Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins (Continued)


The two things you have to know in order to understand Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins's oils and what happened to them are:  1)  He was a self-taught artist, and technically almost (but not quite) a primitive artist.  And: 2)  He worked in close collaboration with the leading paleontologists of his day.  They're the best representations in existence of how dinosaurs were imagined to really be at the dawn of paleontology.

The second fact explains their importance.  The first fact explains why they almost don't exist today.

Bob Walters told me of a visit he and Tess Kissinger made to a curator at Princeton, where they discovered that the Hawkins oils were leaning against the wall in the hallway.  They both immediately told the curator that these works deserved better treatment.  "You don't understand," she said.  "When I came here, they were lying flat on the floor."

The docent at the Morven Museum told us that, according to institutional folklore, the paintings were at one point thrown into a dumpster as worthless, and only rescued at the last minute by hysterical curators.

Why would they be thrown away?  Well . . . take a look at the detail above.  On strictly artistic grounds, they weren't much.  As the understanding of what dinosaurs actually looked like evolved, BWH's oils became useless as educational aids.  So they were taken down.  And neglected.

Extremely neglected.

Some years ago, the Walters & Kissinger studio curated a show of dinosaur art at the Bruce Museum.  For the show, the Museum funded the restoration of one of the oils, and the Dinosaur Society funded the restoration of another.  That made a total of two oils out of a surviving total of eighteen.

For the current show at the Morven, which ends soon, alas, an additional six oil paintings were restored.  Which involved a great deal of overpainting.  "A new sky was painted," Bob observed of one oil.  He pointed out where a rip in the canvas was repaired.  "Look at the mountains -- the outline would have been crisp.  That blur around them is the original mountains."

But though detail has been lost, and that detail is to be mourned, the new restorations are of tremendous value and Princeton is to lauded for funding them.

And now, for the second day in a row, I discover that I don't have the time to tell all of the story.  So tomorrow I will tackle the extremely interesting challenge of placing the paintings in their moral and cultural context.

Above:  Another detail, this one from Triassic Life of Germany.



Saladin Ahmed said...

Fascinating posts, sir -- and amazing paintings. The way they walk the line between awful and brilliant is great -- kind of like a 'saur-obsessed Audobon painting with a couple of fingers chopped off.

Looking forward to tomorrow's!

David Stone said...

I can't believe these were mistreated so badly. No matter how hideous (which is overstating the case I think) I'd think a large oil painting from the mid 19th century would have plenty of intrinsic value.

Eileen Gunn said...

I am thoroughly enamoured of these two dinosaurs. I love them almost as much as I love Krokodil Gena.

Michael Swanwick said...

Keep in mind that it all happened by stages. The pictures got stuck in storage when they were became embarrassingly out of date. Then they were moved to less secure storage when some oils by a respected artist needed to be stowed. Decades later, there was a leak and everything was stacked in the hall while the plumbers and plasterers restored. When everything was put back, more valuables needed to be stored so the most damaged and least valued art was left in the hall. And so on.

This is all hypothetical, but it's probably not far off the mark. A number of incremental bad choices backed up by an ignorance of how important the oils would later on turn out to be. I'm sure nobody just took an armload and threw 'em on the floor.

jon Shestack said...

The artist to do the ascent of Dinos is Alexis Rockman.best,
Jon SHestack