Monday, August 21, 2017


One of the great publishers of the world, known for their extraordinary and outsize publications, Taschen have established new benchmarks in illustrated book publishing. 

This new and remarkable hardbound book from them is, the first ever history of  a new genre. We're not talking about cave paintings here but rather the imaginative depictions of the fauna and flora of our planet's prehistoric past, a visual tradition which began in Britain in 1830. This volume takes the story up to the1990s.

The book was initially conceived by the artist Walton Ford and researched and written by Zoë Lescaze, who has rooted out some wonderful rarely-seen material from major natural history museums, obscure archives and private collections. These include murals and sculptures, drawings and paintings.

A central idea in Ford's introductory essay entitled 'Twofold Time Machine' draws on a quote from SF writer Isaac Asimov who believed that, following on from the steam engine and the first stages of the Industrial Revolution that: "a new kind of curioisity developed, perhaps the first really new kind in recorded history. It was suddenly possible to ask 'what would the future be like'

This idea in turn triggered the question 'what did the prehistoric past look like', chiming in with the new discoveries being made by the rising science of paleontology. This question, writes Ford, 'gives rise to a bizarre and unprecedented pictorial tradition as outrageous and imaginative as the better known vintage visions of the future'. He argues that though many of these paintings and sculptures are now obsolete scientifically because of new knowledge, we should now concentrate on their aesthetic and artistic value. 

What this book demonstrates is that paleoart's exponents range from those whose work is imaginative with little concern about actual factual science and, at the other extreme, artists who aimed for maximum fidelity and used scientific data to underpin their visualisations of prehistoric monsters and landscapes.

In 'The Art of Raising The Dead', Zoë Lescaze introduces us to the genre's first exponent, an English geologist and clergman, named Henry Thomas De la Beche, whose Duria antiquior (c.1830), she claims as the 'first vivid picture of the prehistoric past based in fossil evidence'. The potency of this marriage of fact and fantasy - a seductive blend of science and art, defined the genre and influenced painting, sculpture, literature and film.

Beche moved to Lyme Regis in Dorset in 1812 where he met Mary Anning, the most successful fossil hunter in Britain who, amongst a menagerie of creatures, discovered remains of the world's first plesiosaur and pterosaur. Lescaze draws from Hugh Torrens' paper on Anning: 'She discovered the ink sacs preserved within fossil belemnites, having recognized the animals’ resemblance to modern cuttlefish, and even enlisted a friend to reconstitute the pigment. The primordial sepia became a coveted medium for painting fossils.' Fascinating.

Despite the importance of her finds, Anning was broke and it was la Beche who saved the day by persuading here to let him visualise her fossils in order to bring them to life for a broader audience. He augmented his portrayals with imaginative elaborations that Anning disproved of but the book made her a lot of money as it gave people, says Lescaze, a 'first fascinating glimpse of a world no humans had ever seen.'

Demand for fossils increased rapidly and some collectors went after them 'like an opium eater and his drug'. They were considered 'tokens of time'. 'For many, the allure of fossils', writes Lescaze, 'in their ability to render the infinite intimate, to condense immeasurable millennia into physical objects one could hold. These tangible pieces of a past too vast to comprehend provided a vital balm in an age of turbulent transformation.

The discovery that the earth was nuch older than previously thought was disturbing but even more so was the concept of extinction and the idea that what happened to the prehistoric animals could happen to us. This unerving suggestion gained traction, says Lescaze and permeated art and literature. 'For some, pondering prehistory became a transcendent exercise in the sublime...Contemplating
the depths of time, wrote the poet and translator Edward FitzGerald, fills “the human Soul, with Wonder and Awe and Sadness!”
Chapter I: Cataclysm and Conquest traces the progress of paleoart through its significant works. In the nineteenth century no-one knew what the animals really looked like so the artists  projected their own imaginations and art history on the bones. Lescaze suggests the results were akin to the monsters and dragons drawn on antique maps. Leonardo da Vinci once advised those hoping to create convincing chimeras: “take the head of a mastiff, the eyes of a cat, the ears of a porcupine . . . the brows of a lion, the temples of an old cock, and the neck of a sea tortoise.”

