Archaeopteryx by Doncaster

John Doncaster (1907-1981)
Drawing overview
Archaeopteryx
The John Doncaster Drawings Collection
Exhibition and publication details
References and further reading

John Doncaster (1907-1981)

John Priestman Doncaster (1907-1981) was an excellent draughtsman, a meticulous artist, and technically inventive. Doncaster studied zoology at Cambridge University, and following graduation he engaged in research on the transmission of plant diseases by aphids at the Potato Virus Station, Cambridge. In 1934, he joined the Natural History Museum where he worked as the Director's Assistant on the Central and North Hall displays. He was appointed the Museum's first Exhibition Officer in 1937.

During World War II, he was seconded to carry out agricultural research. On his return to the Museum in 1946, he was responsible for the rehabilitation of the war-damaged galleries. This included the Bird Gallery and an exhibition in the Central Hall that featured a display case for each of the five scientific departments of the Museum.

The Bird Gallery was the Museum's contribution to the Festival of Britain in 1951. The gallery included new specimens, set in their natural landscapes and displays featuring the biology of birds, such as origin of flight. Doncaster was not only responsible for the design but also exercised his artistic talent in painting several pictures to illustrate the gallery, including the Archaeopteryx , which illustrated the conquest of the air by birds.

In 1951, he moved to the Department of Entomology where he worked mainly on Homoptera or plant lice, becoming Deputy Keeper in 1955, and finally Keeper (Head of Department) in 1960.



Drawing overview

Doncaster's drawing of the Archaeopteryx is an extraordinary combination of scientific expertise and artistic talent. To this drawing he brought his skills as a scientific illustrator combined with an ability to interpret the biology and natural behaviour of this fossil bird. He has accurately depicted the Archaeopteryx in its natural habitat and has brought life and interest to his composition.

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Archaeopteryx

About 150 million years ago at the end of the Jurassic period, warm shallow seas studded with islands covered the area which is now southern Germany. Reefs formed, dividing the sea into isolated lagoons. This caused the salt levels to rise in the lagoons and the marine and land organisms which fell into their stagnant waters died. They were well preserved, however, as they were not eaten by scavengers, or spoilt by water currents. Over thousands of years, the mud that had formed turned into fine-grained limestone. This was later quarried for roof and floor tiles, and also used in the printing process known as lithography.

The finest specimen of Archaeopteryx lithographica was found in 1861 in a quarry in Solnhofen in Bavaria, southern Germany. A lithographic limestone slab was split in two, exposing a fossil that had teeth and claws like a reptile and feathers like a bird. In the same year the geologist Herman von Meyer of Frankfurt announced its discovery to a stunned and amazed world. The specimen was acquired by Karl Haberlein, a local physician and amateur fossil collector, who sold it to the Natural History Museum for £700.

Richard Owen, the Superintendent of Natural History at the Museum, wrote the first scientific description of the Archaeopteryx in 1863. He declared it to be an 'ancient, long-tailed bird', hoping to prevent any ideas that it was a 'missing link' between birds and dinosaurs. Owen was not a supporter of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution that had been published just a few years earlier. It was Thomas Huxley, who in 1868, by comparing pelvic bones, showed that birds and dinosaurs could indeed have a common ancestor.

Many scientists have tried to speculate exactly where the Archaeopteryx fits in between fossil reptiles and living birds. The accepted theory is that while Archaeopteryx is not the 'missing link', it was the first sign of evolutionary change.

Archaeopteryx is the single most valuable specimen in the Museum's collection.



The John Doncaster Drawings Collection

This drawing is the only example of original artwork by John Doncaster held by the Natural History Museum.



Exhibition and publication details

This drawing was exhibited as part of the permanent exhibition in the Bird Gallery that opened in the Museum in 1951.



References and further reading

De Beer, G. R. (1954) Archaeopteryx lithographica: A Study Based Upon the British Museum Specimen. British Museum (Natural History): London. 68pp.

Owen, R. (1863) On the Archaeopteryx of Von Meyer, with a Description of the Fossil Remains of a Long Tailed Species, from the Lithographic Stone of Solenhofen. Royal Society of London: London. 15pp.