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The Prehistoric World of Neave Parker

Neave Parker was an artist, who made reconstructing the likenesses of dinosaurs and other extinct animals his speciality.

Dr Swinton, the dinosaur expert at London’s Natural History Museum engaged Neave Parker to make drawings to illustrate his regular column about prehistoric life, which appeared in The Illustrated London News during the 1950s.

In 1989 the Ulster Museum bought seventeen of Parker’s original artworks for The Illustrated London News. This Collection Story about Neave Parker shows some of this artwork and serves as a tribute to this gifted artist.

Triceratops

Triceratops

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Neave Parker (1910 – 1961)

Neave Parker (1910 – 1961)

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Canadian Dinosaurs

Canadian Dinosaurs

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The ‘British’ seaside in the Jurassic

The ‘British’ seaside in the Jurassic

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Chinese Dinosaurs

Chinese Dinosaurs

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Elgin over 200 million years ago

Elgin over 200 million years ago

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Dinosaurs of the Gobi Desert

Dinosaurs of the Gobi Desert

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The South African Karroo – Origins of Mammals

The South African Karroo – Origins of Mammals

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Living Fossils — Extinct Ancestors

Living Fossils — Extinct Ancestors

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Neave Parker and Dog Ghosts

Neave Parker and Dog Ghosts

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The Last Days of the Dinosaurs

The Last Days of the Dinosaurs

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Triceratops

Image: Original art work for The Illustrated London News 15 March 1958
BELUM.N515 © Mary Evans Picture Library
Original art work for The Illustrated London News 15 March 1958 BELUM.N515 © Mary Evans Picture Library

This animal lived 80 million years ago. We know that it existed, through the discovery of its fossilised bones in the rocks of North America. But how do we know what it looked like?

To begin with, scientists reassemble the fossil bones into a complete skeleton. This shows the size and shape of the animal. Next, an artist working closely with the scientists, and being briefed by them, draws what he (or she) believes the animal looked like. This requires of the artist both creativity and scientific knowledge. This is a rare combination. One who had it was Neave Parker, who drew this picture of Triceratops, one of the extinct reptiles known today as the dinosaurs.

Neave Parker collaborated with experts from London’s Natural History Museum to produce illustrations for their books. Neave Parker’s dinosaurs are not drawings of dead fossils, but depictions of living animals in their natural world. They featured in best-selling textbooks, museum guides and popular journals.

 

Neave Parker (1910 – 1961)

Image: Photograph from an obituary notice in The Illustrated London News, 27 May 1961
Photograph from an obituary notice in The Illustrated London News, 27 May 1961

Neave Parker was born in 1910. Little is recorded of his background. We know that he wanted to be an artist, but that his father insisted that he take a safe job in a bank. Parker lasted one week in the bank. Years later he recounted his experience: “I was there for a week. Each day there was an error in the books and the whole staff had to stay behind until the error was found. It always ended with me. At the end of the week the manager invited me into his office and suggested, kindly but firmly, I should take up something else as a career. So I became a surveyor and later dropped this to go to art school".

Apart from this wry account, and a note that he served in the Photographic Unit of the Royal Air Force in the Second World War, nothing else is known of Neave Parker’s early life. It seems that he made the drawing of animals his speciality, for by 1950, he was making animal illustrations for experts at the Natural History Museum, London. Amongst the experts was Dr Maurice Burton of the Museum’s department of Zoology. Burton wrote extensively on natural history matters of popular interest — mostly about animals— and Parker was his chosen artist. Over the years the two became friends.

Burton gave this description of Neave Parker: “he was of medium height and very rotund with a shock of greying hair, a bushy moustache and horn-rimmed spectacles. An excellent artist and a first class photographer, he always went round festooned with cameras, which seemed to add to his portliness. He was a most agreeable companion, wise beyond his years yet of the earth earthy. He enjoyed good food and above all was fond of beer which he drank in quantities without ever losing his equilibrium.”

Dr Burton introduced Neave Parker to his colleague Dr W.E. Swinton, the Museum’s dinosaur expert. Swinton commissioned Neave Parker to draw the dinosaur restorations for his books. Neave Parker’s superbly crafted dinosaur illustrations helped make Swinton’s books popular.

 

Canadian Dinosaurs

Image: Original art work for The Illustrated London News 27 August 1960
BELUM.N522 © Mary Evans Picture Library
Original art work for The Illustrated London News 27 August 1960 BELUM.N522 © Mary Evans Picture Library

The rocks of the interior of Canada are rich in dinosaur fossils. This is because they are the right age (Cretaceous Period, 135 to 66 million years ago), and the right kind of rock (sandstones that were originally laid down as layers of sand in rivers or lakes).

