Monday, September 19, 2011

Vintage Dinosaur Art: A New Look at the Dinosaurs

As promised, today we'll examine some of the art featured in A New Look at the Dinosaurs. Dating all the way back to 1979, this rather popular book was authored by the late Alan Charig, and has been described as "rather boring" by one critic. When it comes to vintage palaeoart the full-colour restorations by Peter Snowball are of particular interest, and to this day they remain very attractive and surprisingly modern in appearance. This makes it all the more surprising that the publishers decided to stick some comparatively drab line art by Ray/Corinne Burrows on the cover (below).

Being something of an ignorant youth myself, the first I heard of this book was when Darren Naish mentioned it on his Tetrapod Zoology blog (see link above), describing Charig as "among the last of the 'old guard'" who argued against many of the new ideas put forward in the 1960s-80s. This piqued my interest when it subsequently appeared on eBay, as I was expecting it to feature a heap of horribly outdated art that would be good for a giggle. Seems I forgot about Peter Snowball.

Although a lot of Snowball's art is new to me (in spite of being rather old), the above image was instantly recognisable even for a grasshopper such as myself. Depicting Megalosaurus and Scelidosaurus, it was still commonly found in dinosaur books into the '90s, and I'm quite certain that it featured in Dinosaurs! more than once. Noteworthy here are the active postures of both animals, especially the Scelidosaurus - thyreophorans of every stripe were still commonly depicted as sprawling, tail-dragging and highly ponderous at that time. In addition, Snowball hasn't succumbed to the meme of depicting Megalosaurus as some sort of weird, skulking hunchback (a la Neave Parker). It's the well-informed nature of this piece that makes Megalosaurus' conspicuously absent first toe all the more strange. Can't win 'em all, I guess...

Snowball's painterly scenes portraying Mesozoic life remain quite beautiful. The above scene depicts various English Early Cretaceous dinosaurs. The usual suspects Iguanodon, Hypsilophodon and Polacanthus are here, but more unusually so is the theropod Altispinax (for which you should probably just read Becklespinax). Given recent suggestions that Becklespinax might have had a Concavenator-style hump rather than a sail, this artwork seems remarkably prescient. Elsewhere, Snowball's work features fully terrestrial sauropods and a Triceratops breaking out into an energetic trot (below) alongside what is, admittedly, a gigantic Pachycephalosaurus and a slightly funky Tyrannosaurus. Still, this stuff is just plain lovely - streets ahead of a lot of the crap being churned out at the time.

Charig, for his part, makes it clear that he believes dinosaurs to have been energetic and successful animals, in contrast with the old view of them as sluggish evolutionary dead-ends. However, he still promotes ideas that seem very odd today (if not as outright wacky as dinosaurs suffering from a hormonal imbalance). For example, he claims that there is no good evidence that the Saurischia and Ornithischia were more closely related to each other than they were to other archosaur groups, making 'the Dinosauria' an unnatural grouping of animals.

Charig is also quite fervent in his belief that birds cannot be dinosaurs, and yet he never really explains why. In fact, he goes a long way towards making the case (one that, even back then, was seriously solid) - one chapter arduously notes the similarities between Archaeopteryx and small theropods like Deinonychus (Snowball's restoration of which, in contemporary naked style, is above) but then dismisses them all for no good reason. In fact, most of Charig's reasoning seems to come from the fact that, in his opinion, regarding birds as dinosaurs just sounds silly, as we'd end up saying things like the following:
"'Dinosaurs of a feather flock together', and 'A dinosaur in the hand is worth two in the bush'. The dawn chorus of the dinosaurs would waken us early in the morning, we should visit the Dinosaur House at the zoo to see the humming-dinosaurs flitting lightly from flower to flower...[continues in similar vein]"
Alas, poor Alan, for you turned out to be wrong. And on that note, I'll leave you with what is undoubtedly the strangest restoration in the book. This quadrupedal Spinosaurus by one of the Burrowses is just utterly, utterly baffling. Especially as it appears to be worshipping at the feet of a Dilophosaurus-lord. All hail the Dilophosaurus-lord!


  1. The Dilophosaurus lord bestows a gesture of benediction to boot...

  2. "The dawn chorus of the dinosaurs would waken us early in the morning, we should visit the Dinosaur House at the zoo to see the humming-dinosaurs flitting lightly from flower to flower..."

    Horrors! I suppose we'll also take our children to a mammal show at that same zoo, support Greenpeace's efforts against mammalers, and then go on a mammal watch out at sea! Maybe listen to relaxation tapes of mammal songs while painting surreal artwork of space-mammals!

    (Yeah... I got nothin'.)

  3. Ol' Becks looks like the old Knight Allosaurus, too.

  4. I owned all these pics as posters when I was a kid! Fond memories...

  5. I posted a couple of images from this book. there are some really great scratchboard drawings inside as well. Here is another image not shown in this post.

  6. Terry, scratchboard drawings? How intriguing. Have you ready pictures of those, perchance?

  7. @tnthielen That image is shown in the post. I even commented on it! However, the Triassic scene, which you've also uploaded, isn't.

  8. I'm just realising that the black and white illustrations here may be the scratchboard drawings Terry was referring to...

  9. Incidentally, the Snowball illustrations were available as postcards and as large, fold-out posters - I have all the posters but never managed to collect all the postcards. And Charig's book was republished several times, with several different covers. The youngest version (1988) has Snowball's Deinonychus on the cover.

  10. This is a particularly poor review by an amateur of a hugely well regarded professional. In fact, Charig wasn't as dismissive about birds even before increasing evidence in the 1980s came to light after this book was published. He was rarely absolutely dismissive on anything - he just required proof like a good scientist and in 1979 that proof was not there. Criticism of Charig when reviewed by the profession in a paper in 2010 was actually that he didn't publish enough and that he tended to be too open minded at times. And in 1979 his book was far from boring, being a bestseller, published in Japanese, Spanish and other languages, hugely well received by professionals and populace alike leading to him being described when he died as having done more than anyone to bring dinosaurs to the public as a whole. The New York Times called him the Carl Sagan of the BBC. Your review is inaccurate and offensive to the man and somewhat arrogant.

    1. You will have observed at least, I hope, that the author of this post himself never described this book as 'boring', but simply cited another.

    2. I'm sorry to have upset you, but you'll note that I never described Charig's book as 'boring' myself; I've even provided a link to the source of that quote (who, as it happens, IS a professional).

      As for birds/dinosaurs - what you mention may well be true for Charig's career in a wider view, and of course hindsight is a wonderful thing (that I'll admit to having abused on a number of occasions). However, it's hard not to read such statements as the one quoted as being an unfair dismissal of the evidence at the time, regardless of the author's standing.


Trolls get baleted.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.