with Akeley his excitement at finding the ideal spot, and his readiness to set up his painting equipment. But it was too late, Carl Akeley was dead, this 17th November 1926.

But his work would go on, with his wife shouldering the responsibility of completing Akeley’s life work: The great African Hall.

This project was going to require days, even weeks to complete, so this wild spot on the mountainside had to be conditioned. The porters cleared and levelled the area, while sleeping quarters were set up for the duration of his painting. Leigh and his porters went through rain, sleet and hail that would fall intermittently, once leaving them all inches deep in ice.

Detail of Gorilla group - Saddle between Karisimbi and Mt Mekino, Congo.

His surface texture reveals a lengthy process with carefully designed shapes and thick layers indicating a sustained duration of observation. He was highly specific about foliage details keeping each species of plant in mind, as opposed to an impressionistic blurry mass. He needed all the information once he left, with no chance of coming back to double check. Even the distant hills have rich a variation of patterns, textures and colours.

Detail of Gorilla group - Saddle between Karisimbi and Mt Mekino, Congo.

I certainly share Leigh’s admiration for this view as I remember the first time discovering the gorilla diorama, being mesmerised by the “view”. The sweeping lines leading you down the valley and the blue haze of the rising mountains fooling your eye into a sense of deep perspective. Such a convincing sense of space and atmosphere, the air seemed tangible, breathable behind the majestic standing male Gorilla.

Gorilla group, AMNH, New York.

One might start to wonder why Leigh has no animals in the immediate foreground, but these paintings are destined for backgrounds. The animals that could be in the immediate foreground will be those that are stuffed and mounted, as seen above in the Gorilla group. To appreciate how the work in the field is created, we must also see how it is finally applied in the museum itself.

Below we have Leigh's field painting of the Serengeti plains:

Serengeti plains, WIlliam Leigh

Below we have the completed Diorama with stuffed animals and fake grass in the foreground, with Leigh's landscape enlarged upon the background wall giving a sense of depth to the whole scene.

Plains of Africa. Diorama in the AMNH, New York

The colours and tones had to be balanced just right so that when the lighting was applied to illuminate the animals, the relationship between the real and the fake would be seamless, creating the incredible illusion that you can witness still today. Colour notes and special indications from the field would help stay on track with the true impressions once back in the confines of the dark museum.

Leigh & Akeley were doing all the preparatory work out in the field, but they needed people to work back home to assist them, and also to work while they were away. So Leigh employed an apprentice to work in the museum, to assist with the completion of the final mural work. This was to be James Perry Wilson, who started life as an architect and then moved towards painting. He achieved the convincing visual effects in many of the large painted murals.

James Perry Wilson painting the walls of a diorama.

His background in architecture was instrumental in his success, combining his talents as a painter and his expertise as an architect. He applied his mathematical mind to the problems presented to him by a curved wall, where he was asked to transform a flat surface into a receding space. Other painters were put off by this calculated approach, and attempted to undermine his process as cold, detached and “un-artistic”. Unfortunately for these critics, Perry’s approach proved to be successful, considering that they still stand untouched and, so far, irreplaceable at the AMNH. 

James Perry Wilson working at the Bison site.

Wilson was also to become a significant contributing artist in the field, working on many of the North American dioramas. Coming later than Akeley and Leigh, we fortunately have more photographs in the field, even in colour.

James Perry Wilson painting in Yellowstone canyon.

Here we see James Perry Wilson at work in the field in 1954, for the Jeffrey Pine diorama.

James Perry Wilson painting the Pine scene

James Perry Wilson painting the Pine scene

This was just a brief introduction of the tradition of diorama painting, and its manifestation at the AMNH of New York. A fascinatingly over-looked set of outstanding painters, well worth the spotlight, and well worth a visit if you ever pass through New York.



Will Roseman, Martin Krauss, Carl Schuster of Explorer's club (New York).

Lacey Flint of Explorer's club archives Dpt.

Michael Anderson for his biography of James Perry Wilson.

Books: "Frontiers of enchantment" William Leigh. "In brightest Africa" Carl Akeley. "Carl Akeley's Africa" Mary Jobe Akeley. "My way of becoming a hunter" Robert Rockwell. "Fifty years of preparing habitat groups for the ANHM" James L. Clarke. "I married adventure" Martin & Osa Johnson.