Monday, August 29, 2011

Vintage Dinosaur Art: Dinosaurs - British Museum (Natural History)

Allow me to admit the following from the start: this entry should probably be entitled 'Vintage Dinosaur Art: Neave Parker', for it is Parker's monochromatic art that is used to liven up this rather unassuming little book dating from 1974. However, this museum-sanctioned book - note that the Natural History Museum was still officially a department of the British Museum at the time - offers plenty of fascinating tidbits in the text, including some commentary on the creatures as depicted in Parker's work, which makes it very interesting in itself.

The 'frontispiece' is Parker's Triceratops, standing alone, drinking from a puddle. Parker's work is technically pretty impressive, even if he was obviously heavily influenced by Zdenek Burian. These days, however, his name inevitably conjures up images of hopelessly obsolete restorations, a good few of which are included here. The first edition of this book was published in 1962, a year after Parker's death. By the time this edition was published the 'Dinosaur Renaissance' was already well underway, and yet you wouldn't know it from reading this book. (One could almost see today's displaying of scaly, bunny-handed dromaeosaurs at the museum as a continuation of this tradition.)

Prof Swinton of the University of Toronto - the author - espouses a lot of pre-Dino Renaissance thinking. Perhaps most peculiarly to modern audiences, he's pretty damn sure that 'the Dinosauria' is a paraphyletic group, that is it unites animals (in the Saurischia and Ornithischia) that do not share a common ancestor. This was actually a commonly held belief for some decades. There's the usual sauropod weirdness too, with the animals described as being simply too large to possibly be terrestrial, instead sticking to water bodies of a convenient depth (as in the above Parker painting). Quite why so many people failed to notice the columnar, graviportal legs and scream "THIS IS TOTALLY BONKERS!" for so long, I don't know.

Parker's theropods are an interesting bunch. Generally they follow the pattern of being ponderous and bloated - his Tyrannosaurus is particularly Godzilla-like - but some, like his Megalosaurus, are shown taking long strides with horizontal backs and elevated tails. Still, Parker would had to have been pretty wild to match the oddness present in the text here, particularly when it comes to the author's ideas of what toothlessness meant for theropod groups like the ornithomimosaurs. What, you thought it was just because they evolved to enjoy a varied diet? Foolishness! Being all gummy is actually "a symptom of an aged and worn-out stock, already ripe for extinction."

While Swinton acknowledges that theropods would have walked with their tails aloft (for balance), he also imagines them having to have lengthy resting periods like lizards, and sniffily dismisses the "remarkable agility" that the animals display in some of those new-fangled restorations. Parker's man-in-a-suit, leathery Tyrannosaurus is presumably just recuperating after sluggishly plodding along in pursuit of some hadrosaur meat. Nevertheless, Prof Swinton envisages Iguanodon moving bipedally "at some speed" when not in a tripod resting position (as depicted by Parker, below, no doubt strongly influenced by Burian). He also refutes the idea, brought to memorable life by Parker (below), that Hypsilophodon was arboreal - envisaging it too as being fast-moving and terrestrial. Parker's perching Hypsilophodon seems like an odd inclusion, then, and nowadays it's viewed as one of the classic wacky, misguided restorations of the pre-Dino Renaissance era.

In the end, though, in spite of a few modern ideas breaking through, this remains a book solidly pre-Dino Renaissance in outlook. I've already mentioned that Swinton thought the ornithomimosaurs' toothlessness was down to 'bad genetic stock'. At a time before the 'asteroid theory' became widespread and accepted, Swinton evokes 'phylogeronty' (supposedly, the decline of clades through old age) as a possible explanation for the K/Pg extinction - not just for dinosaurs, but for pterosaurs and marine reptiles too, citing the examples of Pteranodon and, utterly bafflingly given its age, Ophthalmosaurus. When it comes to the ceratopsians, Swinton attributes their decorative frills and horns to "hormone superfluity", noting that "it is significant that the Ceratopsia were among the last of the dinosaurs" (in spite of the fact that the clade lasted tens of millions of years). These ideas seem laughable now, but in 1974 were deemed worthy enough to appear in a museum-endorsed publication.

To conclude then - blimey, a lot's changed in 40 years. Here's a Parker painting of the obscure nodosaur Acanthopolis. Enjoy.


  1. I think that his Megalosaurus is following a line of hunchback depictions of the poor devil (see the two examples here: I know there are many more, but poor tagging practice prevents me from finding them on Flickr, damn it. Not entirely sure where this meme got its start, but that may simply be my addled-by-first-day-of-classed brain.

    That Acanthopolis looks like an armored monitor lizard!

  2. I'm fairly sure all published paleoartists have to sign a pledge to continue to depict Megalosaurus in this exact style. I can't count how many times I've found this guy hanging gloomily around much more modern-looking theropods. He's even in books from this century!

  3. Indeed, I've seen the stiff-necked megalosaurus hunched forward as depicted here copied almost as often as Knight's archaeopteryx-chasing Ornitholestes. The perched Hypsilophodon is also a very familiar pose.

  4. My favourite dinosaur book as a kid was from the 1950s, and featured some similarly weird ideas. Apparently, the large size of dinosaurs was because they all had severe hyperthyroidism. And because they were old and prone to all kinds of weird malforming, they were practically waiting for extinction to let us superior mammals rule.

    I wonder how that works with the thought that birds are dinosaurs?

  5. Great post - I was hoping that you might cover these images at some point. I had them as postcards from a visit to the NHM with my Grandma when I was a boy, and I only now have one left, the Triceratops which is still stuck inside the front of my copy of Evolution and Ecology of the Dinosaurs (Halstead).

    I really quite like these images, despite their obvious obsolescence for the most part. I especially enjoy the way the dinosaurs have been presented as lizard-like animals more akin to Iguanas and Monitors than birds or crocodiles.

    Wonderful stuff1

  6. Ooh! I remember. Peter Zallinger's Teratosaurus is another hunchback theropod. Unfortunately, I didn't scan that page in. I'll have to do it some idle afternoon...

  7. This was my first Dinosaur book! I got it when we visited the Royal Ontario Museum in 1968 when I was the ripe old age of 3 (maybe only 2 and a half). Back then there were still dinosaurs mounted in glass cases and I suppose the reason I got this book was that it was probably the only one they had in the gift shop. Perhaps the text was too advanced but I was immediately impressed by the illustrations, especially the triceratops. ANd the megalosaurus was the stuff of nightmares.

    Yes, they do look old fashioned now. But I find many modern dinosaur reconstructions too mammalian. And just try and find an adult oriented dinosaur book in a museum gift shop these days.


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