The country of the Iguanodon

John Martin1837

Te Papa

Te Papa
Wellington, New Zealand

An engraved adaptation of John Martin’s watercolour The country of the Iguanodon appears as the frontispiece to Gideon Mantell’s The wonders of geology, published in 1838. Martin had an obvious interest in geology because he had visited Mantell’s house in Brighton in August 1834 to see the Iguanodon remains that Mantell had been collecting since 1819 from a quarry at Whitemans Green, near Cuckfield in Sussex. Mantell recorded in his journal: ‘Mr Martin was deeply interested in the remains of the Iguanodon, etc. I wish I could induce him to portray the country of the Iguanodon. No other pencil but his should attempt such a subject.’1 From this observation it is clear that Mantell was familiar with Martin’s images combining the fantastical and the scientific, the romantic and the classical. Martin’s works belong to the sublime, romantic mode of nineteenth-century landscape painting in which the subject inspires fear and awe in the viewer.

Mantell’s wish was realised in 1837. The country of the Iguanodon has the grand perspectives that are characteristic of Martin’s style. It depicts a titanic struggle in a broad sweeping landscape. The Iguanodons in the centre are depicted entwined in a series of curvilinear lines, which eventually establish a pathway and draw the viewer into the distance. The background is suggestive of a primeval landscape with tropical palm trees, ferns and other foliage. Rocky outcrops and headlands project into an area of sea, while the orange light of a setting sun is partially obscured by clouds. Even in this small watercolour Martin has been able to suggest infinite space.

In addition to Martin’s watercolour, Te Papa also holds a tooth from the iguanodon remains collected by Gideon Mantell and bequeathed to his son, Walter Mantell, in 1852. The latter, a prominent public figure who went on to become a Member of Parliament, brought it to Wellington in 1860, and it was eventually presented to the Dominion Museum in 1930.

Tony Mackle

This essay originally appeared in Art at Te Papa (Te Papa Press, 2009).

1. John Martin 1789-1854: His life and works, Gerald Duckworth Co., London, 1947, p. 191.


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