The Dinosaurs of Artis

Attraction Review Vintage Dinosaur Art

Natura Artis Magistra, or simply Artis, is Amsterdam’s city centre zoo. It was founded back in the 1830s, making it one of the oldest zoos in the world. As such, it’s has a fascinating history: it has many monumental buildings, including the plantearium and the aquarium, it was a haven for refugees during World War Two, and it holds the distinction of being the place where the world’s last quagga lived and died. Our story today takes us back to the 1950s.

From newspaper “De Waarheid” of february 25, 1953. Caption reads: “Mr. B Bollee, zookeper at the reptile house of Artis Zoo Amsterdam, has created this monster in his spare time out of concrete mesh and cement. It represents a stegosaurus, a reptile which lived a hundred and thirty million years ago. Upon completion, it is to be placed in the open area on Artis’ grounds next to the Plantage Middenlaan.”

Today, on the grounds of Artis, we find two striking white dinosaur models. They were built in 1954 by one Boudewijn Bollee, Artis’ resident reptile keeper, who happened to be a self-thought sculptor in his spare time. A modest and soft-spoken man, Boudewijn came to the visual arts relatively late in life, in his thirties. He was already a seasoned zookeeper at that point, having started out as a lad of twelve. His sculpts were mostly of animals, such as monkeys, birds and of course many reptiles. The zoo’s director at the time was a great admirer of his work, and when Boudewijn made his two largest sculpts, the dirctor gave them a permanent place next to the monumental aquarium. The dinosaurs were built at about two thirds of their full life size; in Boudewijn’s words “so as to not cause a complete solar eclipse”. It’s a heartwarming story, but how do the dinosaurs hold up as Vintage Dinosaur Art?

They are two white, concrete sculptures, about four or five meters tall. As dinosaur reconstructions, they can only be described as children of their time, built during a period when scientific interest in dinosaurs was at a low point. Bollee is said to have used “images from books” as reference material, but there’s no word on which images from which books. The dinosaurs don’t seem to be particularly scientifically informed, but they also don’t really resemble any contemporary palaeoart all that closely. Bollee was basically just making whatever looked right to him.

So here’s Allosaurus, the carnivore of the pair. It has an upright strance, a pot belly, scrawny arms and, inevitably, a fat, dragging, load-bearing kangaroo tail. All very typical of how theropods were portrayed at the time. Its squatted stance reminds me most of Neave Parker’s Tyrannosaurus, but its features are highly exaggerated. Its teeth far too big, its horns absent and its ribs sticking out, it’s a long way away from what we understand Allosaurus to have looked like. It could be a guy in a rubber suit; amusingly, it was built in the same year the first Godzilla movie came out.

I do like it quite a bit. It has an evil, toothy grin and looks nice and monstrous, more like a hungry monster out of a children’s book than a real dinosaur. It’s a fat cartoon crocolile that walks on its hind limbs. There’s a real personality to it.

Next to the big meanie is its herbivorous Jurassic counterpart, Stegosaurus. This one looks a bit more naturalistic and has aged a little better. The bumpy skin is reminiscent of Knight and Burian, though read on. The plates are oddly shaped, maybe due to the limitations of the material, but they are at least correctly positioned on the back. It does drag its (rather skinny) tail, as is to be expected.

Oddly, the kids can climb on and over the Stegosaurus. As a result, it’s often covered in sand. The park doesn’t seem to discourage this, even though as far back as 1979 there were reports in local papers that Bollee’s dinosaurs were on the verge of collapse. A plea for money to restore them had no effect; the figures were believed to be doomed. And yet, here they still stand. I suppose ol’ Stego here is sturdier than it seems.

Unlike the Allosaurus, the Stegosaurus has been given less of an obvious personality. Its face is more lizardly, not at all unlike the komodo dragons over at the reptile house. Boudewijn certainly had firsthand experience with komodo dragons; he once recieved stitches after one bit him on the hand!

The oddest choice Boudewijn has made concerns Stegosaurus’ thagomizer (never pass up an opportunity to use that word!) As you can see, it has eight rather than four spikes, as per Othniel Marsh’ original 1891 paper. Of course, by 1954 the correct number of spikes was long known to science, and only the earliest works of Charles Knight feature Stegosaurus with eight spikes. Was that the source Boudewijn was using? This Stegosaurus is considerably leaner and more modern than, for instance, Knight’s portly 1901 Stegosaurus, and Knight’s later reconstructions featured four spikes. So did the stegosaurs of Boudewijn’s most influential contemporaries Burian, Zallinger and Parker. Of course, it’s possible that Boudewijn knew better but went with eight anyway, because it looked cooler. The spikes do look worse for wear; a sign that the figures might not be in as pristine of a condition as they once were.

These dinosaurs are lovely, funny and full of character, and the story behind them makes me like them even more. They are relics out of a different age, from before the ‘80s and ‘90s dino boom, and an interesting insight into a time when dinosaurs were thought of as Great Fossil Reptiles. And they add one more eccentric layer to the rich history of Artis.

You don’t have to buy a ticket to Artis see these two (though I recommend it); they can be seen from the street outside the zoo.

(A Dutch version of this post appeared earlier on my Nielsaurus blog. It has been updated with background information sourced from this website. All pictures by Niels Hazeborg, except the newspaper article.)

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  • Reply
    Ilja Nieuwland
    March 11, 2021 at 10:40 am

    Little detail: the newspaper “De Waarheid” (“The Truth”) was the Netherlands’ communist daily (a literal translation of “Pravda’), and it shows in the description of Bollee, I think.

  • Reply
    Ilja Nieuwland
    April 19, 2021 at 7:57 am

    By the way, Allosaurus used to be called Tyrannosaurus (or in a weirdly Dutchified version, “Tiranosaurus”) up until fairly recently. I don’t know why Artis chose to re-christen the animal – probably the three fingered hand. But as a reconstruction, it doesn’t square up with modern views on either in all other respects, so it seems rather pointless to me.

    • Reply
      Niels Hazeborg
      April 19, 2021 at 8:01 am

      If it’s indeed based on Hubrecht like we think, Boudewijn probably meant for it to be Tiranosaurus (sic) to begin with.

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