I was in an Oxfam shop the other day, idly leafing through a book entitled Face of Britain: How our Genes Reveal the History of Britain, when my eyes fell with delight upon a reproduction of a very familiar painting, an imaginative re-creation of Neanderthal family life. I felt a warm glow of affection for the picture not just because I knew the artist but because it instantly took me back to my childhood which, perhaps surprisingly in such a context , is represented in the painting. I was only too happy to contribute to charity as I purchased the book, pleased to have a copy of this much-reproduced image, which happens to depict my brother and me as childish little Neanderthals having a bit of a scrap.
The original watercolour was painted in 1950 by Maurice Wilson (1914-1987) for the Natural History Museum where he became a friend of my father Dr Kenneth Oakley (1911-1981), best known for his role in helping expose the Piltdown Hoax. The Face book was written in 2006 by Robin McKie to accompany a Channel Four television series , which I had enjoyed, not least because one of the major contributors was Chris Stringer, who worked with my father at the museum in the 1970s, studying ‘Ape Men’, as I would have put it somewhat loosely as a child.
Homo neanderthalensis, Neanderthal Man by Maurice Wilson
NHM Image reference: 001983
Whenever there is some new speculation about interbreeding between Neanderthals and modern humans it's not uncommon to see Maurice's atmospheric re-creation of Neanderthal domestic life used as an illustration , as with a recent issue of Current World Archaeology (No.49). Whenever I see the painting it amuses me to think that the two small boys tussling in the background were based directly on Maurice's observations of me and my brother as kids. I hasten to add that the naked adults bear little resemblance to my parents. Well perhaps my dad...
It was when I was a grown up myself that Maurice told me that my older brother Chris and I were the models for his Neanderthal scene, based on watching us endlessly 'squabbling' at home when we were aged around six and four. I remember Maurice gleefully mimicking my mother's admonition to 'stop bickering!'
Maurice was a real character, as I recall from his regular and keenly-awaited visits to our home in Amersham, Bucks, some thirty-odd miles from London. An eccentric, bohemian dresser, he'd bound out of the car and stride up the front path clad in a long coat with string round the waist plus open-toed sandals and a raffish cravat at his neck. His hair was worn fairly long in oiled ringlets like a stereotypical gypsy, making him for years my image of what 'an artist' was like, not unlike some Agatha Christie suspect. He had a beguiling approach with children, never talking down to us but full of little tricks and jokes to keep us entertained, although it was always clear that he was deeply serious about his work as a natural history illustrator.
My parents greatly admired his artistic skill which was characterised by a deceptively simple mastery of line and shading, enriched by subtle colour washes and an overall softness of tone. Several of his paintings and prints used to adorn the walls at home in Amersham and they are still much loved in the family. One of those I inherited used to hang above my father's desk in his study, a large sketch Maurice did in April 1950 of 'Australopithecos', looking faintly melancholy and soulful, as though dimly conscious of his evolutionary fate. Whether conjuring up an imagined past in deep antiquity or simply painting feathers and fur from direct observation, there was always a warmth and humanity about Maurice's work, often caught in the poignant expressiveness of a creature's eyes.
Because of my fondness for Maurice Wilson and his art I always have a fear that his interpretations of the past - such as the 'Oakley Neanderthals' - will somehow be overtaken by modern research theories, and fade into neglect as mere historical curios. If that happens I hope the sheer quality of his artistry across the range of his output will ensure his name is not forgotten. His love of the natural world must have inspired countless children of all ages through illustrations of real beauty in their own right, as seen in museum exhibits and all manner of publication, scholarly and popular.
As for my own curious status as a Neanderthal Kid, it's worth adding that at the height of my father's media fame over Piltdown in the mid-fifties I'd repeatedly get taunted by older boys in the street in Amersham. It would start with ''Ere, ain't your dad a boffin?' Then, sidling up to prod and shove me they would assert that I was the 'son of an ape man', with the more knowledgeable even insisting that I was actually 'descended from a Neanderthal', with all the usual knuckle-dragging gestures and heavy-browed facial expressions. Perhaps they were right, and Maurice Wilson was on to something.
by Giles Oakley