Natural Selection

Andy Holden / Peter Holden

Former Newington Library, London SE17
10 September 2017 - 26 November 2017
Astonishing ★★★★★ The Observer
Full of surprises ★★★★ the Guardian
Deeply emotional ★★★★ Time Out London

Father and son Andy Holden and Peter Holden take us on an ornithological journey: from the building of nests to the collecting of eggs.

The exhibition was situated in the former Cuming Museum – a museum founded by a father and son – which was originally home to a collection of natural history and archaeological curiosities.

Natural selection showcased several multi-screen films, a selection of archival material, and Andy Holden’s own collection of found nests. The exhibition was split into two sections: ‘A Natural History of Nest Building’ and 'A Social History of Egg Collecting'. The former exposed the unscrupulous cuckoo; the artistry of the bowerbird; and the nest as an object in its own right. While the latter shed light on this practice in a changing legal landscape, and the resultant criminal operations after 1954, through a video work 'The Opposite of Time' and an installation titled ‘How the Artist Was Led to the Study of Nature’.

This exhibition subsequently toured to Towner Art Gallery in Eastbourne (3 February – 20 May 2018), Leeds Art Gallery (8 June – 2 September 2018) and Bristol Museum & Art Gallery (1 June—15 September 2019).

Image: Andy Holden showing a visitor a sculptural installation of porcelain eggs: Holden's work How the Artist Was Led to the Study of Nature (2017). Photograph: Liam White


5 minutes
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In 2017, replica birds' egg craftsman Peter Rowland was approached by an artist with a request to create thousands of eggs for an exhibition. In this documentary, Rowland talks about how he came to be an egg maker originally and gives an intimate insight into the way he works.

This video is also available to watch on Vimeo and YouTube.

Sound Recordist: Adam Gutch
Filmed and Edited by Tim Knights
Produced and Directed by Jared Schiller

Book: Natural Selection: A Natural History of Nest Building/A Social History of Egg Collecting

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Natural Selection: A Natural History of Nest Building/A Social History of Egg Collecting

£11.95 Onsite

I discovered that if I held a falcon egg close to my mouth and made soft clucking noises, a chick that was ready to hatch would call back. — Helen Macdonald, On Nests and Eggs

Natural Selection is divided into two parts, A Natural History of Nest Building and A Social History of Egg Collecting, and includes new essays by Darian Leader and Helen Macdonald.

  • Published by Artangel
  • Designed by James Langdon
  • 120pp
  • Illustrations colour
  • Paperback
  • ISBN: 9781902201320


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The show circles back in the end to the bowerbird, making its nest for fun, or love, a free invention in which no eggs will ever be laid. This bird, the Holdens agree, has a singular sensibility. – Laura Cumming, The Observer

Selected Press

For everything in this marvellous Artangel exhibition – a show of marvels in itself – turns upon the astonishing connections between ornithology and art, or more precisely between birds and their visions, whether their nests and even their eggs can be seen as expressive creations rather than just evolutionary imperatives. – Laura Cumming, The Observer, 10 September 2017.
It is especially appropriate that this glorious and multi-layered testament to father and son teamwork is housed in the former home of the Cuming Museum, whose collection of archaeology, anthropology and natural history was put together by Richard Cuming and his son Henry Syer Cuming in the 19th century. – Louisa Buck, The Art Newspaper, 11 September 2017
This is Andy’s typical modus operandi: starting small with something from his own life, then exploding it outward into a twisty nest of ideas. Sophistication is balanced by self-exposure, embarrassment even. – Skye Sherwin, Guardian, 11 September 2017
Andy and Peter, as father and son, have a respect and understanding for their differing takes. Here we see not a battle of opposing ideologies, but two different ways of seeing. And what binds both Andy and Peter is a mutual awe and enthusiasm. It is, remarkably heartening. – Aled Jones, Rake's Digress, 27 September 2017
If framed this way - the artist, the eggs, the nests - then what has to follow is a necessary understanding that this generation of ‘art’ literally produces the next generation of ‘artists’. To ignore this numbs all but the shallowest interaction, and leaves this heartbreaking hollow. The eggs and the shelves of this library are both uncanny in their emptiness. – Mike Saunders, Map Magazine, 26 September 2017

Audio: Andy Holden and Peter Holden in Conversation

44 minutes 12 seconds
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Talk: Andy Holden and Peter Holden in Conversation

After it being this slightly awkward embarrassing space for a decade, suddenly it was on show in London with a spotlight on it

Artist Andy Holden and his father, ornithologist Peter Holden, discuss how they came to work together on the exhibition 'Natural Selection' in a conversation presented by Artangel's Co-Director James Lingwood.

You can listen to the talk on Soundcloud

Image: Andy Holden & Peter Holden, Natural Selection, 2017. Photograph by Marcus J. Leith

About the Artists

Andy Holden & Peter Holden
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Andy Holden

Andy Holden (b.1982) artist, musician and cartoon was born and now lives and works in Bedford, UK. Holden has worked collaboratively with his father Peter Holden, an orthologist, to produce lectures on birds and the recent Artangel project Natural Selection. He regularly performs and releases records with his band The Grubby Mitts and co-ran the record label Lost Toys Records.

