Monday, December 26, 2011

Vintage Dinosaur Art: Nebula to Man

In all of my poring through Google Books, Project Gutenberg, Open Library, Biodiversity Library, and any other source for nifty historical texts relating to dinosaurs, my favorite find yet may well be Nebula to Man, Henry R. Knipe's poetic recounting of the history of life on Earth according to the best scientific knowledge at the turn of the 20th century. As to why he chose to write in this form, Knipe explains,
To attempt a work of this kind in rhyme is, I know, a bold experiment. But, however severely scientific in some of its aspects, the story of Geology is truly the most enchanting story in the world; and rhyme may well be regarded as an appropriate form in which to present it. Indeed it is a fit theme for presentation in a much higher form than this, and we may well hope that some day it will be taken in hand by some great poetic genius.
Accompanying this poetry are a series of black and white and color illustrations by a variety of talented artists, and like last week's feature about Eva Hülsmann's illustrations, they are refreshingly original.

There is not a wealth of information about Henry Knipe online. In a Cambridge University obituary, Knipe is said to have worked for the British Museum, overseeing artistic reconstructions of extinct animals. To illustrate Nebula to Man, Knipe employed Ernest Bucknall, John Charlton, Joseph Smit, Lancelot Speed, Charles Whymper, Edward A. Wilson, and Alice B. Woodward. I'll share illustrations from those who were included in the Mesozoic chapter.

I'll start with Dutch zoological illustrator Joseph Smit, who provides a bunch of dinosaurs for Knipe, including a "Brontosaurus" pair which are presented in a fairly conventional way for the time: tails dragging, bound to the water's edge.

Nebula to Man

Smit's Iguanodon reflects the new thinking about the iconic ornithopod since the discoveries in Bernissart a couple of decades before this publication. While drawn from a different angle, it bears a debt to an earlier one by Alice B. Woodward.

Nebula to Man

Knipe would have been remiss not to include Archaeopteryx in the book, and Smit was the man tasked with the reconstruction. He pairs it with Compsognathus, the small German theropod used by Huxley to illustrate the similarities between birds and dinosaurs. This one is pretty tubby. His urvogel wears a vulture-like fringe around a bear head and neck, and for the second week in a row we have an awkwardly rendered wing with feathers extending from the wrist rather than digit II.

Nebula to Man

Smit's Ceratosaurus is leaving something behind for Tony Martin, as well as keeping the little furry things in check. The influence of Marsh's skeletal reconstruction is evident.

Nebula to Man

Smit's finest contribution is this new take on a pair of early American dinosaurs: "Laelaps" or Dryptosaurus and Hadrosaurus. His lively theropod is influenced by the Charles R. Knight classic, and I love the way it's throwing itself into this assault against a much larger foe. Kind of like my in-laws' chihuahua Carlos, who has never liked me and never hesitates to give me a piece of his mind.
Nebula to Man

Lancelot Speed provided a number of color landscapes to the book, but only one for the Mesozoic era. It's a moody Triassic marsh, in which the sauropodomorph Anchisaurus nabs a tasty, if uncharacteristically meaty, snack while the phytosaur Belodon glowers from the shadows.

Nebula to Man

My favorites are from Alice B. Woodward, already an established book illustrator. Her father worked for the Natural History Museum, and may have been her connection to Knipe. Her Pteranodons are remarkable, especially considering when they were done. A little bit man-in-suity, but still a treat. It looks like she's connected the crest to the rest of the body with muscle, as we've seen John McLoughlin do with Triceratops.

Nebula to Man

Here's her version of the nodosaur Polacanthus, which is pretty croccy.

Nebula to Man

Woodward provides the second set of sauropods in the book, in this illustration of Diplodocus and Ornitholestes, which draws on the same instincts that make her book illustrations so compelling. The little theropod is our stand in, amazed at the sight of the two sauropods passing by. This may well be the first life restoration of Ornitholestes, being about ten years before Knight's meme-starting version. The only earlier representation I've seen is the skeletal in Osborn's description. Please do correct me if I've missed another.

Nebula to Man

Finally, I'll share some illustrations by Charles Whymper, who isn't notable enough for Wikipedia but did some stunning work for Knipe's epic nonetheless. First, one of the most bizarre depictions of Megalosaurus this side of Hawkins. It's positiveley sauropodomorphish.

Nebula to Man

He contributed two fine pterosaur plates; the first includes Scaphognathus crassirostris in the lower left, in a variation of the classic pose. Dig that hairy soaring Rhamphorynchus, too.

Nebula to Man

As if that's not enough, Whymper also has a color plate in Nebula to Man, depicting a Dimorphodon swooping in on a Teleosaurus hunting "duckbills." As far as I know, this would have been a completely speculative inclusion a century ago. Since then, monotremes dating back to the Cretaceous have been found, but this is still an anachronistic scene. Still, beautiful stuff.

Nebula to Man

Regarding the text itself, it probably deserves a post of its own, and maybe it will be lucky enough to get one. I'll end this post with his closing, which is ironically placed right after a section extolling the virtues of the British Empire.
All, all is change, not e'en the studded sky
Has held its jewels from all eternity.
And these, not formed for ever from the past,
Will cease, in time, their lustrous lights to cast:
And other orbs, as bright, will fill their place,
And with new light illumine endless space.
So must our earth, part of a common fate,
Sink in its turn, cold and inanimate;
And to its sun, burnt out, once joined again
Be borne through space, and at Fate's call remain.
And must the spirit of the life here spent
Sink with the scene of its development?
Is all the work around, by Nature wrought,
A passing show, destined to end in naught?
But here to things unknown we vainly press,
And man, bowed down, feels all his littleness.
Yet seeing mystery is in things that be,
He ploughs his way in hope, and reverently.
And though old myths and legends must decay,
And like old forms of life slow pass away ;
Hope still will stand, unnumbered with the dead,
To breathe of worlds, whence pain and death have fled,
Where peace prevails, and Life is perfected.

The rest of the Mesozoic era scans from this title are in the Vintage Dinosaur Art group at Flickr. You can read Nebula to Man for yourself at Google Books or Open Library. The OL scan is much better, but I didn't come across it until I had already ripped these images and uploaded them. And a tip o' the cap must go to Mark Crowell, who has featured this title on his vintage dino book website.


  1. Excellent post. And I very much hope you might be able to post the entire poem here too one day.

  2. It's hundreds of pages long, so maybe not the whole thing! I'll try to return to it, though.

  3. Oh, I see! Gosh, now that is some undertaking.

    In that case, dips into it now and again would be equally wonderful.

  4. I love these images. I noticed them on flickr a couple of years ago. I'm glad I'm finally getting to know the book from which they came. Thanks for the awesome post.

    ps. I think you used "bear" when you meant "bare" in the Archaeopteryx part. ;)


Trolls get baleted.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.