ASCUS talk: Genetics in the Archives: Inspiring New Art



Another way we promote the project is by giving talks and last Wednesday we had the exciting opportunity to collaborate with both ASCUS: the Art and Science Collaborative and Dr. Mhairi Towler and Paul Harrison of Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art, Dundee. Our part of the talk was to introduce the collection to a wider audience and to show the wealth of material on offer to researchers; then, the artists, Dr. Mhairi Towler and Dr. Paul Harrison spoke about their current project sand how they used some of the material from the Conrad Hal Waddington Collection in their work.


Our talk: ‘Towards Dolly: Edinburgh, Roslin and the Birth of Modern Genetics’ is based within Edinburgh University Library’s Centre for Research Collections and is generously funded by the Wellcome Trust’s Research Resources in Medical History grants scheme. The project archivist, Clare Button, and rare books cataloguer, Kristy Davis are cataloguing the archival records of the Roslin Institute, the Institute of Animal Genetics, the papers of James Cossar Ewart and Conrad Hal Waddington, glass plate slides, rare books and scientific offprints.

And Dr. Mhairi Towler and Dr. Paul Harrison of Duncan Jordanstone College of Art in Dundee spoke on their artwork based upon the C.H. Waddington collection who presented aspects of their work in progress: ‘Epigenetic Landscapes’.  This research they said ‘explores and celebrates the ideas of developmental biologist, philosopher and visual thinker, C.H. Waddington.’ Afterwards there was a brief question and answer session before people left or moved on to discuss it further.


We would like to thank Dr. Mhairi Towler and Dr. Paul Harrison for speaking; ASCUS for collaborating with us to make this event possible; the Art and Science Library at Summerhall for letting us use their space and all those who braved the weather and attended the event.

A New Arrival

The ‘Towards Dolly’ team are rather excited about a recent acquisition by Edinburgh University Library Special Collections: a collection of original artwork by acclaimed artist and designer Yolanda Sonnabend (1935-) created to illustrate developmental biologist Conrad Hal Waddington’s book Tools for Thought (London, 1977). The collection consists of around 250 watercolours, black inkwork drawings, tracings, collages and material sourced for collage-work. Although not officially part of the ‘Towards Dolly’ project, Sonnabend’s artwork and papers relating to her collaboration with Waddington forms a timely and fascinating complement to the Waddington papers which have been catalogued as part of the project.

As we have seen from earlier posts on this blog, Waddington (Director of the Institute of Animal Genetics in Edinburgh from 1947 until his death in 1975) held a lifelong interest in art, particularly in how it can be used to illuminate and represent scientific concepts. This interest culminated in his 1969 book Behind Appearance, a comparative study of science and painting in the twentieth century. Tools for Thought: How to understand and apply the latest scientific techniques of problem solving was Waddington’s last completed work (published posthumously) and presented approaches such as systems and catastrophe theory, cybernetics and futures research as tools for facing the world’s economic, social and ecological problems. Yolanda Sonnabend’s boldly confident illustrations are a perfect partner to Waddington’s imaginative cross-disciplinary thinking. Here is a slideshow showing a few examples from the collection:

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Born in Rhodesia, Sonnabend studied painting and stage design at the Slade School of Fine Arts. As well as being an accomplished portraitist, she is probably best known for her work as a designer for theatre and ballet, having worked for the Royal Opera House, the Royal Ballet, Sadler’s Wells and the Stuttgart Ballet company. We are delighted to have this unique collection of her artwork at Edinburgh University Library Special Collections.

You can see more examples of Sonnabend’s work here on the BBC’s website:

All images appear here with kind permission from Yolanda Sonnabend.