Introducing… The Bristol Dinosaur

The city of Bristol, in the UK, has its own dinosaur!  Thecodontosaurus antiquus was a small, herbivorous dinosaur of the late Triassic period, living in what is now the Bristol area around 230 million years ago.

This part of the south west of England is formed of limestone, and when ‘Theco’ lived here, the climate was warm and wet, a bit like the Caribbean today. Creatures that died might be washed into rivers and into caves where they were fossilised.

In 1834, two eminent Bristolians, Henry Riley, a surgeon, and Samuel Stuchbury, the curator of the Bristol Institution, were looking for fossils in the limestone quarry in Durdham Down, which today forms part of Bristol’s ‘Downs’, a large, open, green public space.

They found the fossilised bones of a small prehistoric reptile, which they named in 1836, but bear in mind that it wasn’t until 1842 that Richard Owen recognised that prehistoric creatures being excavated and studied around the country represented a type of animal he named ‘dinosaurs’.

The name Thecodontosaurus means ‘ancient socket-toothed reptile (or lizard)’ which refers to the way its teeth sit in sockets in the jawbone (like ours) rather than being fused with the bone, as in most lizards. Riley and Stuchbury knew it was prehistoric but it wasn’t recognised as a dinosaur until around 1843. Theco is about the size of a Labrador dog.

Its fossilised bones were held in Bristol Museum but Bristol suffered a severe bombardment in the Blitz of World War II and the museum took a direct hit, yet many of the bones were salvaged and later some more fossils were found at Tytherington, near Bristol.

Bob Nicholls sculpting a model of Thecodontosaurus in Bristol Museum

Theco became something of a local celebrity when it represented a new public engagement with science project run by the University of Bristol in 2000. With funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund and others, from 2010 the University of Bristol’s Bristol Dinosaur Project involved students in a major outreach to local schools, targeting children in 7 – 9 and 14 – 15 age groups. The project also funded new research facilities at the University to process more fossils and employed local palaeoartist Bob Nicholls to sculpt a life-size model of Theco, working with scientists to make the model as accurate as possible.

The Bristol Dinosaur Project is still going strong, visiting schools in the area and engaging tomorrow’s palaeontologists. The model of Theco – also shown in the header – now resides in the Wills Memorial Building in Bristol.




References and further information:

Introducing.. Charles R. Knight: Bringing Dinosaurs to Life

Brontosaurus and Diplodocus 1898)

If you’re at all interested in dinosaurs, you’ll have seen the work of artist Charles R. Knight. His paintings and drawings have influenced generations of palaeoartists.

With the discovery of dinosaurs at the end of the 19th century, and the increasing number of species being found and named, the great museums of America started to show mounted dinosaur skeletons to the public. These were supplemented by painted reconstructions showing the animals as if alive, and Knight led the field in working with the museum scientists to make these reconstructions as accurate as possible.

Charles Knight (1874-1953) grew up in New York City, and developed a love of nature and animals from an early age. Encouraged by his parents, he learned to draw, at first copying pictures in books and visiting the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), which was then a single red-rick building in Manhattan Square. His father worked for J.P.Morgan, who financed the museum, and the family had special access to the museum outside visitor hours.

Charles already had been diagnosed with weak eyesight and astigmatism when, aged six, a friend threw a badly-aimed stone, which hit Charles in the right eye. It took months for him to regain any sight at all in that eye and put a strain on his left eye: he suffered from deteroriating eyesight all his life but he refused to let it stop him drawing. His love of animals and ability to draw can be seen in his drawing of the family dog, drawn at age 12.

In his teens he attended art school, including the Metropolitan Art School, held in the basement of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. From art school he was employed by a firm that made stained glass windows for churches where he worked on designs for the windows but when he was 18 his father died and, devastated, he left his job and went to live with his stepmother and grandparents. This didn’t last, so he moved back to Manhattan and worked as a freelance artist, illustrating children’s books and working for McClure’s magazine, but still spent time in the AMNH, where one of the museum scientists, Dr Jacob Wortman, asked him if he could paint prehistoric animals.

Elotherium, 1894

The result was this painting, of a large, pig-like mammal, Elotherium,  which established Knight as the artist-in-residence at the AMNH, although keeping his freelance status. Here, he worked with Henry Fairfield Osborn, the curator of Vertebrate Paleontology, and Dr William Matthew to restore prehistoric skeletons and create paintings of them as if they were alive.

Leaping Laelaps, 1897

Osborn arranged for Knight to spend a few weeks with the elderly Edward Drinker Cope, the distinguished palaeontologist who had found and named many iconic and familiar dinosaurs and was, himself, something of an artist. The few weeks in Philadelphia made a great impact on the young Knight and influenced many of his paintings. One of the most famous to come out of this relationship was Leaping Laelaps, unusual for its depiction of dinosaurs as active and energetic during a time when they were usually thought of as slow, ponderous and reptilian.

Knight was to do most of his work for the AMNH, including watercolours and sculptures and many of his images were replicated for schools and students, but he was in demand by other museums, and in 1926 set off for Chicago to paint a series of twenty-eight murals for the new fossil hall of the Field Museum.

These became among the most well-known of Knight’s dinosaur pictures, but by then, his eyesight was deteriorating and he could only paint on small boards, to be enlarged by assistants who painted the actual murals.

