Duria Antiquior: A nineteenth-century forerunner of palaeoart

Steven Wade Veatch (USA)

In a breath of inspiration in 1830, English geologist, Henry De la Beche (1796–1855), while exploring new intellectual territories in the emerging fields of palaeontology, painted Duria Antiquior (meaning “a more ancient Dorset”), a representation of a prehistoric Dorset coast. De la Beche’s work was ground breaking – his artwork combined science and art in the first artistic rendering of a paleontological scene, while laying bare the secrets of the past. Before 1830, art depicting the prehistoric world did not exist and these realms were unknown to the public (Porter, n.d.). While it is true that scientists made drawings of fossil animals and exchanged them with each other in private letters, the public had no concept of how prehistoric animals looked. This painting opened people’s imagination to new visions, thoughts and beliefs.

Fig. 1. Duria Antiquior. A watercolour painted in 1830 by Henry De la Beche, who conjured up a vivid picture of an ancient world. It is now in the
National Museum of Wales and another copy can be seen at the Sedgwick Museum in Cambridge. (Image is public domain.)

De la Beche’s painting also laid the foundation for a new genre that would later be known as palaeoart, an artistic genre that reconstructs prehistoric life according to the fossil record, scientific understanding and artistic imagination. De la Bache’s brushstrokes of prehistoric time included (literally) all the information known at that time about ancient life and soon became the first teaching graphic used in the classrooms of the Golden Age of Geology, a period from 1788 to 1840 (Clary RM, 2003). Today, this graphic would be equivalent to a PowerPoint slide in a classroom.

De la Beche’s Duria Antiquior brings the viewer face-to-face with creatures that once lived in a coastal sea where these animals fought a deadly battle for survival, a typical theme of nature in the Regency era (McGowan, 2001). The scene is remarkable: a toothy ichthyosaur bites into the long neck of a plesiosaur, while another plesiosaur tries to grab a crocodile on the shore. (De la Beche’s ichthyosaur is minus the triangular dorsal fin and vertical tail fin that, from later fossils found in Germany, we now know it had.) A turtle quietly dives into the water. What would become coprolites (fossil excrement) drop from a terrified plesiosaur (Davis, 2012). Other creatures patrol the deep waters for food, while two pterosaurs dive toward each other in the sky. Belemnites appear like squids. Hollow ammonite shells rest on the bottom of the sea and crinoids (sea lilies) are portrayed in the lower right corner. Groves of palm trees grow on the shore. All of this is rendered through the painter’s use of a restrained palette of browns, greens and blues.

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