Zoologist, media consultant, and science writer, Dr Karl Shuker is also one of the best known cryptozoologists in the world. He is the author of such seminal works as Mystery Cats of the World (1989), The Lost Ark: New and Rediscovered Animals of the 20th Century (1993; greatly expanded in 2012 as The Encyclopaedia of New and Rediscovered Animals), Dragons: A Natural History (1995), In Search of Prehistoric Survivors (1995), The Unexplained (1996), From Flying Toads To Snakes With Wings (1997), Mysteries of Planet Earth (1999), The Hidden Powers of Animals (2001), The Beasts That Hide From Man (2003), Extraordinary Animals Revisited (2007), Dr Shuker's Casebook (2008), Karl Shuker's Alien Zoo: From the Pages of Fortean Times (2010), Cats of Magic, Mythology, and Mystery (2012), Mirabilis: A Carnival of Cryptozoology and Unnatural History (2013), Dragons in Zoology, Cryptozoology, and Culture (2013), The Menagerie of Marvels (2014), A Manifestation of Monsters (2015), Here's Nessie! (2016), and what is widely considered to be his cryptozoological magnum opus, Still In Search Of Prehistoric Survivors (2016) - plus, very excitingly, his first two long-awaited, much-requested ShukerNature blog books (2019, 2020).

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Thursday 30 December 2021


'St George and the Pterodactyl', a painting by Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins, 4 December 1873 (public domain)

It's been a while since I posted a 'Picture of the Day' on ShukerNature, so here is a particularly intriguing picture that has attracted a lot of interest among friends and readers ever since I first brought it to their attention in a Facebook post on 20 June 2017.

A small ink-and-wash drawing, presently housed in the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, it was apparently completed on 4 December 1873 by English painter/sculptor Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins (1807-1894). He is of course most famous for his gigantic, scientifically groundbreaking sculptures of dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures that he created during the early 1850s to accompany the erection of the spectacular Crystal Palace in what became Crystal Palace Park, following this huge glass edifice's removal from its previous, original site in London's Hyde Park, where it had stood during the Great Exhibition of 1851.

For full details of these stupendous exhibits, which, unlike the palace itself, still survive today, please click here, here, and here, to read my comprehensive three-part ShukerNature article documenting their history and also that of their subsequent, ill-fated American counterparts, again created by Hawkins.

(Incidentally, the earlier date of 4 December 1868 also given by Hawkins for the drawing under consideration here, as written by him beneath its bottom edge alongside 4 December 1873, suggests that it may have begun as a design for a sculpture to be created as part of that never-completed American collection, but following the latter's tragic end was transformed by him into this drawing and seemingly completed in December 1873, as noted earlier.)

In addition to those monumental mega-sculptures, Hawkins also produced a sizeable body of natural history paintings and drawings, some of which again depicted prehistoric species, whereas others portrayed modern-day animals. Most of these were serious studies, but now and again he'd produce a rather more tongue-in-cheek illustration, of which 'St George and the Pterodactyl' is a particular case in point.

Crystal Palace Park's iconic dinosaur sculptures by Hawkins, depicted in Matthew Digby Wyatt's book Views of the Crystal Palace and Park, Sydenham, 1854 (public domain)

For instead of the titular saint battling the traditional reptilian dragon of mythology, in this very distinctive drawing Hawkins provided him with an erstwhile reptilian foe from antiquity. Moreover, it is one with which Hawkins was particularly familiar, given that he had created two pairs in life-sized sculptured form for the Crystal Palace Park, under the supervision of no less a palaeontological authority than Prof. Sir Richard Owen.

Namely, a pterodactyl – but no ordinary one, given its great size; as can be seen, it is virtually as big as St George's horse! As for its precise taxonomic identity: its toothy jaws have inspired attempts to categorise this depicted pterosaur as a species belonging to the genus Ornithocheirus, but I have not seen any unequivocal acceptance of this classification.

