The Art of Bones

Nineteenth-century artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins still influences how prehistoric life is represented today.

Hawkins had once worked for Darwin as an illustrator, on The Zoology of the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle (published 1839–43), and had received letters of endorsement from him. Subsequently the artist’s vision of the prehistoric world had been affected by Darwin’s theories, leading him to create violent and competitive scenes of deep time. Ironically, though, Hawkins never became a believer in evolution. Like his mentor, Richard Owen, he believed that the ancient creatures he was depicting had been created fully formed by God, and, while well suited to their time and place, had been extinguished by one or more cataclysmic events.

The Dinner in the Mould of the Iguanodon (from the original watercolor in the Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins’ Album at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia).
Courtesy of the Academy of Natural Sciences, Ewell Sale Stewart Library

The themes of stability in nature’s design and human superiority to the rest of creation were ones to which Hawkins subscribed long before his arrival in America, even in publications ostensibly devoted to art. In his introduction to A Comparative View of the Human and Animal Frame (1860), for example, Hawkins expressed his belief that “one primary pattern was created and fixed by the Almighty Architect in the beginning, and persistently adhered to through all time to the present day.”

Bolstered in his beliefs by contact with well-known anti-evolutionists, Hawkins became even more open about his anti-Darwinian beliefs after his arrival in America. In a series of well-illustrated public talks, Hawkins explained the “harmonious fitness of all animals for that place in Creation, which they were originally designed to fill.”

 

In 1875, after completing a long American lecture tour, Hawkins was invited to create mural-size oil paintings of ancient life for the Elizabeth Marsh Museum of Geology and Archaeology at the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University). Hawkins saw the commission as his chance to make permanent his vision of past life as it had been created—and ultimately destroyed—by God. He fashioned a sort of panorama made up of seventeen canvases. Each painting reflects a particular time and place and has its own self-contained composition and story, and yet they are clearly intended to be seen together, an animated time line of life on Earth.

Like a theatrical set designer, Hawkins used light to evoke the eerie atmosphere of the world before humanity. Landscapes and seascapes devoid of vertebrates are shown as morning scenes, the literal dawn of life. As the Sun (or Moon) rises and intensifies in subsequent scenes, vertebrates appear and move onto the land. Early mammal life, including mastodons, hyenas, and saber-toothed cats, are illuminated by a filtered but fully risen Sun, more closely approximating atmospheric conditions that contemporary audiences would have found familiar.

The most dramatic and arresting of Hawkins’s paintings are of the creatures he knew best from the Cretaceous and Jurassic periods. Cretaceous Life of New Jersey appears to be an expanded version of the scene he proposed creating in three dimensions for New York’s ill-fated Paleozoic Museum. It shows a group of three predatory tyrannosauroid Laelaps (now called Dryptosaurus) attacking a retreating pack of hadrosaurs. The pyramidal composition of the painting focuses the viewer’s attention on a life-and-death struggle between two of the giant dinosaurs whose bones had been found not far from Princeton, in the greensand deposits of New Jersey. In the painting’s foreground two mosasaurs and four elasmosaurs (species studied firsthand by Hawkins at the Philadelphia Academy) watch the conflict from the relative safety of the sea.

Hawkins’s painting of Jurassic Life of Europe seems to pay homage to his earlier work for the Crystal Palace. Here a frightened herd of iguanodons are shown retreating from a snarling, barely bipedal megalosaur who has just slain one of their number. Groups of other extinct reptiles, including Cryptosaurus and the crocodilian Pelagosaurus, peer up admiringly at the dominant carnivore, as if learning a lesson about fitness and survival. By the time Hawkins made this painting, most paleontologists had rejected Owen’s physical description of Iguanodon and concluded that it was more likely to have been bipedal than quadrupedal, yet Hawkins painted the species much as he had sculpted it in his 1854 installation in Sydenham.

 

Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins, ca. 1875
Courtesy of the Academy of Natural Sciences, Ewell Sale Stewart Library

The oils went on public display at the College of New Jersey’s Elizabeth Marsh Museum, then in Nassau Hall, in conjunction with a new cast of Hawkins’s Hadrosaurus foulkii. To the college’s four hundred undergraduates and twenty-some faculty members, the creations must have offered an arresting view of the primordial world. The paintings were rehung in a new building devoted to geology and biology in 1909 and continued to be on view until 2000. Now stored in the Princeton University Art Museum, they are seldom displayed, but they remain powerful testaments to Hawkins’s vision.

Hawkins spent his final years in England. By the time he died in 1894, at the age of 86, scientific thinking had moved on, and his views on prehistoric life were no longer welcome. His Crystal Palace creations fell into disrepair and his name was all but forgotten, even in the places where he had lived and worked so intensely. In recent years, however, Hawkins’s contributions to the history of science and art have begun to gain new recognition—not least of all for his lasting influence on how natural history museums engage the public. And now refurbished, his antediluvian monsters once again draw visitors to Sydenham.

This article was adapted from All in the Bones: A Biography of Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins, by Valerie Bramwell and Robert M. Peck, © 2008. Reprinted with the permission of The Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia. All rights reserved. Click here for ordering information.

 


 

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