Book review – Life through the Ages II: Twenty-First Century Visions of Prehistory

6-minute read

When it comes to modern palaeoartists, Mark Witton has become a leading light in my opinion. Next to bringing a background as a professional palaeontologist to his artwork, he also wrote The Palaeoartist’s Handbook, which is a unique resource for this field as far as I can tell. Who could be better suited to produce a homage and sequel to one of the most iconic palaeoart books of all times: Knight’s Life through the Ages?

Life through the Ages II

Life through the Ages II: Twenty-First Century Visions of Prehistory, written by Mark P. Witton, published by Indiana University Press in April 2020 (hardback, 157 pages)

In the pantheon of palaeoart few names loom as large as that of American artist Charles R. Knight (1874-1953). Of the several books he wrote, his 1946 Life Through the Ages is the one that stood the test of time, having been reprinted on multiple occasions. In Life through the Ages II, Witton provides a gorgeously illustrated tour of life on Earth, reflecting how the state of science has advanced in the intervening seven decades.

Life through the Ages II internal 1In his introduction, which is both a celebration and overview of Knight’s career and artwork, Witton encourages readers to seek out Knight’s book and have them side by side to see first-hand how palaeoart has changed. I am unfortunately not so lucky to have that book at hand, but Witton provides some helpful pointers. Where Knight’s book contained thirty-three images, mostly charcoal sketches and a few colour illustrations, Witton presents sixty-two pieces, all in glorious full-colour. The format is the same, however, with short descriptive texts and images on facing pages.

Before you embark on this chronological tour through the history of life there is a very brief introduction to the geologic timescale, the biological classification of lifeforms, and the reconstruction of extinct animals in art, which recaps some of the main points of The Palaeoartist’s Handbook. An appendix contains brief notes with sources and justifications or caveats for each illustration. The only thing I felt was missing was an introduction to Witton’s method of making art. An interview with him in Dinosaur Art 2 revealed that he primarily works digitally, although to my eyes his works might just as well have been painted on canvas.

“The notes in the appendix reveal a careful artist who holds himself to exacting standards of authenticity […] no posture, no limb placement, no choice of bodily proportions has gone without serious research and thought.”

In that same portfolio, Witton encouraged novice palaeoartists to explore animal groups that others have shunned. This ethos underlies Life through the Ages II, as Witton presents a very representative and balanced whistle-stop tour of some major highlights in life’s evolution. Whether it is the birth of Earth, hydrothermal vents as the cradle of life, or the first cyanobacteria building dome-like structures called stromatolites, Witton shows you can make dramatic artwork out of static subjects. Before we get to the tetrapods, there is similarly attention for early invertebrates in the Ediacaran and Cambrian periods, the invasion of land by plants, and the rise of fishes.

Life through the Ages II internal 2Once life developed four limbs, Witton continues to aim for a taxonomic balance in his depictions. Thus there are temnospondyls (a precursor to amphibians), the bizarre whorl-toothed shark Helicoprion, synapsids other than Dimetrodon such as dicynodonts and the mammal-like cynodonts, and early reptiles in the form of erythrosuchids. We also get Witton’s speciality, pterosaurs, a beautiful depiction of the last land whales, and an aquatic sloth. Even when painting a staple subject such as Brontosaurus, his choice of setting, two males engaged in neck-to-neck combat in the pouring rain, is memorable.

Witton’s style is characterised by a subdued use of colours and tones that feel earthy and organic to me, making for atmospheric pictures. Some are downright eerie, such as a giant, floating crinoid barge or his near-Lovecraftian depiction of a giant ammonite. There is as much attention to the backdrop of skies, vegetation, or mountains, as there is for the subjects in the foreground. The notes in the appendix reveal a careful artist who holds himself to exacting standards of authenticity while acknowledging the sometimes limited state of our knowledge. So, he asks readers to be sceptical of his depiction of the Ediacaran biota and warns them that more complete, future remains of Plathyhystrix could render his depiction obsolete. No posture, no limb placement, no choice of bodily proportions has gone without serious research and thought.

“Witton exhorts students of palaeoart to study animal behaviour. Nature is not constantly red in tooth and claw. Although there are some spectacular pieces here […] there are plenty of tranquil tableaux.”

There are two other areas of Witton’s work where this realism shines through. He is not afraid of soft-tissue reconstruction, basing his depictions on careful study of skeletal modifications that hint at attachment points for muscles. Brontosaurus is depicted with a fleshy, muscular neck, the embrithopod Arsinoitherium with large horns covered in horn sheath, and the rhinocerotoid Paraceratherium with a tapir-like proboscis. Similarly, Witton exhorts students of palaeoart to study animal behaviour. Nature is not constantly red in tooth and claw. Although there are some spectacular pieces here (the giant shark Cretoryxhina breaching to catch a pterosaur, two hyena-like carnivores disembowelling a Miocene horse), there are plenty of tranquil tableaux. Arsinoitherium standing watch, the land whale Georgiacetus lounging on a rocky outcrop, the entelodont Daeodon resting after a meal, two rambunctious indricotheres mucking about, or a giant pangolin eyeing up an anthill. Even the ankylosaurid Zuul, destroyer of shins, is caught in a moment of quiet.

Life through the Ages II internal 3The text contains concise overviews of the periods and subjects depicted, highlighting where our thinking has advanced. Such as the more nuanced view that the Cambrian explosion was perhaps not an explosion after all, the idea that coelacanth should not really be called a living fossil anymore, or the increasingly blurred boundary of dinosaur–bird transition. What I particularly liked is that the homage to Knight is subtle. Sure, as Witton also tweeted, his depiction of Dimetrodon that graces the cover is a straight update of Knight’s piece, his giant Mesozoic sea lizards swimming at the surface is a tribute to a way of depiction that has fallen out of favour, and the group of sauropods in the background of the Mesozoic mammal painting are a straight throwback – and Knight’s name comes up several times in the appendix. But he is not constantly the subject of attention. Witton’s body of work stands firmly on its own two legs.

Life through the Ages II is a beautiful palaeoart portfolio that pushes the envelope where realistic compositions and reconstructions are concerned. These are images that would not look out of place framed on your wall. If you can buy just one palaeoart book this year, make it this one. It has me seriously considering purchasing a print or supporting Witton’s work through his Patreon page.


Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own, however.

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Life through the Ages II hardback or ebook

Other recommended books mentioned in this review:

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