Dinosaurs were land-dwelling reptiles, and this scene shows the variety of dinosaurs alive 90 million years ago on the ancient surface of northern America. Today geologists search for their fossilised bones in the crumbling valleys of the Badlands of Alberta State, which forms the modern land surface of this part of Canada.

Amongst the dinosaurs on view here, are: in centre, middle — a pair of duck-billed dinosaurs, which walked on two legs, fed on vegetation and lived in or near water; and, on right behind the trees, a meat-eating dinosaur originally identified as Tyrannosaurus, now identified as Albertosaurus.

As Neave Parker’s illustrations would appear in the magazine in black and white, he made his drawings in shades of black and white. He drew on a large sheet of paper, about 700 mm wide and 450 mm high. The paper was grey-tinted, which gave him the middle-tones, ready-made. For the darks he used successive washes of diluted Indian ink, and for the light tones he brushed on a white pigment (gouache).

 

The ‘British’ seaside in the Jurassic

Image: Original art work for The Illustrated London News 31 July 1954
BELUM.N508 © Mary Evans Picture Library
Original art work for The Illustrated London News 31 July 1954 BELUM.N508 © Mary Evans Picture Library

Neave Parker attended many briefing sessions with Dr Swinton, to compose this seaside vista set in the Jurassic Period of geological history, 208 to 146 million years ago.

The term ‘British’ in the title means that this is a scene based upon fossil finds from Jurassic rocks found in the present-day British Isles. However, the Jurassic Period greatly pre-dates the formation of the British Isles.

So many animals are shown in this drawing, that it was reproduced as a double-page spread in The Illustrated News.

Here three species of dinosaurs are shown prowling on the coastal land surface, at top left. The dinosaur with the line of upright plates along its back is Stegosaurus, but it should not have been included in this scene, since its territory was limited to what is now North America. Swinton believed that a Stegosaurus plate had been found in Jurassic rocks near Peterborough, but it is now discounted.

In the sea at centre, Parker has depicted long-necked plesiosaurs and dolphin-shaped ichthyosaurs. They are often shown with dinosaurs and confused with them, but they were entirely separate groups of marine animals that were numerous in the Jurassic seas.

Parker also includes two flying creatures of the Jurassic Period: at right is the flying reptile Dimorphodon, whilst at bottom left is Archaeopteryx, the first fossil bird ever found, here gliding over fern-like Cycad trees. No Archaeopteryx fossils have actually been found in British rocks, but bird fossils are extremely rare and there is no reason to suppose that Archaeopteryx which lived at this time would not fit into this reconstruction of Jurassic life.

 

Chinese Dinosaurs

Image: Original art work for The Illustrated London News 11 February 1956
BELUM.N511 © Mary Evans Picture Library
Original art work for The Illustrated London News 11 February 1956 BELUM.N511 © Mary Evans Picture Library

The Illustrated London News, which began publication in May 1842, was the world’s first illustrated news magazine. Appearing on a weekly basis, it contained home and international news, crime stories, theatre reports, book reviews, court and society announcements and also accounts of contemporary developments in the arts, science and fashion. The articles were written for the interested, educated but non-specialist reader and they were accompanied by illustrations, the defining feature of the journal. The Illustrated London News ceased publication in 2003. In its day it was a popular and fashionable society magazine.

As well as being the Natural History Museum’s expert on dinosaurs, Dr Swinton was a populariser of science. It was natural therefore, that he selected The Illustrated London News for the publication of his dinosaur articles. It helped that his contact at The Illustrated London News was his colleague Dr Maurice Burton, Assistant Keeper of Zoology, who served as the magazine’s Science Editor 1946 to 1964.

This is Neave Parker’s artwork for Swinton’s report on recently discovered Chinese dinosaurs, which appeared in The Illustrated London News of 11 February 1956.

In the lake, centre, are two long-necked, plant-eating sauropod dinosaurs Omeisaurus. The two-legged, meat-eating theropod dinosaur Szechuanosaurus stalks in the right background. On the left, in middle distance are two plant-eating hadrosaur dinosaurs, unidentified by Swinton in 1956, now known as Tanius.

Dinosaur fossil discoveries are typically scattered bones and fragments, and it takes years for scientists to evaluate their finds and to decide if they have discovered new dinosaur species.

