Andy Holden / Peter Holden

Natural Selection

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’.

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

In The Artangel Collection

Super Normal Stimulus
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Super Normal Stimulus

Super Normal Stimulus is part of The Artangel Collection. It was initially presented at the Towner Art Gallery in Eastbourne in spring of 2018, before being exhibited at the Leeds art Gallery in Leeds and Inverleith House in Edinburgh.

  • Artist: Andy Holden 
  • Title: Super Normal Stimulus
  • Date: 2017
  • Medium: digital print wallpaper
  • Dimensions: variable.  
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Writing: Helen Macdonald

on the forbidden wonder of birds’ nests and eggs
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One day when, quite by surprise, 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: the forbidden wonder of birds’ nests and eggs

When I was small, I decided I wanted to be a naturalist. And so I slowly amassed a nature collection, and arranged it across my bedroom sills and shelves as a visible display of all the small expertises I’d gathered from the pages of books. There were galls, feathers, seeds, pine cones, loose single wings of small tortoiseshell or peacock butterflies picked from spiders’ webs, the severed wings of dead birds, spread and pinned on to cardboard to dry, the skulls of small creatures, pellets – tawny owl, barn owl, kestrel – and old bird nests. One was a chaffinch nest I could balance in the palm of a hand, a thing of horsehair and moss, pale scabs of lichen and moulted pigeon feathers; another a song thrush nest woven of straw and soft twigs with a flaking inner cup moulded from clay. But those nests never felt as if they fitted with the rest of my beloved collection. It wasn’t that they conjured the passing of time, of birds flown, of life in death. Those intuitions are something you learn to feel much later in life. It was partly because they made me feel an emotion I couldn’t name, and mostly because I felt I shouldn’t possess them at all. Nests were all about eggs, and eggs were something I knew I shouldn’t ever collect. Even when I came across a white half-shell picked free of twigs by a pigeon and dropped on a lawn, a moral imperative stilled my hand. I could never bring myself to take it home...

Read more on the Guardian.

In The Artangel Collection

A Natural History of Nest Building
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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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How the Artist Was Led to the Study of Nature

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How the Artist Was Led to the Study of Nature

This sculptural installation depicts prominent ‘egger’, Richard Pearson’s illegal collection of wild birds eggs, which was uncovered by RSPB officers in a raid in 2006.
Inside his Cleethorpe home officers discovered 7130 eggs, including those belonging to some of the UK’s rarest nesting species such as golden eagle, avocet, black-tailed godwit, little tern, osprey, black-necked grebe, stone-curlew, chough, peregrine and red-throated diver, collected over a 15 year period.
Among the egg collecting equipment was an egg blowing kit, rubber dingy, padded containers, egg boxes, maps, a camera, and books.
Richard Pearson was fined and sentenced to 23 weeks in prison by a district judge sitting at Skegness Magistrates’ Court. The egg collection was destroyed by the RSPB.

Image: How the Artist Was Led to the Study of Nature, 2017 by Andy Holden. Detail of a sculptural installation of porcelain eggs. Photograph: Liam White

The Opposite of Time

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The Opposite of Time

In a room lined with shelves previously used to store objects of the Cumings’ collection, the three-screen video The Opposite of Time (2017) features an animated crow, voiced by Andy, narrating a social history of nest collecting. As the crow flies across a backdrop of landscape paintings by the likes of Turner and Hockney, he explains how egg collecting has transformed within Britain, from an aristocratic pursuit and encouraged hobby, into an illegal activity. – Nisha Desai, Culturised, 1 October 2017.

Image: Three screen video featuring an animated crow leading a social history of nest collecting: Andy Holden, The Opposite of Time (2017). Photograph: Marcus J. Leith


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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. For the father, this is a triumph of natural selection; for the son, it’s the essence of creativity. The bird has a concept of beauty that precedes and governs his creation. It is by definition an artist. – 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

A Natural History of Nest Building

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A Natural History of Nest Building

The pair relate fascinating stories, from the cuckoo’s parasitic tactics to birds that lay eggs straight on to cliff edges. Holden junior is particularly interested in how nest-building relates to art-making. Do birds create their intricate constructions because instinct tells them to drop moss on twigs, or do they have a vision of their home in mind, suggesting a higher consciousness? – Skye Sherwin, the Guardian, 11 September 2017.
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Image: Film work A Natural History of Nest Building (2017) by Andy Holden & Peter Holden seen through a recreation of a bowerbird’s bower Untitled (Bower) (2017) by Andy Holden. Photograph: Liam White, October 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

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

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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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


Andy Holden & Peter Holden in Bristol

1 June – 15 September 2019
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Andy Holden and Peter Holden in Bristol

SOON 01 June 2019 - 15 September 2019
Exhibition, Film

Andy Holden & Peter Holden: Natural Selection in Bristol

An opportunity to see Andy Holden & Peter Holden: Natural Selection at the Bristol Museum & Art Gallery.


Bristol Museum & Art Gallery
Queens Road
United Kingdom

Opening Hours

Tuesday – Sunday 10:00 – 17:00 

Free admission. More information on accessing Bristol Museum & Art Gallery available via their website.

In the Artangel Collection

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How the Artist Was Led to the Study of Nature

How the Artist Was Led to the Study of Nature is part of The Artangel Collection. It was initially presented at the Towner Art Gallery in Eastbourne in spring of 2018, before being exhibited at the Leeds art Gallery in Leeds.

  • Artist: Andy Holden
  • Title: How the Artist Was Led to the Study of Nature
  • Date: 2017
  • Medium: hand painted porcelain eggs, polystyrene boxes, food tins and containers, suitcase and cotton wool
  • Dimensions: Overall dimensions variable
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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.