Monday, September 26, 2011

Vintage Dinosaur Art: J.M.W. Turner

Apologies if this is out of left field, but whenever my current studies intersect with paleontology, I can't stop myself from sharing it. In my recent research into the foundations of the Arts and Crafts movement, a multi-faceted philosophy spurred by distaste for the excessive ornamentation of Victorian design and the early industrial revolution's devaluing of traditional craftsmanship, I inevitably met the figure of John Ruskin, an art critic whose writings were instrumental in the development of the views of William Morris, considered the most important figure in the movement.

One of Ruskin's major works was a multi-volume tome called Modern Painters, a book which has oddly enough received a bit of attention in the art and science blogosphere recently (see here and here). Ruskin is one of those figures I find particularly challenging to deal with: on one hand, he had a major influence and is still studied today. On the other, he was one of those 19th Century intellects who held firm against Darwin's revolution of thought, agonizing over humanity's demotion to the realm of "lesser animals."

Modern Painters is largely a defense of the painter J.M.W. Turner, and here is where we come to Ruskin's writing on the saurian beasts that so captured the imagination of England in the Victorian era. In a paper published by Prose Studies in 2008, Ruskin's Rewriting of Darwin, Andrew Leng proposes that Modern Painters V, published in 1860, is in fact the very first serious response to The Origin of Species, mirroring its "tree of life" motif. In the book's conclusion, which Leng calls "a paleontological apocalypse which dramatizes the triumph of the protean dragon," Ruskin brings all of his verbal weapons to bear as he bemoans the further defilement of the human spirit (and, by extention, the arts): first by the dehumanizing industrial revolution, now by Darwinian evolution. "Ruskin’s remorseless campaign against Darwin’s presiding emblem," Leng writes, "indicates his realization that The Origin had appropriated the almost universal symbol of the sacred tree of life, thereby investing the theory of natural selection with talismanic authority."

The dinosaurs whose existence was just now being revealed by the infant science of paleontology were seen by many as symbols of British power. Ruskin, however, saw this as a terrible irony; these dinosaurs were the great dragons of ancient times, symbols of avarice. In Turner's 1806 painting "The Goddess of Discord Choosing the Apple of Contention in the Garden of the Hesperides," the artist depicts the dragon guarding the titular garden in a way that, to Ruskin's eye, is nothing less than a premonition of Hawkins' Crystal Palace Iguanodon.

Here's Turner's original, from Wikipedia. You can hardly make out the beast at the pinnacle in the center of the image.

Luckily, Ruskin commissioned a detail engraving for his book.

Ruskin writes,
"There is something very wonderful, it seems to me, in this anticipation, by Turner, of the grandest reaches of recent inquiry into the form of the dragons of the old earth. I do not know at what period the first hints were given of the existence of their remains; but certainly no definite statements of their probable forms were given either by Buckland, Owen, or Conybeare before 1815; yet this saurian of Turner's is very nearly an exact counterpart of the model of the Iguanodon, now the guardian of the Hesperian Gardens of the Crystal Palace, wings only excepted, which are, here, almost accurately, those of a pterodactyle. The instinctive grasp which the healthy imagination takes of possible truth, even in its wildest flights, was never more marvellously demonstrated."
Having established Turner has a modern master; Ruskin was now imbuing him with the power of prophecy. I'm not sure that "healthy" human imagination has an "instinctive grasp" on any truths. If it does, however, Ruskin would be better served by another example. The Crystal Palace Iguanodon was doomed for obsolence less than thirty years after it was unveiled, when Louis Dollo's studies of the bounty of new fossils discovered atBernissart overturned scientific understanding of the animal.


  1. Can I study with you, please?

    I don't think I've seen this particular Turner before; or if I have, I have forgotten it. More fuel to my chagrin towards my brain's apparent regression, argh. Uh, I digress...

    Like you, I couldn't be more happy to see art history intersecting with palaeontology: an exceedingly rare treasure, if ever there was one. More posts like this whenever possible, pleeease.

    I have just noticed the +1 button, after all this time. I shall make use of it at once.

  2. I'd be absolutely thrilled to have you study with me. We'd be a hell of a team, and the magazine mock-up I'm designing right now, about vultures, would be so much better!

    I do intend to continue posts like this as chance permits. I was so happy to find this, and it coincided with my discovery that, as a student at a major research institution, I have access to all kinds of research papers. If only I could spend all of my time doing this.

  3. Really interesting post, David. The early history of palaeoart is not discussed often enough, so I second the motion to have more articles like this.

  4. Dare I suggest that referring to said monster as "a premonition of Hawkins' Crystal Palace Iguanodon" is a bit of a stretch...? Lovely as the idea is, I can't help but just see it as a fanciful, serpentine monster in the finest tradition, complete with bat wings.

  5. Marc: yes, I agree that calling it 'very nearly an exact counterpart' is a bit of a stretch, but I think its stoutness and the shape of its head may be the features which most invited the comparison; certainly they are something of a departure from earlier dragon depictions, which have tended to be even more serpentine. The Crystal Palace dinosaurs would have been fresh in his mind too (first exhibited just under a decade prior to Modern Painters), so I can see why Ruskin felt it irresistible.

  6. @Holtz Thank you! The one here was just about the largest I could find. That's a huge help.

    @Marc Yeah, it's a huge stretch, and an example of how Ruskin frustrates me. He was choosing what to see based on what he believed. There's a bit of a similarity... but I think it far more likely that it's a case of Hawkins and Turner sharing influences in their respective designs, or Turner directly influencing Hawkins, even.

  7. Interesting that you mention the obsolescence of Hawkins' Iguanodon. I've always been curious about the Bernissart discoveries and just how quickly they replaced the perception of dinosaurs and Iguanodon in particular in the cultural mind's eye. The Crystal Palace sculptures were so well-known--Megalosaurus even warranting a mention in Dickens' Bleak House-- and I imagine while Dollo's studies quickly changed the way science understood Iguanodon, how long was it before the public abandoned Hawkin's vision? Certainly there's some evidence that it was never entirely abandoned, as witnessed in the countless process-shot iguanas and monitor lizards that have stood in for dinosaurs in B-movies.

  8. @Paul: I'd be interested to know that too. Certainly restorations of dinosaurs appear to have moved on very quickly in the 19th century as new finds were made. For example, even before Dollo's Iguanodon discovery - as early as the 1860s - Hadrosaurus had been reconstructed in a fashion radically different to the Crystal Palace monsters. I suppose that would be because dinosaur science was still advancing rapidly at that time, before stagnating in the 20th century.


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