The Tees Valley is perhaps best known for its industrial heritage, but it also has a rich history linked to the natural world. It began in the late 1700s, with Captain James Cook (1729 – 1779). Born in Marton, near Middlesbrough, Cook went on to lead three now legendary voyages to explore the Pacific Ocean. To people living in Britain at the time, the Pacific was as mysterious and unreachable as outer space is to ordinary people today. Cook and his crew brought back new knowledge to Britain of the seas, lands, peoples, plants and animals they encountered in places we now know as Australia, New Zealand, Hawaii, Tahiti and more. They shared their observations through drawings, paintings, writing, lectures and through the specimens they brought back with them, transforming knowledge and understanding among Europeans about the wider world and its people.
The people of the Tees Valley continued to influence and be influenced by the natural world. Between 1798 and 1850, botanist Margaret Stovin collected, pressed and annotated hundreds of flowers, shrubs and other flora to create her extraordinary ‘herbarium’. In the early 1800s, the ideas of geologist Lewis Hunton led to transformations in scientific understanding. Investigating the cliffs in the local area, Hunton noticed that different types of fossils occurred in the different layers of rock. This is the cornerstone of what became known as biostratigraphy. 20 years later, Darwin would use similar conclusions to influence his theory of evolution, explaining how animals evolve through time. The area is still a rich site for a wide variety of fossils today.
Celebrated industrial designer and co-founder of the Linthorpe Art Pottery, Christopher Dresser, was inspired by what he saw as ‘perfection’ in nature. From the late 1850s, he designed a whole range of functional, yet beautiful items for people’s homes including wallpaper, carpets, glass, furniture and ceramics. His work at the Linthorpe Art Pottery set the standard in ceramic design and production, putting Middlesbrough on the map – not only as a centre for industry but for exceptional design and craft. Among designs inspire by the natural world are his fish vase, onion vase and botanical textiles and wallpaper.
The discovery of a rich seam of ironstone in the Eston Hills in 1847 not only led to the area becoming an industrial powerhouse, but also fuelled a range of folk art, including ironstone sculptures and decorative pieces made of mine minerals, and some of the most iconic bridge designs in the world. Arthur Dorman and Albert De Lande Long set up their own steel making company in Middlesbrough in 1875. Most famously, the company built the Sydney Harbour Bridge, which opened in 1932. Closer to home, they built London’s Lambeth Bridge, and the iconic Tyne Bridge and Tees Newport Bridge. Arthur Dorman’s design and cultural legacy lives on with the Dorman Museum in Middlesbrough names after him, which he founded as a memorial to his son George.