Monday, 18 March 2013

Behind-the-Scenes at a Science Museum: Behind every great dinosaur, there's a great artist

Compsognathus 1

On Saturday, I went to the Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences, as part of an outing to the annual Cambridge Science Festival.

But (pssst) I was not interested in the science.  I was on the hunt for art.

Because here's what I discovered:

Nobody's imagination is fired by bones neatly arranged by palaeontologists.


Nobody's imagination but the palaeontologists' themselves, of course!

laura dern and sam neill in jurassic park
Dr Sattler and Dr Grant (Jurassic Park)

 Dr Ross Geller (Friends)

The rest of us, it seems, need blood and guts, T-rexes tearing herbivores limb from limb, Jurassic reptiles anachronistically attacking humans, and general monster mayhem.

We want our fossil digs to be transformed into exciting figurative stories.

© Errol Swanepoel, photo of West Coast Fossil Park dig

Enter Bob Nicholls.  

Bob Nicholls is a "palaeoartist" who paints pictures and murals, makes 3-D models and works with multi-media.  You can hear him talk about his life as a dinosaur fanatic at the Sedgwick Museum on Thursday, 21 March!  I have a ticket and look forward to an evening of tooth, tusk and claw.

Robert Nicholls, T-rex

And enter Richard Hammond.

This model of a Compsognathus longipes was made by Richard Hammond.  Richard Hammond is now a 'senior character artist' for computer games at Lionhead Studios in Guildford.  But in the 1990s, he was a natural history model maker.  (I had not even realised that either of these artistic careers existed...!)

The museum label explains:
"We do not know if Compsognathus had down, bristles or feathers, but the patch of elongate scales over the shoulders (greenish in the model) have been placed there to highlight this possibility."
The grammar is ambiguous but I'm assuming the 'possibility' refers to feathers.  Hello, raptor bird.

Compsognathus longipes, by Richard Hammond

Compsognathus 2

An 1820s vision of 'Ancient Dorsetshire'

Then there is the fantastical painting by local artist Robert B. Farren, based on the even more fantastical sketch by the geologist Henry De la Beche.  I have loved this painting for years.

Sedgwick Museum

Henry Thomas De la Beche, Life in the Jurassic Sea

jurassic 03

jurassic 02

Portrait of the geologist as an elderly man

The same painter, Robert B. Farren, also produced this portrait of Adam Sedgwick, pioneer geologist, for whom the museum is named.   It hangs above cabinets full of little stones and shells.  Sedgwick wears the robe of a scholar of Trinity College.  I like the way his hand spans the entire Earth.

Robert B. Farren, Adam Sedgwick

3-D Sedgwick

Here is Adam Sedgwick again, as a life-size sculpture, looking benevolently down at us from his niche.  He holds a hammer and a fossil.  I wish I knew who the sculptor was.

Adam Sedgwick

Adam Sedgwick face

Adam Sedgwick fossil

And Darwin, too

A bust of Charles Darwin hovers high up on a wall.  The sculptor is Anthony Smith who also made the Darwin sculpture in Christ's College.

Anthony Smith, Charles Darwin bust 2009
Anthony Smith, Bust of Charles Darwin, 2009 (commissioned for the Darwin bicentenary)

Darwin bust in loco

Vitrines are beautiful, too

Earlier I said that our imaginations are not fired by bones and stones.  But this is not entirely true.  The old Victorian glass cases with their hand-lettered labels and geometric patterns have their own aesthetic charm.

Inferior Oolite (Sedgwick Museum)

shells Sedgwick Museum

Jannis Kounellis knows this:

Jannis Kounellis, from his 2002 exhibition at the Contemporary Art Museum Ghent

More on Cambridge dinosaurs:  Dinosaurs by the Chapman brothers


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