Friday, December 10, 2010

Vintage Dinosaur Art: Virginia Lee Burton

Another great find from Tricia Arnold, Life Story is a 1989 1962 title by Virginia Lee Burton which depicts the history of life on Earth as a great stage production. Beginning with the origin of the Sun and Earth, it then sets the stage for life to develop, then presents the life of different geological periods as acts and scenes. The Mesozoic gets its time, of course.

When I saw these pop up in the Vintage Dinosaur Art pool, I knew that I'd be writing about them soon. The truth is, when I'm scouring second hand stores for cool old dinosaur books to feature here, I put back a good percentage. I'm not exactly rolling in the dough, and if a book is plain unremarkable, I'm not going to spend money and time on it. This is the perfect example of a title that I'd clutch to my chest until I'd been through the checkout line for fear that some grubby-fingered urchin would try to grab it away from me.

Life Story P.32

Fitting the book's central conceit perfectly, the compositions are very "stagey," almost diorama-like, looking like an illustrated version of a school play.

Life Story P.28

I also love the colors chosen by Burton. The dinosaurs look like paintings on black velvet. I assume that this is due to her choice of scratchboard as her medium, though I'm not one hundred percent sure that it was used for this book. Scratchboard aficionados, feel free to weigh in!

Check out the Parasaurolophus, as well as the depiction of a fully bipedal stance, a quadrupedal stance, and swimming. All that's left would be one blowing fire out of its nostrils. You'll notice that the foliage has also changed, reflecting the proliferation of flowering plants in the later Cretaceous.

Life Story P.30

For more Vintage Dinosaur Art, stroll through the Flickr pool or my past posts in the series.


  1. Actually, the book was first published in 1962. I distinctly remember reading it (and re-reading and re-re-re-... you get the idea) as a kid and that was a fair chunk of time before 1989.

    Fantastic read, terribly dated but I will never part with my copy.

  2. Thanks for the correction. I'll never trust GoogleBooks again! Perhaps they got their date from a reprint.

  3. I wore out the copy of this in my elementary school library, mid '70s. Took some work to figure out what the book was I remembered. Turns out Virginia Lee Burton was the author/illustrator of one of the all time most loved children's books, Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel. She was a fascinating artis and all around Renaissance Woman. Her extensive studies for Life Story are viewable here:

  4. Another one from my childhood. (My local library still has a 1962 edition, and there's also a 1990 edition.) I kind of liked how it was all presented as a stage production- "all of life is but a stage" or some such...


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