The Reverend G. E. Howman and the Noctivagous Dragon

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Mary Anning, William Buckland and ‘Pterodactylus’’ macronyx
  3. The Reverend G. E. Howman and the Noctivagous Dragon
  4. Dimorphodon and the Reverend George Howman – Discussion
  5. Dimorphodon and the Reverend George Howman – Notes & References

Little is known of the reverend George Ernest Howman (circa 1797-1878). According to Torrens27 he changed his name to Little, but does not say when or explain why. Howman (Little) died in Newbold Pacey Hall, in Warwickshire on August 3rd, 1878. Prior to his death, but still under the name Howman, he had been Clerk and Rector of Barnsley, Gloucestershire, and also Master of the Hospital of Saint Nicholas Sarum, Wiltshire, according to records in the National Archive. He is not listed as a vicar in Lyme Regis and there are presently no documents pertaining to him having a presence in Lyme Regis available through the internet.

Water colour by the Reverend G. E. Howman which, at the time of writing, was displayed on a wall on the first floor of the Philpot Museum, Lyme Regis, Dorset. It has been reproduced by O’Connor.

Watercolour by Howman (above), first noticed by Taylor26 was acquired by the Friends of the Philpot Museum by purchase from Lady Isobel Kerr. At the time of its acquisition, the Curator, Mr John Fowles, recorded:

Another picture was much older, and is in fact a tongue-in-cheek skit on a very important geological event: Mary Anning’s discovery in 1828 of the first winged lizard, Dimorphodon, at Lyme, which Buckland then named and described. The water-colour shows an enormous dragon or basilisk spreading its wings (the real animal was raven-sized) over a storm-tossed ship and rocky coast. It is dated 1829, so it is nicely contemporary. The artist was a Rev. G. E. Howman. It came from an album owned by Lady Isobel Kerr.

There is no documentation as to how the picture came to be in the possession of Lady Kerr who was born in 1881, more than 50 years after its execution17. She may have inherited it from her father but he too was born after the picture was painted. Thus, there are several decades during which the picture’s ownership and whereabouts are unknowns. There is little doubt that the watercolour by Howman was intended to represent the Pterodactylus discovered by Mary Anning.

Inscription attached to the back of the Howman watercolour. It reads ‘By the Revd G. Howman from Dr [Burckhardt’s] account of a flying dragon found at Lyme Regis supposed to be noctivagous’.

The label on the back of the work (above) reads:

Epigram on painting

‘By the Revd G. Howman from Dr [Burckhardt’s] account of a flying dragon found at Lyme Regis supposed to be noctivagous’

but it cannot be determined that this is the handwriting of Howman. The style does not compare well with the hand of the inscription on the picture itself (right), but the label is written in ink in a flowing hand while the epigram is painted and is merely an assemblage of initials and date, making direct comparison difficult.

A brief critique, and indeed first publication of the work, by O’Connor18 draws attention to the image’s anachronistic superposition of pterodactyl and sailing ship. O’Connor considers that the artist has brought the pterodactyle forward to the present, as indicated by the ruined castle (which may be loosely based on Corfe Castle on the Isle of Purbeck, built by William the Conqueror in the 11th century) and wind-leaning two-masted sailing vessel. O’Connor may of course be right as we cannot know what went on in the mind of Howman when he executed the study, but by the same token, there was little evidence of the great antiquity of the Earth in 1829, especially outside of a small clique of geologists, although Buckland himself was of the opinion that the Earth was of great antiquity. In his Bridgewater Treatise Buckland3 went further than most had dared regarding the age of the Earth stating with regard to the Liassic ichthyosaurs (my italics):-

“When we see the body of an Ichthyosaurus still containing the food it had eaten just before its death, and its ribs still surrounding the remains of feeding that were swallowed ten thousand or more than ten thousand times ten thousand years ago, all these vast intervals seem annihilated, come together, disappear, and we are almost brought into as immediate contact with events of immeasurably distant periods as with the affairs of yesterday.”

Detail of the noctivagous dragon. Attention should be directed to the shape of the jaws, which resemble those of the original Pterodactylus antiquus. Note also the serpentine tail, which is not found in any pterosaur. However, the arrow at the end of the tail became a reality.

Details of specific elements of the dragon’s imagined anatomy. The head with teeth and crest. At the time, no pterosaur head crest had been reported. Now many pterosaur genera are known to have possessed crests, often of quite elaborate shape, and sometimes larger than the rest of the skull.