Speaking of St George's horse, this poor beast has problems of its own – keeping its hooves free from the flailing, grasping tentacles of a not-inconsiderable octopus lurking at the water's edge. As for the drawing's setting – this is believed to be Fingal's Cave, a large sea cavern on the uninhabited island of Staffa, in Scotland's Inner Hebrides group, as evidenced by the readily-visible columns of basalt of which Fingal's Cave is wholly composed.

For more details concerning this unusual painting by Hawkins, I recommend clicking here to access a fascinating article by historian Lydia Pyne, which examines its possible inspirations and symbolic interpretations.

Finally, as further evidence of Hawkins's occasional flights of artistic fantasy, here is another example. Signed by him with his initials, and dated December 1864, it consists of a very (melo)dramatic drawing (pen and black ink and wash) that depicts a group of equestrian prehistoric men doing battle with a veritable phalanx of pterosaurs! Truly a flight of fancy in every sense! (Incidentally, if anyone has additional details concerning this extraordinary drawing, or a better reproduction of it, I'd very much like to receive them – many thanks in advance.)

Hawkins's extraordinary drawing of some horse-riding early men battling a flock of pterosaurs, dated December 1864 (public domain)


1 comment:

  1. Hello! my name is George. A few months ago I started reading your blog, I find it very enjoyable.
    The approach from the biological science of cryptozoology is very interesting.
    It gives seriousness to this discipline that unfortunately is not taken into account, despite the fact that in many cases it could be helpful.

    A few years ago I came to the conclusion that dragons possibly existed, but not as quadrupedal giant winged animals, I think this and the breath fire is a creation of the popular imagination.
    But I consider that they resembled what they call Wyvern, a serpent-shaped, winged animal of about 3 to 7 meters in length, which possibly survived until the Middle Ages.
    I suppose that due to their appearance they were extinct by men like other large animals, and the lack of a fossil record could be due to three factors:
    the scarcity of these animals, the destruction of their remains by superstition and the lightness of their bones necessary for an animal of such large size to fly.

    In this sense, the case of the Arzamas Monster is very interesting, although I cannot be sure of its authenticity, it is very intriguing:

    Violent stormclouds had gathered over the Arzamas city on June 4, 1719.
    After a storm, a reptilian-looking creature was found and measured by officers from a nearby fortress.
    These officials - including one Zemsky Commissar Vasily Shlykov - carefully measured and described the creature after remembering the orders of Emperor Peter the Great pertaining to actions that should be taken if any monster or freak of nature was discovered. Peter had recently established the Kunstkamera, the first museum to ever open in Russia, and was in the business of collecting monsters and oddities for his collection. The decree in question went something like this:'If anyone finds any curiosity, monster or freak, heavenly stone etc, immediately send it to the Kunstkamera in Saint Petersburg - because it's not from the devil, but from nature'.

    The description of the officers is as follows:
    (From this description I think they were warm-blooded because is cold in Russia.)
    "The length of this monstrous from the mouth to the end of the burned tail is ten arshins and five inches, and the teeth in that mouth, like a pike, but, moreover, are crooked, and even more than two inches in front, and the wings, like a leather bat , and one wing from the ridge of the snake as long as nine arshins and ten vershoks, and the tail is very long, already four arshins and five vershoks, the paws are bare, with claws, like an eagle and more, and the paws on the wings are four-toed with claws, and the eyes are pale, but very ferocious."

    Going to measurements in meters, the dimensions are 7.5 meters long, 9cm teeth, a 7 meter wing and a 3 meter tail.

    There are a couple of details that few consider when translating the description- is that the language is ancient Russian and confuses, for example "the legs on the wings" should be read as "legs on the wings", that is, it had the front legs developed in wings, also when it says "one wing from the ridge of the snake" (so they called the dragons in Russia) it refers to the measurement of the wing from the spine to the tip, not a wing on the back, and they erroneously translate it as ridge , when it is a wing.
    It is also interesting that they emphasize the "naked legs" suggesting that the body was possibly covered with something.
    Unfortunately the specimen was lost because it was kept in vodka barrels.

    I sorry for my englis language I'm Russian.