In the summer of 1811 a 15-year-old boy called Joseph Anning unearthed the remains of a four-foot-long skull studded with giant fangs from the cliffs near the seaside town of Lyme Regis in the south of England. The following year his younger sister Mary found the creature’s ribs and spine. The siblings sold the skeleton to a local landowner for £23, a considerable sum at the time, and eventually the complete 17-foot-long specimen travelled to London, where it astonished and delighted the cognoscenti. It was named Ichthyosaurus for its odd blend of fishy and reptilian features, and was displayed at the British Museum. Europe was on the verge of a tremendous discovery: far from the neat 6,000 year story of church doctrine, Earth history reached back into a vast abyss of time with little evidence of gods but many monsters.
Mary Anning went on to discover one prehistoric creature after another. But despite her work at the frontline of the new science, her financial situation was desperate. Henry de la Beche, a clergyman who had known her since childhood, stepped in to help. An accomplished draftsman, he created images of a watery world that sold for £2.10 a pop. In his lithograph “Durior Antiquior”, or Ancient Dorset, a grinning, saucer-eyed ichthyosaur sinks its teeth into the neck of a plesiosaur. Two pterosaurs spar with one another in the air while a third is yanked into the sea by another water monster. Below the surface, spiny fish and squid-like belemnites dodge predators. De la Beche donated the considerable proceeds to Anning. He also gave birth to paleoart.
Paleoart – illustrations reconstructing the prehistoric past – is responsible for our image of Tyrannosaurus rex as a living being rather than a jumble of flattened fossil bones. Appearing in any number of media from mosaics to dioaramas, encyclopaedias to children’s books, it has been part of popular imagination for most of the last 200 years. “Paleoart”, a new book by Zoë Lescaze, is one of the most extraordinary and beautiful volumes on the topic yet conceived, and suggests that these images of prehistory were as much about the present as the past.
Every age has interpreted prehistoric creatures its own way. This is partly down to improvements in scientific understanding as more evidence was uncovered. So, for example, T Rex morphed from an animal that walked upright to one in which it moves with its tail and head in a line almost parallel to the ground. But as Lescaze explains, artists also mined “the marvellous and macabre veins of prehistory, pinning wistful dreams and deadly nightmares onto bones, inventing new archetypes as they went along.”
In the 19th century William Buckland, a theologian, geologist and Anglican minister, viewed the ancient world through the prism of Milton’s “Paradise Lost”. He borrowed a description of Satan for an account of how the fossilised bones he had discovered would once have moved: “The Fiend…With head, hands, wings, or feet, pursues his way/And swims, or sinks, or wades or creeps, or flies.” Artists and illustrators followed his example, depicting prehistory in a way that chimed with the contemporary imagination. In 19th-century Britain and France, nations entranced by naval power, there was a fashion for titanic battles between giant sea monsters. In Edouard Riou’s engraving “The Ichthyosaur and the Plesiosaur” (1863, above), the creatures clash like ships of the line from the Napoleonic era.
Some of the most spectacular images come from a great flowering of work in the United States in the mid-20th century. This was a golden age of palaeontology: America’s rich were pouring money into institutions specialising in dinosaurs, whose remains were a towering symbol of their wealth and generosity. Rudolph Zallinger's breathtaking images of Brontosaurus and Allosaurus in a landscape of brooding volcanos and murky swamps, created for the Peabody Museum at Yale in the 1960s, are over a hundred feet wide, and represent the scale and boldness of paleoart when America was at its strongest.
But it’s the flair of Russian paleoart that is the most striking revelation in this book. Among the earliest examples is a reproduction of a mural of Stone-Age man from the State Historical Museum in Moscow. Painted in the 1880s by Victor Vasnetsov, it lends epic form to the lives and struggles of early man. By depicting them in a style worthy of an Italian church at the height of the Renaissance, it celebrates the strength and energy of Russia’s liberated serfs. They stand in contrast to the paintings of early man by Zdeněk Burian, a Soviet-era Czech artist. Burian’s art speaks as much of the times through which he lived as a distant and imagined past, depicting a brutal and unsettled world in which primitive humans squabble over morsels of food and children are laid in shallow graves. Even under Stalin, paloeartists enjoyed a freedom that fine artists, whose work was taken more seriously as part of the state project to engineer human souls, did not.
More optimistic is the panorama of a late Cretaceous landscape of the South Gobi by Mia Petrovich Miturich-Khlebnikov and Viktor Aronovich Duvidov. Made in the late 1980s, shortly before the collapse of the Soviet Union, it shows a psychedelic Eden in which dinosaurs of all kinds wade peacefully through a vast expanses of flowering water lilies beneath a vast rainbow and glorious swirling cloudscape. The artists’ imaginations seem to have floated free.
But even a book as capacious as this one cannot contain everything. The authors and editors have not, for example, considered paleoart from the movies, a genre that — from “The Lost World” (1925) and “Fantasia” (1940) to “Jurassic Park” (1993) and “Voyage of Time” (2016) — never ceases to evolve. And who knows what future art forms, whether they deploy virtual or augmented reality platforms or other technologies as yet unimagined, may make of worlds that were, and might be?
Paleoart: Visions of the Prehistoric Past by Zoë Lescaze and Walton Ford (Taschen) will be published on August 10th