His most recent solo exhibitions include ‘Laws of Motion in a Cartoon Landscape (II)’, Glasgow International (2016); ‘Towards a Unified Theory of MI!MS’, Zabludowicz Collection, London (2013), Spike Island (2014); ‘Chewy Cosmos Thingly Time’, Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge (2011); and ‘Art Now: Andy Holden’, Tate Britain (2010). 

Peter Holden

Peter Holden intended to become a professional ornithologist from the age of eight and joined the staff of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in 1969. Father of Andy Holden, Peter and Andy worked collaboratively to produce Natural Selection for Artangel in 2017, which was a comprehensive look at nests and egg collecting.

As one of the UK’s leading ornithologists and conversationalists, Holden worked for the RSPB for 45 years and built the Young Ornithologist Club into the largest wildlife club in the world. He was regularly featured as ‘the bird man’ on Blue Peter and wrote several books including the RSPB Handbook of British Birds, the RSPB Handbook of Garden Wildife and Birds: their Hidden World.

Images: (left) Andy Holden, aged one year old, Photograph: Peter Holden. This photograph was used in an advert for British Birds magazine, 1983; (top) Andy Holden with nest in front of a green screen during the production of Natural Selection, 2017. Photographs: Jazbo Gross; (bottom) Peter Holden in Andy Holden's old studio, 2017. Photograph: Andy Holden


Writing: Darian Leader

On Eggs and Nests
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Just as nests were linked to this narrative of generations, it was in a discussion with his father, the ornithologist Peter Holden, that Andy realised the importance of the nest. As his father explained nests as the result of evolutionary imperatives, to generate innate mechanisms of construction which could subsequently be “ignored”, the son saw something else.

Darian Leader: On Eggs and Nests

When I asked one of my teachers what came first, the chicken or the egg, the response was unequivocal: the egg, as unicellular organisms precede multicellular ones. I liked the answer, but, of course, it doesn’t really get at what the question is about. To ask what came first is not to seek a literal explanation, as the enquiry itself is a metaphor. When people evoke the chicken and the egg in conversation, it is to index a paradox or impossibility, something that in fact has no answer, like asking if a chessboard is black or white. What matters is the context of the question rather than its letter. It’s a question that is not meant to be answered.

Like most unanswered questions, it revolves around one - or more - of three things: sex, reproduction and death. However precise our biological accounts of these phenomena, there is always a failure to address the question, as the register of language and meaning can never entirely subsume them. In the Monty Python film ‘The Meaning of Life’, while the teacher and his wife copulate in front of the class in their sex education lesson, the pupils are still distracted, looking out of the window and messing around as if the literal response to their curiosity was inherently unsatisfying. An egg, in this sense, constitutes a riddle rather than a solution.

Andy Holden’s eggs pose this problem in a slightly different way. His question is less, what came first, the bird or the egg, than what came first, the egg or the nest. Ornithological literature privileges in a quite astonishing way the reproductive habits of birds, to such an extent that almost all other phenomena of avine life are affiliated to this. From migration to feeding, everything is invested with a meaning linked to the perpetuation of the species, with nest building given a secondary and purely functional place. Birds build nests to protect themselves from their predators and ensure the survival of their young. End of story.

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A Natural History of Nest Building

In The Artangel Collection
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A Natural History of Nest Building

A Natural History of Nest Building is part of The Artangel Collection. Since its initial presentation at the Towner Art Gallery in the spring of 2018, it has been exhibited at Turner Contemporary in Margate, CAST in Cornwall and Inverleith House in Edinburgh.

  • Artist: Andy Holden & Peter Holden
  • Title: A Natural History of Nest Building
  • Date: 2017
  • Medium: Three screen video installation with four channel audio on custom built screen wall
  • Dimensions: 3 x video projections, 1.7m x 1.275m - 4:3 aspect ratio
  • Duration: 31 minutes
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The Opposite of Time

In The Artangel Collection
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The Opposite of Time

The Opposite of Time is part of The Artangel Collection. Since its initial presentation at the Towner Art Gallery in Eastbourne in the spring of 2018 it has been shown at CAST in Cornwall and Inverleith House in Edinburgh.


  • Artist: Andy Holden & Peter Holden
  • Title: The Opposite of Time
  • Date: 2017
  • Medium: Three screen video installation with five channel audio
  • Dimensions: various dimensions
  • Duration: 30 minutes 37 seconds
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Who made this possible?


Commissioned by Artangel, Bristol Museum and Art Gallery, Leeds Art Gallery and Towner Art Gallery, with the support of the National Lottery through Arts Council England, Spike Island and Bristol Green Capital 2015, the Henry Moore Foundation and Artangel’s Guardian Angels.

Natural Selection is part of The Artangel Collection, an initiative to bring outstanding film and video works commissioned and produced by Artangel to galleries and museums across the UK. The Artangel Collection has been developed in partnership with Tate and is generously funded by the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation and The Foyle Foundation.

Artangel is generously supported using public funding by Arts Council England, and by the private patronage of The Artangel International CircleSpecial Angels and The Company of Angels.