Thursday, February 6, 2014

Vintage Dinosaur Art: Prehistoric Animals (Brooke Bond Picture Cards)

Back when I were a wee lad, I were an avid collector of the various prehistory-themed picture cards that were given away with PG Tips teabags, Jacobs' dinosaur-shaped biscuits and the like. It's a practice that seems to have gone the way of PG Tips' ill-advised chimp-fronted advertising campaigns, but one with a long and noble prior history (with the caveat that the idea stems from the inclusion of picture cards in fag* packets, of course). Teabag peddlers Brooke Bond, who themselves owned PG Tips before being swallowed by sinister corporate behemoth Omnicor...uh...Unilever, produced a number of picture card series back in the day. Prehistoric Animals dates from 1972 (according to my dodgy internet-based research - the album itself isn't dated), and just how well some of the illustrations have aged may well surprise you.



This doesn't apply to the covers of course, although they are by a different artist to the cards themselves - namely, Michael Bell, N.D.D., M.S.I.A. (as he is credited within). While the unusual art style is to be welcomed, the front Tyrannosaurus and back Cetiosaurus (below) are straight-up Neave Parker knock-offs. Eye-catching enough, but rather lazy - not to mention retrograde. Even by the '70s, Neave Parker's tubby, often sprawling creations were showing their age.


Happily, such an approach is not continued inside. In fact, both the illustrations and, especially, the text are very much up-to-the-minute for the early 1970s, and this is no doubt thanks to the involvement of one Alan Charig (M.A., Ph.D., F.L.S., F.G.S., F.Z.S.), Natural History Museum palaeontologist and a man who did an awful lot of good work in science communication. Even if he was strangely reluctant to accept the notion that birds were dinosaurs. But we shan't mention that again. The sauropods below might still be tail-dragging, but note Charig's description of them as living "on firm dry land", in addition to his introductory paragraphs presenting an image of dinosaurs overall as highly successful, active animals with keen senses and the verve to look very graceful in a painterly portrait.


The illustrations - by Maurice Wilson (R.I.) - are undoubtedly charming, with a very sweet, almost naive quality about many of them, helped in no small part by their tiny size. The miniature format does present its pitfalls, of course. Where animals share a page, the authors/illustrators have - for the most part - opted for creatures that could easily be distinguished by someone's grandmother peering through her fingerprint-smeared reading specs from atop an orbiting satellite. It's easy to see why when one considers the few cases in which this wasn't possible.


Thanks to the cards' miniscule size and Wilson's penchant for swampy greens, certain animals (notably the above pair of long-necked theropods shown in lateral view) end up looking uncannily alike. Still, it's a problem that's avoided for the most part, and you've got to love any book (or card series...or whatever) from the 1970s that manages to not only include a high-kicking Deinonychus, pictured alongside two angry beards...


...but also an impressively modern-looking, svelte, tail-held-high Megalosaurus. Given that Parker-esque hunch-backed genero-theropods overwhelmingly represented Megalosaurus' public image far into the 1980s, this illustration is not to be sniffed at.


Given this, one might expect Sexy Rexy to also be sexily flexing his muscles and swishing his tail about (in an unnervingly attractive fashion) but, alas, no - we're lumbered with a meat-flailing man-in-suit interpretation. All the same, I'd like to draw readers' attention to the floral changes taking place - from ferns and cycads in the Megalosaurus painting, to fir trees and flowering plants alongside Rexy. Not bad for a series of miniatures. Astute readers may also note inherent similarities with John Sibbick's peculiar Normanpedia meat-swinging upright T. rex, which - just for a change - this piece actually predates. Also, bonus Deinocheirus arms as a bonus. Its description as a 'gigantic carnosaur' might be amusing in hindsight, but at least Charig doesn't refer to it as a slashertastic killing machine.


As usual, I've spent an inordinate amount of time on theropods. Other, inferior dinosaurs do appear, of course, such as the ceratopsians Protoceratops and Triceratops (below). Side-by-side, they neatly show the evolutionary path of these animals from the Campanian to the end of the Maastrichtian. Although sticking doggedly with the nest-bound-Protoceratops meme, Wilson commendably ditches the sprawling limbs so typical of earlier restorations. His Triceratops, meanwhile, is obviously based on the terribly outdated mount at London's Natural History Museum (it only has three toes per foot!), and so appears more retro than it might have. Nevertheless, they're possessed of plenty of charm and Wilson crams in some neat touches, such as the osteoderms on Triceratops' back.


 And finally...while I've only covered dinosaurs here, there are plenty more animal clades to be seen, even if you're out of luck if tetrapods aren't your bag. Saurians are the real stars (just check out the front cover), but synapsids get a significant look-in. Among them is quite possibly the most upliftingly jovial depiction of Dimetrodon ever seen. Just look at that joyous smile! It's enough to make one wonder why the beast's normally depicted as a Permian land-Jaws. It's all negative publicity put about by temnospondyl enthusiasts, I'm sure. Anything to alleviate those permanent long faces.


I might have to disappear for a while, as I'm moving into a new home and then sodding off to the Netherlands for a week. Rest assured though that, like your highly suppressed but still niggling notion that all human endeavour is ultimately utterly futile, I'll keep coming back to bother you. Eventually.


*Cigarettes, if you please.

12 comments:

  1. 'Charming... naive quality' is a fitting description of the illustrations, I think. Some of these almost recall tribal art or even prehistoric cave paintings.

    Our readers may be interested to know that the Papo Dimetrodon is pretty jovial too. It's more obvious in the actual figure, but the first picture gives some idea.

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  2. I am in love with that Dimetrodon.

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  3. That Megalosaurus looks really happy, too. Wonder if it's about the food or getting rid of the hunchback.

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  4. "Even if he was strangely reluctant to accept the notion that birds were dinosaurs. But we shan't mention that again."

    To quote The Undertaker, "I don't forgive and I don't forget" ( http://lurkerfaqs.com/boards/218-pro-wrestling-wwe/59066204/ ).

    Kidding of course. ;)

    -Hadiaz

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  5. I was happily surprised to learn that Wilson was still illustrating dinosaurs in the 70s. There is a beautifully eerie quality to his work. Seeing his Deinonychus is like seeing a Knight painting of a Microraptor or a Therizinosaurus! Well done.

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  6. The text for the first book/cover "Prehistoric Animals" was written by paleontologist Alan Jack Charig (1927–1997) - there is a paper (with some artwork of his books) about him in MOODY ed. (2010)

    http://tinyurl.com/pms4azy

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    1. I know - I mentioned him in the third paragraph. Thank you for the link, though.

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  7. Can you do a VDA post about Dinosaurs and Other Prehistoric Animals by Darlene Geis? I have the book with me and I always thought that it would be neat if you were to make a post about it. It is a really nice book.

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    1. Assuming it's not the same thing as the How & Why Wonder Book (http://chasmosaurs.blogspot.co.uk/2013/04/vintage-dinosaur-art-how-and-why-wonder.html), sure. If you'd like to let me borrow the book, all the better - just send a PM on the LITC Facebook page and I can provide my address. I take good care of all the books I borrow, honest!

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    3. The book isn't the same thing as HWWBD. But my copy is in bad condition and I don't think it can take the travel over. Sorry. =(

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