Tyrannosaur and Tricerotops, early 1930s

His paintings were not confined to dinosaurs, he worked on prehistoric life in all its form, including murals for the AMNH’s “Age of Mammals in North America” in 1930, and three murals for Hall of the Age of Man showed how prehistoric humans lived. In the mid-1940s, Knight also painted for the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, a set of twenty-four small paintings showing life through different geological ages, but his longest association was with the AMNH.

Knight died in 1953. He had stopped painting two years earlier, having completely lost his sight.

William Stout’s introduction to ‘Charles R. Knight: Autobiography of an Artist’ states:

“If having a lasting influence on other artists is a key criterion for determining the greatness of an artists, then Charles Robert Knight is one of the most important artists of the twentieth century… Knight’s reconstructions became the basis for how dinosaurs were portrayed in the popular media – from King Kong, Fantasia and the animated films of Ray Harryhausen to the Disney theme parks. His paintings fired the ambitions of a legion of young people to choose palaeontology as their future profession. Charles R. Knight’s magnificent blend of powerful art and good science continues to inspire art, science and imagination around the world.”

References and further information:

  • The World of Charles R Knight,
  • Milner, R. Charles R. Knight: The Artist Who Saw Through Time. New York: Abrams, 2010.
  • Knight, Charles R. Life Through the Ages: Commemorative Edition. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2017.
  • Knight, Charles R.; ed Ottaviani, Jim, Charles R. Knight: Autobiography of an Artist.  G.T.Labs, 2005.

Introducing.. “Gertie the Dinosaur”

On 8th February, 1914, a new vaudeville opened in Chicago’s Palace Theatre. Vaudeville was a popular stage entertainment, by various performers performing novelty acts – singing, dancing, juggling, performing acrobatics.. but this act was different. Winsor McCay introduced his tame dinosaur, Gertie, to the world.

McCay had created a 7-minute hand drawn cartoon of a sauropod dinosaur, based on the Brontosaurus skeleton that had been displayed in the American Museum of Natural History in New York since 1905. The cartoon was projected onto a screen on the stage, and Gertie seemed to interact with him as, in the manner of a circus ringmaster, he gave her different commands.

Gertie was the first animated character to have her own personality, and McCay had worked out the animation techniques from first principles, working with an assistant, John Fitzsimmons, to create between 6,000 and 7,000 drawings by hand.

So who was Winsor McCay? He was a newspaper illustrator and comic strip artist working for various newspapers, including newspaper magnate William Hearst’s New York Herald. He was well-known among readers for his weekly comic strips including Little Nemo in Slumberland and Dream of the Rarebit Fiend, yet in 1906, he started to appear in vaudeville, performing lightning sketches, drawing ‘live’ on stage. But when his son brought a flip-book home from school he began to consider the idea of animating drawings to create movement. McCay had made two animations before Gertie, but Gertie was so successful his employer, Hearst, stopped his vaudeville performances. So McCay made the act into a film with a live-action beginning and end, and this film is still viewable – see link below.

Gertie was innovative for several reasons.

The cartoon is a simple line drawing set in a fixed, static landscape, and McCay creates a sense of depth by his superb use of perspective. He implied Gertie’s weight and size by her picking up and eating a rock and a tree. She meets a character he calls ‘Jumbo’, based on the famous PT Barnum elephant, but drawn looking more like a mammoth than an elephant.

Like a ‘tame’ wild circus animal, Gertie doesn’t always obey McCay and even snaps at him, but when he scolds her, she bursts into floods of tears. She throws Jumbo into the lake, and with brilliant timing, while she is dancing on her hind legs, Jumbo squirts water at her in revenge.

McCay interacts directly with his screen dinosaur – he appears to throw her an apple but using sleight of hand, he pockets the apple as it appears on screen and she catches it. As a finale, he walks behind the screen and she picks him up, carrying him out of frame.. to thunderous applause.

McCay was, first and foremost, an entertainer, and Gertie was a comedy act, yet she is one of the most famous individual dinosaurs in the history of palaeomedia. She is endearing, funny, and McCay had more than likely consulted the work of Eadweard Muybridge (who had created photographic sequences of animals walking and running) to work out her walk cycle. He had invented the idea of ‘cycles’ so that repetitive movement such as her dance could be photographed and repeated. He created the principle of the ‘key frame’ and the idea that a less experienced animator, an ‘in-betweener’ could be used to complete the intermediate drawings.

The young Buster Keaton was transfixed by the pet dinosaur. When making his 1923 film The Three Ages, he had asked his writer: “Remember Gertie the Dinosaur? . . . The first cartoon comedy ever made. I saw it in a nickelodeon when I was fourteen [sic; he was at least nineteen]. I’ll ride in on an animated cartoon.” When he appears as a caveman, clay models were used to show him riding on the back of dinosaur that had a close resemblance to Gertie.

Winsor McCay died suddenly, aged 62, in 1934, of a massive cerebral haemorrhage.

Gertie certainly influenced Walt Disney, and although it isn’t clear whether Disney saw the original performance, he always acknowledged McCay’s contribution to animation technique. Chuck Jones, the director of Warner Brothers cartoons, creator of Coyote and Roadrunner and Bugs Bunny, to name but a few, wrote in 1989:

It is as though the first creature to emerge from the primeval slime was Albert Einstein; and the second was an amoeba, because after McCay’s animation it took his followers nearly twenty years to find out how he did it. The two most important people in animation are Winsor McCay and Walt Disney, and I’m not sure which should go first. 

The film can be streamed or downloaded here.