Glow Wild - Winter Lantern Festival at Wakehurst Place

Stained glass window display constructed from willow, paper and paint.

All 7 panels of my GlowWild lantern commission celebrating the Purple Emperor butterfly

Two years ago my family visited Wakehurst Place's inaugural "Glow Wild" lantern festival and fell in love with it, so when I had the opportunity to work with a team of staff and volunteers behind the scenes on this year's edition I leapt at the chance. Since August I have spent one to two days a week, every week, mending paper lanterns from previous years with a mixture of glue and water, and making new lanterns for this year. In addition, I entered and won a competition to design a new lantern feature for this year's event, adding another day to my lantern making schedule each week and tempting me to add 'Willow Witch' to my business card. 

The end result was seven unique panels depicting the life cycle of the Purple Emperor butterfly, fitted into custom built light boxes with the help and support of SameSky in Brighton. In addition to the seven light boxes, I constructed eighteen miniature lanterns inspired by the cocoons of the Purple Emperor which were then hung near the display and lit with green lights from within.

Working with willow was a real sensory change from my usual work on glass, and I was delighted to discover how quickly things can progress when you're not waiting for oil paints to dry or using a cocktail stick to paint a galaxy of stars. But more than anything, I love the way that these paintings lit up the dark winter nights with the memory of summer and a hope of spring.


Panel 1 - Female Purple Emperor butterfly and three eggs on green leaves

Panel 1

Features the adult female of the Purple Emperor butterfly, with three eggs on green leaves. The Purple Emperor prefers to live on willow trees in the deciduous forests of southern England including parts of West Sussex.


Panel 2 - two eggs and two Purple Emperor caterpillars of the first instar (stage of development)

Panel 2

Two eggs are camouflaged against green leaves along with two of the newly hatched caterpillars. Purple Emperor caterpillars go through five moults before building their cocoons. Each moult is called an instar - a word which makes me think of twinkling lights, cosmic journeys and magical transformations.


Panel 3 - two Purple Emperor caterpillars of the second instar (stage of development)

Panel 3

During later instars the caterpillars develop antennae and their colouring shifts subtly. While working on this project I have learned a lot about butterflies, but I am grateful artistic license allows me some leeway in interpreting that knowledge.


Panel 4 - features three caterpillars in the green and yellow flowers characteristic of the female and male willow tree respectively

Panel 4

Each generation of Purple Emperor overwinters and this panel shows the caterpillars as they hide amongst the spring flowers of the willow tree. Willows have both male and female trees which flowers that must cross polinate for new seeds. Here the green female flowers are alternated with the yellow male flowers.


Panel 5 - two Purple Emperor caterpillars of the final instar (stage of development) and a cocoon

 Panel 5

Here a nearly mature caterpillars curls himself up into a loop, ready to begin weaving the chrysalis which will cocoon him during the final stage of his development. A second caterpillar and a chrysalis are also hiding in the image.


Panel 2 - three Purple Emperoro cocoons

 Panel 6

The most mysterious part of the butterfly and moth life cycle remains the pupa  phase as they transform from creepy-crawlies into winged creatures of the sky. Of all transformations this remains my favourite metaphor for our own development.


Panel 7 - a Purple Emperor male butterfly with his wings spread

 Panel 7

In this final panel of the feature the adult male Purple Emperor spreads his wings.


Miniature lanterns lit in green to resemble the cocoon of the Purple Emperor butterfly


In addition to the seven lantern panels, the display was decorated with miniature green lanterns made to resemble the cocoons of the Purple Emperor Butterfly. These were hung within the balustrade railing and in the Acer tree which bordered the display.




The full sketch of all seven panels laid out on the floor before the willow, paper and painting work begin.

The Original Sketch

Here, laid out end to end, is the life size sketch on which all of the willow work was based and which became my colour reference when painting the panels.

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