 

Elgin over 200 million years ago

Image: Original art work for The Illustrated London News 26 January 1957
BELUM.N513 © Mary Evans Picture Library
Original art work for The Illustrated London News 26 January 1957 BELUM.N513 © Mary Evans Picture Library

Around the town of Elgin, in Moray, in north-east Scotland there occur sandstone rocks, that date to over 200 million years ago. These sandstones contain an array of the fossilised bones and impressions of fishes and reptiles.

These sandstones are from the Permian and Triassic Periods of geological time, which is just before the appearance of the dinosaurs. So the reptile fossils found in these Elgin sandstones are important clues to the evolution of the dinosaurs.

Based upon briefings from Swinton, Neave Parker drew this supposed ancient landscape, showing reconstructions of the reptiles, based upon their fossil remains found in the Elgin sandstones. It was to illustrate Swinton’s description of the ‘Elgin Reptiles’, that the drawing was carried in The Illustrated London News on 26 January 1957.

Yet this scene could never have existed in real life. The animals in the foreground are of the Permian Period, over 250 million years ago. Those on the rock outcrop are of Triassic age, many millions of years later.

The two-legged reptile on the top of the outcrop is Saltopus. This was thought to be the earliest dinosaur to be found in Scottish rocks. However, recent work has identified it as a dinosauriform — a forerunner of the dinosaurs.

The ‘Elgin Reptiles’ are a varied group and important to science.

 

Dinosaurs of the Gobi Desert

Image: Original art work for The Illustrated London News 9 January 1960
BELUM.N523
© Mary Evans Picture Library
Original art work for The Illustrated London News 9 January 1960 BELUM.N523 © Mary Evans Picture Library

In the 1950s, Soviet Union scientists organised expeditions to the Gobi Desert in central Asia, to look for dinosaur remains. They found dinosaur bones, 80 million years old, that matched those found in North America of similar age. This suggested that Asia and America were not then separated by sea, as at present, and helps confirm the Theory of Continental Drift.

Neave Parker sketched this array of dinosaurs, based upon the Gobi Desert finds, but as Dr Swinton made clear in his article, many of the dinosaurs shown here were equally at home in what we now know as the United States of America.

The large dinosaur seen on the right is Styracosaurus (its name means ‘spiked reptile), while in the centre are two plant-eating duck-billed dinosaurs which are looking to the left with alarm at the predatory meat-eating Tarbosaurus, closely related to the better known Tyrannosaurus.

The crispness of Neave Parker’s drawings showed that he had a steady hand and an understanding of perspective. Perhaps it was these qualities that made him excel at pistol-shooting. This was Parker’s main hobby and he regularly participated in shooting competitions. At his home he had a cabinet full of silver bowls and cups that he had won.

 

The South African Karroo – Origins of Mammals

Image: Original art work for The Illustrated London News 5 November 1955
BELUM.N509 © Mary Evans Picture Library
Original art work for The Illustrated London News 5 November 1955 BELUM.N509 © Mary Evans Picture Library

Advised by Dr Swinton, Neave Parker drew this landscape of 200 million years ago. It is populated by a distinctive grouping of reptiles. The restoration of these reptiles is based upon fossils found in the Karroo region of southern Africa. These fossils are important in the geological record, because scientists believe they are the remains of mammal-looking reptiles that were evolving to true mammals.

The large beast on all fours at top left was the herbivore Kannemeyeria. Four other, similarly-looking herbivores named Dicynodon are shown to the right. These herbivores measured three metres in length and a single one of them represented a substantial feast for the flesh-eating hunters Cynognathus, two of which are depicted at bottom left.

On the ground in the right foreground, is a pack of Tritylodon, the most advanced of the mammal-like reptiles. They show features of mammals in their skeletons and the insulating fur of their bodies implies warm-bloodedness and they probably bore their young alive, rather than laying eggs.

In the branches in the foreground are two opossums, using their tails to keep themselves secure. The opossums are modern mammals and Swinton requested Parker to include them in this composition to show the next step in evolution to true mammals.

The evolving of new life-forms occurs over millions and millions of years.

 

Living Fossils — Extinct Ancestors

Image: Original art work for The Illustrated London News 27 July 1957
BELUM.N514 © Mary Evans Picture Library
Original art work for The Illustrated London News 27 July 1957 BELUM.N514 © Mary Evans Picture Library

This drawing is the result of a collaboration between Neave Parker and Dr Maurice Burton, Deputy Keeper of Zoology at the Natural History Museum, London and Parker’s first contact at the museum.

