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Painter Des Helmore's incredible scientific drawings

Left, the weevil helmoreus sharpi, one of the species of the genus named after Helmore. Right, mitophyllus, a genus of a large stag beetle endemic to New Zealand. Illustrations/Des Helmore/Wikimedia Commons.

In the field of entomology, Des Helmore’s scientific drawings are so admired a genus of weevil has been named after him.

Ask painter Des Helmore what his hobbies are and he’ll say listening to crickets and skylarks, and looking at long grass on the side of the road. “Especially when the wind is blowing, because these things remind you of eternity.”

Like most artists, Helmore is in tune with a world the rest of us don’t see – or don’t bother to notice. Born with an unflinching eye for detail, he won a life-painting prize in the early 60s at Canterbury University, where his peers at art school included Tony Fomison and John Panting. Then he hoofed it to the UK and applied for a job as a scientific illustrator at University College London, taking along some female nudes as evidence of his skill. “That’s very good,” one of the interviewers noted dryly, as Helmore rolled out the drawings. “But I very much doubt you’ll be doing that sort of work here.”

Des Helmore. Photo/Michael Shultz.

Instead, he turned his hand to everything from maps to illustrations of Argentinian bullock carts; a graphic he created of the transport routes between Manchester and Liverpool was used on the cover of the Institute of British Geographers’ magazine. Back in New Zealand, he worked as a graphic artist and designer for television in Christchurch, but hated the daily deadlines. So when someone from what was then the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR) contacted him in 1975 to ask if he was any good at drawing insects, Helmore packed his bags and moved to Auckland.

Over the next three decades, he produced more than 1000 ink illustrations for the New Zealand Arthropod Collection, using a stereomicroscope with a drawing tube (known as a camera lucida) to create the exacting degree of scientific detail required. Compared to the fluidity of the human form, the complex “kitset” exoskeleton of an insect was unfamiliar territory for Helmore, but he wasn’t the slightest bit squeamish – once visiting the SPCA to collect live flea specimens from the fur of euthanised cats. Each drawing would take three to four days to complete, with a level of intricacy unrivalled by digital photography today.

“You have to go over every insect with a fine-tooth comb, because they’re all different,” says Helmore, who found cicadas particularly complicated to draw. “That’s what made it interesting. I got a real kick out of it; it was such a neat thing and so worthwhile to do.”

Percnodaimon merula, the black mountain ringlet, endemic to New Zealand. Its Māori name is pepe pōuri, or “dark moth”. Illustration/Des Helmore/Wikimedia Commons.

His work, described by international entomologists as “magnificent” and “exquisitely executed”, is so highly regarded that a genus of weevils, Helmoreus, is named in Helmore’s honour. Murray Ball even drew a Footrot Flats cartoon about him.

The originals of Helmore’s drawings are held by Landcare Research, but free digital downloads are now available at Wikimedia Commons – North & South used Helmore’s illustration of a Brachaspis robustus grasshopper to accompany a story in our May issue.

Still active as a modernist-realist painter, Helmore moved to Hastings 18 months ago and has an easel set up in his front room. His pop-art style is whimsically subversive – “making gentle fun of things that are supposed to be important in society” – but these days his subjects are clothed. Since leaving art school, he has never done another nude.

Des Helmore’s modernist-realist style leans to the whimsically subversive – but he’s more famously known for his intricate insect illustrations, drawn with an exacting level of scientific detail. Photo/Michael Shultz.

This article was first published in the July 2019 issue of North & South.

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