In 1833 came Reptiles Restored, a watercolour by artist George Nibbs, which five years later, George Scharf lithographed and entitled 'The Ancient Weald of Sussex' . It was used as the frontispiece for 'Sketches in Prose and Verse' by poet and geologist George Fleming Richardson.

Also in 1833, the fossil collector and doctor Gideon Mantell in Lewes was pondering a strange fossil tooth which would later prove to be from the mighty Iguanodon. He wrote in his journals ' Frankenstein, I was struck with astonishment at the enormous monster which my investigations has...called into existence.' [Interestingly, Mantell and Mary Shelley, the authir of Frankenstein, later developed an interesting relationship documented here ]

In 1838 Mantell got together with painter John Martin who Lescaze describes as an 'art star' of the day, popular and successful for his large canvases, often representing apocalyptic scenes. He produced a suitably gothic frontispiece for Mantell's popular book 'The Wonders of Georlogy' which, says Lescaze, 'blew open the doors for other artists to give their imagination free rein' What is noticeable from these early works is the assumption that these animals were inherently violent.

Lescaze finishes the chapter with two more artists: Josef Kuwasseg, an Austrian Painter who was the first to produce a chronological suite of prehistoric scenes in 14 watercolour paintings in 1851. By 1885, the first paleoart reached Russia when Mikhailovich Vasnetsov was commissioned to create an immense mural devoted to the Stone Age in the State Historical Museum in Moscow. [The earliest paleoart oil painting known in the US was produced by Archibald Willard c.1872]*

Source: Wikipedia

Chapter 2: Paleoart to the People is devoted to perhaps the best known paleoartists Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins who was driven by the idea that prehistory should not only be accessible to the wealthy and well-educated. After working on the 1851 Great Exhibition, he was commissioned to produce the first life-sized sculptures of prehistoric animals for the Crystal Palace in Sydenham. On New Years Eve 1853, he staged a sumptuous dinner held inside his model of the Iguanadon.
After funds for the Crystal Palace dinosaur project ran out, his contract was terminated in 1855.

He was invited to New York in 1868. He first worked at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphis where he assembled the bones of a Hadrosaurus which had been discovered in 1858.This 14-feet high reconstructed dinosaur skeleton, with missing bones made out of plaster, was shown to the public in November 1868 and attracted 100,000 visitors in the first year. 

Fresh from this success he went to work in his studio in Central Park, New York on plans for a Paleozoic Museum in the park grounds. All that is left of the project is one preparatory drawing that is reproduced in this book. The project was killed in 1870  by a ruthless politician named Tweed. When Hawkins lambasted him in the press, Tweed hired thugs to totally wreck Hawkins' studio and smash up all his work. There are continued rumours that all the pieces may be buried somewhere in the Park. A plan for a Paleontology wing at the Smithsonain also fell through so, in 1874 he returned to England only to find the Crystal Palace dinosuars in ruin. 

In 1875 he went back to  to the US to work on the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia but, out of several commissions, all except one were cancelled. Fortunately Princeton’s first professor of geology and geography, Arnold Guyot saved him with a commission to produce a suite of seventeen large oil paintings for his geology museum in Princeton of which 15 survive. Hawkins returned to England in 1878 and died in 1894 at the age of 86.

Charles R. Knight Source: Wikipedia
Chapter III: The Bone Wars refers to the intense rivalry between two American paleontologists named Othniel Charles Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope, which bankrupted them both but uncovered a treasure trove of huge dinosaurs that captured the public imagination.

As a result, a curator at the American Museum of Natural History, a showman in the mould of Hawkins named Henry Fairfield Osborn, commissioned Charles R. Knight, a then unknown severely near-sighted painter, to produce dinosaur watercolour paintings for the museum's fossil halls.

