Duria Antiquior (An Earlier Dorset), c. 1850
Oil on canvas
This dramatic scene is a copy of a design by Henry de la Beche made by Robert Farren, Professor Adam Sedgwick’s assistant at the Museum of Geology in Cambridge. Farren probably made this large painting as a teaching aid. The imaginative reconstruction of the prehistoric earth, with dinosaurs and other ancient creatures, was based on the latest fossil finds—in this case from Lyme Regis in Dorset, on the southern coast of England. A fierce, crocodile-like ichthyosaur grips a plesiosaur with its razor-sharp teeth, while another plesiosaur in turn snatches at a pterodactyl. As Lyell had already suggested, the struggle for existence began when life on earth began. In De la Beche’s original design, the stricken plesiosaur is excreting in its terror (fossilised droppings had been found in Dorset), but this detail was primly suppressed in Farren’s version of the painting.
Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences, University of Cambridge
In On the Origin of Species, Darwin explained that embedded fossils provided only a very incomplete record of the evolution of life forms over vast periods of time. Most fossils were discovered as shattered parts of the skeleton, and in any case, they represented only a few widely-separated phases of the earth’s history. The examples of fossils in the exhibition (selected from the collections at the Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences, University of Cambridge) relate closely to those depicted in Duria Antiquior (A More Ancient Dorset). Many were collected from the Lyme Regis area in Dorset, a favourite hunting ground for fossils in the nineteenth century.
The fossils make obvious the fragmentary nature of the evidence that was used as a basis for such imaginary scenes.
Listen to Podcast Episode 1