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The most beautiful, and also most important, palaeoart of the last 40 years
on 30 November 2012
All Yesterdays represents a radical and wholly feasible re-imagining of prehistoric life. The quick, agile dinosaurs illustrated by Bakker, Paul and their followers in the late 1960s and 1970s revolutionised the ponderous image that had been perpetuated by Knight, Zallinger and Burian. But Bakkerian dinosaurs quickly became a new orthodoxy, adhered to just as strongly as the old had been. The Jurassic Park raptors of 1993 were direct descendants of Bakker's drawing from 1969. And although details have changed since then -- orientation of the hands, the addition of feathers -- the general body shape has survived largely unchanged in all nearly all palaeoart.
It takes art as radical as that of All Yesterdays to show us just how locked-in we have all become to the Bakker-and-his-followers school of life restoration. I don't think it's exaggerating to say that Conway's work is the first truly new approach to depicting extinct animals since the 1960s -- which means that All Yesterdays is not only the most beautiful but also the most important palaeoart book of the last four decades. Up to this point in history, we've had two dynasties of dinosaur art. I think All Yesterdays is the launch of the third.
And it is beautiful. There are some superb palaeoartists working in the field at the moment -- it's never been more dynamic and, in the best sense, competitive. But while the work even of some excellent practitioners is rather interchangeable, Conway's pieces are always instantly recognisable because he is an artist first and a palaeoartist second. Others may be more accomplished or have better technique, but Conway's palaeoart has an evocative and even poignant quality that is very rare, maybe unique.
Of course, none of this is to say that all the speculation in All Yesterdays is correct. But the crucial point is this: neither is the speculation in all the other palaeoart of the last forty years. It encodes assumptions and speculations just as much as Conway's does: but those assumptions and speculations have been invisible precisely because they have been so ubiquitous. Part of the value of All Yesterdays is that it gives us a proper perspective, for the first time, on ideas that we've accepted too readily through repetition and lack of challenge. So even when All Yesterdays is wrong, it performs a valuable function. Hopefully it will push the second-dynasty artists to raise their games.
Anyone who loves dinosaurs, science or art will find this book intensely rewarding. Anyone who loves all three will find it a necessity. Enthusiasts will probably want a printed copy rather than the e-Book.
The more I think about All Yesterdays, the more I think it's the book of which, in 20 years' time, freshly qualified palaeontologists will say "That was the book that got me started as a kid."