The term ‘living fossil’ was an invention of Charles Darwin, the originator of the concept of evolution, and it stuck. He used it to indicate a single species survivor of a major branch of evolution. Perhaps the most famous example is the coelacanth fish, found in 1938 when the entire group was supposed to have been extinct for 100 million years.

Burton provided Parker with the pithy annotations included on the drawing. Most remain valid, but the links between the trilobites and King Crabs and the Tuartara and the dinosaurs are much more tenuous than the rest.

It is interesting that a well-illustrated miscellany of scientific facts of this kind had such popular appeal for the readership of what was essentially an upper middle class magazine.

 

Neave Parker and Dog Ghosts

Image: Original art work for The Illustrated London News 23 June 1956
BELUM.N512 © Mary Evans Picture Library
Original art work for The Illustrated London News 23 June 1956 BELUM.N512 © Mary Evans Picture Library

Neave Parker believed he was psychic — that is, he could see images of living beings not present. He first discovered his powers whilst serving with the RAF during the Second World War. It happened one evening as he was relaxing in the base canteen. A sergeant came in and sat at the table opposite him. Parker later recalled what happened: “On impulse I reached out for a sheet of paper that was lying on the table and drew a man’s face on it. Then I pushed the paper over to the sergeant and said ‘Does that mean anything to you?’ I thought the sergeant was going to faint. ‘That’s my father’ he said ‘but he died last year’. I got in touch with the Psychical Research Society who instigated a number of tests, but nothing came of it.”

In later life Neave Parker went on to demonstrate his psychic powers in a more remarkable way. He could see dog ghosts. Parker, a dog-lover, would from time to time approach strangers in pubs, and remark to them “That’s a nice dog you have”. There was never a dog present. Parker would then go on to describe the dog to the startled stranger. It always turned out that Parker had described a dog which had died some time previously and that he was talking to the owner of the dead dog.

Parker also drew illustrations for Dr Kenneth Oakley, the museum’s expert on fossil man. Oakley hinted that Parker’s psychic powers helped him with his drawing, for he wrote this of Neave Parker: “It is quite remarkable how he seems to grasp the details of his subject with only a minimum of help from me, as if he could see into the past.”

Neave Parker drew these restorations of early domesticated dogs, based upon bone finds and sculpture uncovered during archaeological excavations of tombs in Egypt and Mesopotamia.

 

The Last Days of the Dinosaurs

Image: Original art work for The Illustrated London News 5 March 1960
BELUM.N521 © Mary Evans Picture Library
Original art work for The Illustrated London News 5 March 1960 BELUM.N521 © Mary Evans Picture Library

The dinosaurs dominated the world for 150 million years, until they died out at the end of the Cretaceous Period, 66 million years ago. It is believed that worldwide climate change was the major factor in their extinction.

Neave Parker drew this landscape to illustrate the variety of dinosaurs there were at the close of their era. Amongst the animals depicted are: on the right, two varieties of the four-legged ceratopsian dinosaurs; in the air pterosaurs — flying reptiles (these were not dinosaurs); at front around a fallen tree the first, primitive mammals; in centre two meat-eating dinosaurs; and behind these two, the duck-billed, plant-eating dinosaur Anatosaurus. The real, fossil skeleton of an Anatosaurus is on display on the ground floor of the Ulster Museum.

Neave Parker, a bachelor, was an enthusiast of the film-world, and it was on one of his weekly visits with his girl-friend to the cinema that he died suddenly, of a heart attack, on 5 May 1961. He was aged 51 years.

In the following year, London’s Natural History Museum brought out a small handbook, titled ‘Dinosaurs’. It was to meet the demand from the Museum’s visitors “for more detailed information about these remarkable reptiles, whose remains form one of the most popular exhibits in the Museum”.

The handbook was written by Dr Swinton and it was illustrated with ten restorations of dinosaurs which Neave Parker had previously made for a series of museum postcards. In the preface to the handbook, the Museum’s Keeper of Palaeontology described Dr Swinton as “an accepted authority on dinosaurs” and of the handbook’s dinosaur drawings, he added “They are from the skilled brush of Mr Neave Parker, whose recent death has robbed scientific journalism of one of its most outstanding artists”.

Swinton’s ideas about dinosaurs were already somewhat outdated by the time that he published his book and the notion of dinosaurs as sprawling, tail-dragging monsters has long since been superseded by reconstructions of them as altogether more agile beasts. Nonetheless, Neave Parker’s dinosaur illustrations remain iconic to a generation that grew up with them in the 1950s and ‘60s.