Osborn first sent Knight to visit Cope who exposed the artist to the radical conviction that dinosaurs were active, agile animals which resulted in one of his most famous paintings 'Laelaps' (1897) showing two sparring dinosaurs. Knight built clay models of his prehistoric subjects and brought them life in believable landscapes.

This work led a bigger commission from the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago  for a 28-mural series for Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History, a project which chronicled the history of life on earth and took four years to complete.  His work, says Lescaze, redefined the very spirit of paleoart and triggered a boom in dinosaur artworks and displays. In 1933, 'The World a Million Years Ago' at the Chicago World's Fair was staged inside a giant dome featuring animatronic dinosaurs.

In Chapter IVOf Ancient Wings and Art Nouveau, the narrative moves to Germany where artist Heinrich Harder was commissioned to produce paleoart works for a science writer. In the second half of the nineteenth century there were crazes in collectible cards in tea, chocolate and cigarettes packs. In 1916 a German chocolate manufacturer commissioned Herder to produce two 30-card sets for their products.

More important was Herder's commission to produce a mosaic for an aquarium in Berlin. Vivid mosaics were a staple of Art Nouveau at the time and there was also a cult interest in Japonisme. Herder's mosaic had a bold graphic quality and used the same chromatic scale as Hokusai's paintings. In November 1943, the aquarium and zoo were destroyed by allied bombing and the mosaics seemed lost for ever. In time, the aquarium was rebuilt but the walls remained blank until, by chance in 1977, Herder's original plans for the mosaic was discovered in an old desk and, with the help of old photos and postcards, a new version of the mosaic was produced using square majolica tiles.

Chapter V: Innocence and Experience focuses on Rudolph F. Zallinger, a Russian-born American who studied at the School of Fine Arts at Yale at a time when there was the biggest resurgence of fresco painting since the Renaissance. Aged just 23, he was commissioned to produce one of the largest pieces of paleoart, a chronological fresco entitled 'The Age of Reptiles', covering a time period of 300 million years. Zallinger began by producing a 10-foot long drawing (shown in  the book) which took him 18 months, before it was transferred to the 110ft-long plaster wall in The Great Hall of the Peabody Museum of Natural History at Yale. This was kept open to the public while he worked and he finished his giant crowd-pleaser in spring 1947.

In the same decade in France, Mathurin Méheut was commissioned by the director of the Geological Institute of the University of Rennes to produce 25 large canvases of Breton geology and prehistoric animals.

Chapter VI: The Savage Brilliance of Zdenĕk Burian, a Czech peleoartist who, in his lifetime produced a total ouevre of 15,000 works, very little of which has ever been displayed. As a kid he explored ancient caves and imagined their original inhabitants. Graduating from the Prague Academy of Art at the age of 14, by 17 he had already illustrated 100s of books including Czech versions of Robert Louis Stevenson, Jules Verne and  'The Jungle Book'.  For several years he lived in the wilds with a band of nomads and his remarkable paintings of primitive man and primates are stunning as are his dinosaurs and mammoths. Popular science books featuring his wonderful artwork have been published around the world.

Chapter VII 'The return of English Paleoart features the work of Neave Parker and Maurice Wilson who, during the 1950s and 1960s both collaborated with the same scientists at the Natural History Museum in London, namely zoologist Maurice  Burton and Scottish paleontologist W.G. Swinton. Parker's work, most famously for the Illustrated London News, was rendered in black, ink with white gouache highlights, with harsh illumination and sever cropping. He died in a cinema in 1961 at the age of 51. Maurice Wilson, is described by Lescaze as a 'flamboyant bohemian oddball' His watercolours of prehistoric animals have an Eastern feel, she says.

Chapter VIII: Mammoths and Monsters of Moscow is a grand finalé, covering as it does the whole range of paleoart in Russian from the Revolution to the fall of the Soviet Union. Most of this work is hidden away, has been forgotten in Russia and was mainly unknown (until now) in the West.