Bishop Ussher’s28 calculation of 4004 years BC for the creation of the Earth based on Biblical chronology was an extremely powerful and likely accepted document among the clergy of the period. But it is Howman’s rendition of the pterosaur itself that is quite fascinating. The skull of Anning’s specimen had not been discovered, and so the deep skull now attributed to Dimorphodon20 was unknown. Instead Howman depicts an elongate head with small, widely spaced teeth in a long rostrum – exactly like those of the Pterodactylus antiquus described by Collini5, Cuvier6,7 and Soemmerring23, but definitely not like that of Ornithocephalus brevirostris as depicted by Soemmerring24.

Thus the depiction of the head is moderately accurate (above and right – a), at least in the light of available knowledge. Indeed, in some respects the jaws of Howman’s restoration could be considered as a representation of the specimen figured by Buckland2 in the possession of the Philpot sisters, i.e. elongate with small teeth. But of course, Howman’s painting predates publication of Buckland’s figure. However, Howman’s depiction of the wings (above and right – b) is seriously flawed in several respects and are not pterodactyle like except for the presence of a membranous flight surface. Howman has attached a claw to each of the joints of the wing spar, perhaps to emphasize those elements of the skeleton on which Buckland christened the beast. Like many illustrators and artists who would follow, Howman inserts stiff spars within the wing directed from the joints of the main leading edge spar to the trailing margin of the wing membrane. These produce a scalloped outline to the trailing margin giving the animal a superficially bat-like appearance. A closer examination reveals that Howman also added some ‘fibres’ extending along the length of the wing (right – b), structures that were found in the pterosaur membrane more than 52 years later32. The scalloped margin of the wing was repeated in many subsequent restorations, most notably the 1840 engraving by John Martin (below).

Perhaps wyverns (A) and pythons (B) provided some of the inspiration for Howman’s restoration of Dimorphodon. Note in both fabulous animals the scalloped margin of reinforced membranous wings. The wyvern sports an arrow similar to that discovered in Rhamphorhynchus, a long tailed pterosaur from Germany.

The feet of Howman’s pterodactyle has three toes (on each foot), and is therefore rather avian. Dimorphodon on the other hand has four closely adpressed toes with a long metatarsus and a fifth toe that projects to the sides (right – c), but it is Howman’s restoration of the tail that is particularly fascinating. The Anning specimen lacked a tail, while the German specimens discovered before the middle of the 1800s all had short tails (or else the tail was missing). Buckland, in his Bridgewater Treatise restoration (which is a rip off of Goldfuss9) also depicts a short tail. Howman’s beast however, has an enormously long serpentine tail, and it is in this part of the restoration perhaps that Howman’s inspiration can be found.

Depictions of Wyverns possess an arrow-like end to the tail

The long tails of those pterosaurs that possessed them, and Dimorphodon did later prove to be one such pterosaur, are stiffened by elongate extensions of the anterior and posterior zygapophyses of each vertebrae on the dorsal surface overlapping several other vertebrae31, while similar extensions of the chevrons of the ventral surface do likewise. These serve to make the tail extremely stiff, with no ability to be coiled serpent-like as in Howman’s restoration. Howman’s restored animal is more likely derived from a combination of mythical beasts, including perhaps the Python Occis of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, some depictions of which also possess an arrow-like end to the tail, as seen in Wyverns (above). Perhaps a bizarre irony is that later discoveries of spectacularly preserved, long-tailed pterosaurs in the Solnhofen deposits revealed them to possess an arrow-like structure on the end of their tail (below).

An example of the long-tailed pterosaur Rhamphorhynchus with a vanepreserved at the end of the tail. The posterior-most margin forms an ‘arrow’ shape to the end of the tail. Picture courtesy of Royal Ontario Museum, via Wikipedia. Recent reconstruction of Dimorphodon incorporating anatomical detail from the hypodigm and biomechanical inferences from studies on many otherpterosaurs. Posed here undertaking quadrupedal launch. Artwork by Dr Mark Witton.

The first published restoration of a pterodactyle in its life habit is attributed to Goldfuss9 who, in 1831 produced a small cameo of pterosaurs clinging to a rock face. An almost identical image appeared in Buckland’s Bridgewater Treatise, but with no credit to Goldfuss (below). An early, but unpublished restoration of the original Collini pterosaur was made by Professor Jean Hermann of Strasbourg and sent to Cuvier, prior to his description of Pterodactylus as a reptile25. Taquet and Padian suggest that Herman’s restoration had little influence on Cuvier, but I would suggest otherwise. The illustrations are detailed, and offer positions for folded and extended wings. Would Cuvier have considered the new animal volant had he not seen Herman’s restorations? We will never know.

Buckland (c) (1836) copies Goldfuss (1831) (a and b); after Martill (2010). These are the first depictions of volant pterosaurs to appear in scientific literature.