Tarbosaurus and armored dinosaur by  Flyorov [1955]
First is Konstantin Konstantinovich Flyorov, born in Moscow in 1904, an idiosyncratic scientists and exuberant painter. He produced his first prehistoric reptile painting in the 1910s.

In 1937 the State Darwin Museum invited him to create life-sized plaster sculptures and large-scale paintings of prehistoric animals and scenes. In 1946 he became director of the Orlov Paleontological Museum in Moscow and died four years later. 

Flyorov avoided scientific literalism and disregarded skeletal remains. A tall man with a booming bass voice, he was a sought after consultant for Soviet films featuring prehistoric creatures.

'Inostrancevia, devouring a Pareiasaurus' 
byAlexei Petrovich Bystrow, 1933

This grand book also contains the more realistic work of Alexei Nikanrovich Komarov and the powerful paintings of Alexei Petrovich Bystrov featured on the book's cover. Truly stunning is Alexander Mikhalovia Belashov's 18m-long mosaic 'Tree of Life'.

In Lascaze's closing words she makes it clear that there are a huge number of other works that  did not make it into this volume. A companion volume would valuably pull together all the artworks and models produced for the numerous dinosuar and caveman films in the history of cinema, from The Lost World to Jurassic Park. The rapid development of computer graphics has also generated highly realistic prehistory scenes. Dinomania is rife and collectables of all kinds are no doubt avidly collected.

'Paleoart' is a great addition to the literature and a valuyable image resource. Only experienced by this reviewer a pdf. Few review copies were available in the UK. The book costs £75.



Like many readers of this post, fossils and prehistoric creatures were a big part of my childhood times and that fascination has continued to the present day. Here is some material from the library of  THE GENERALIST ARCHIVE.

This is the cover image for an oversize hardback book entitled 'The Age Of Monsters: Prehistoric and Legendary' by Dr Joseph Augusta with illustrations by Zdenĕk Burian, printed in Czechoslovakia and published in London by Paul Hamlyn in 1966. It shows several hornless rhinoceroses  Indticotherium. On the opposite page is this little drawing perhaps showing Dr Augusta touching the creature's skull.

Printed on the book's hard cover is this wonderful visual of a Mastodon (Anancus arvernensis)

'The Dinosaurs' illustrated by William Stout, an international acclaimed fantasy artist who has done work for George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, is narrated by William Service with scientific commentary by Dr Peter Dodson. Published by Bantam Books in November 1981. Done in a variety of styles, these beautiful illustrations add drama and life to Stout's vision of the prehistoric world. This detail from one of the illustrations shows Camptosaurus sheltering from a storm behind a giant rock.

This illustration comes from 'Dinosaurs From China' by Dong Zhiming, jointly published by the British Museum (Natural History) and the China Ocean Press in 1988. This painting by Shen Wenlong shows a scene in the  Upper Jurassic of the Sichuan Basin with  Tuojiangosaurus multispinus in the foreground;  in the distance a carnosaur looks down at a herd of Mamenchisaurus.

Two comic books of many that involve dinosaurs and the prehistoric world.

Left:  Inside back cover from 'Alley Oop: The Sawalla Chonicles' ny V.T. Hamlin. This was originally printed in 1936 as a newspaper comic strip.

Right: 'The Cartoon History of the Universe' was written and drawn by Larry Gonick and originally published in seven issues by Rip Off Press in California in 1978.


The Amazing Dinosaur Found (Accidentally) by Miners in Canada: 
Known as a nodosaur, this 110 million-year-old, armored plant-eater is the best preserved fossil of its kind ever found. [National Geographic/June 2017] Its amazing.

Dinosaur discovery: a cavalcade of new giant dinosaurs is unearthed: ...a good new sauropod skeleton can be very valuable, so to have four new genera named in little over a week is something well worthy of comment. So say hello to the cavalcade of giants that are Galeamopus pabsti,Vouivria damparisensisTengrisaurus starkovi and Moabosaurus utahensis, each of which brings some new insight into the evolution and biology of these animals. [The Guardian/May 2017]

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