Monday, October 3, 2011

Vintage Dinosaur Art: Ladybird Dinosaurs

If you've never owned a Ladybird book, then you didn't have a childhood. I'm serious - your childhood memories were probably implanted, and you are in fact the product of a sinister government/corporate experiment a la Deus Ex. Ladybird published a huge range of hardback, conveniently kiddy-sized books, both fictional and factual - everything from simplified versions of Robinson Crusoe to simplified accounts of prehistoric animals. Which'll be what this here book is all about.

Dating from 1988, Dinosaurs features some thoroughly outdated, yet still very beautiful artwork by B H Robinson. The internet reveals his first name to be Bernard. An accomplished animal illustrator, Robinson's work has a very distinctive look and feel, even if he sometimes resorts to ripping off established palaeoartists. His dinosaurs (as with the Tyrannosaurus and Triceratops above) are very reptilian, rather old-fashioned, but wonderfully and impeccably detailed.

Like many dinosaur books aimed at kids, this book skips merrily through time in (mostly) chronological order, detailing quite a few animals besides dinosaurs. The above Permian scene stood out to me simply because, well, the Edaphosaurus. The Edaphosaurus! I know the animal was a pin-head, but this illustration may be taking it a little too far.

Robinson's sauropods are still of the swamp-dwelling variety, with wrinkly skin and a taste for mushy aquatic plants (it's the only thing these pathetic evolutionary failures are equipped to eat, you see). Diplodocus is very recognisable - slender, with a long neck and whip-like tail. Apatosaurus is...less so. This is, it's safe to say, one of the lesser of Robinson's illustrations.

Robinson's theropods are the tail-dragging, cold-blooded lumps of old, and he obviously takes inspiration from lizards when rendering them. His Allosaurus, while as beautifully painted as ever, has a head that owes more to Varanus than the real thing. The Stegosaurus is just predictably old-fashioned, with its sprawled forelimbs, highly arched back and lizardy feet. Still, it should be noted that as cold-blooded animals (that never existed) they do sorta make sense, particularly when it comes to their being somewhat under-muscled. I'll come back to that.

Here's a good example of Robinson ripping off established (if dead) artists. In particular, the Hypsilophodon stage left obviously owes an awful lot to Neave Parker's peculiarly perching interpretation of the animal. The Iguanodon, meanwhile, looks rather similar to a fibreglass model that I've seen in every British attraction featuring life-size fibreglass dinosaurs that I've been to. It seems that for so long this WAS Iguanodon - a tripod with a lizard head and arms notably less robust than they really were. Can't really blame Robinson for going along with the meme, I suppose. (Look, Nessie!)

And now for something completely different: weird ankylosaurs. The Polacanthus pretty much resembles how the animal was commonly depicted for decades, including by the likes of John Sibbick (whose own painting of the animal was ripped off repeatedly). It does at least have straight legs, unlike the freaky no-neck Ankylosaurus, which also has spikes on its tail club. ("Over 4.5m long" - not half! Well, that is about half, actually.) In spite of how strange the Ankylosaurus may look, the award for derpiest animal in this book surely goes to...

...Tyrannosaurus! Poor dear, what have they done to you? The skin texture is beautiful as ever, but the animal itself looks horrendous. Styracosaurus looks embarrassed to be in the same scene (although of course it shouldn't be anyway). Returning to my point about under-muscled dinosaurs - this trait is particularly noticable when it comes to Robinson's tyrannosaurs. Robinson has obviously 'fixed' the animal to appear more reptilian, cold-blooded and, subsequently, weedy. Still, this is not to deride him too much, because, hey...

...His Archaeopteryx is actually pretty good! Check it out - no glue-on mini-hands! As someone accustomed to drawing birds, Robinson naturally delivers a feathered maniraptoran with decent plumage and anatomy that makes sense. Truly, his tyrannosaur-related sins are forgiven.

And that's your lot for now. As always, let me know of your thoughts, especially if you are familiar with this illustrator and his work.


  1. I had this book as a kid (actually I think I inherited it from my brother) and always loved the pictures. Hindsight and experience wonderful for spotting the errors now, but it still looks good. My odd affection for Polacanthus comes entirely from this illustration because even compared to other dinosaurs it looked different and usual to me.

  2. @archosaur...Dave As I said, it's outdated but still very beautiful.

  3. I apologize for this, but I simply could not look at that tyrannosaurus without thinking this:

  4. Had this book too. Robinson's illustrations are gorgeous, you feel you could reach out and touch the animals because of the fantastic textures.

  5. the Apatosaurus is ripped off from Zdenek Burian's painting of Brontosaurus/Apatosaurus.

  6. @tnthielen: That immediately struck me, as well. The Styracosaurus appears to have been Burian-inspired, too (

    Of all my childhood dinosaur books, I probably still love Burian's the most.

  7. @Ilja: I remember checking out Life Before Man from the library when I was a child, but never owned it until a couple years ago. It's a breathtaking book. His paintings still conjure all kinds of stories in my head. They are some of my favorite depictions of dinosaurs.

  8. Agree with Dr. Hone. That Polacanthus is wonderful. My favorite of the bunch.

  9. Only just saw this. I am B H Robinson's son and as a kid spent a lot of time sitting next to him when he painted these. I'm glad that there's all this retrospective interest! As an illustrator given a brief (one week it could be space rockets, the next, dinosaurs) and a limited time budget he was pretty diligent in research for his topic. Back in the 70's when these were done (that 1988 is yet another reprint) he had to refer to whatever other artwork and scientific material there was at the time, which was limited (no computers let alone internet). The publisher and the author wrote the brief for the illustrations and were the arbiters on the accuracy, and of course wisdom about what the dinosaurs looked like changes a lot over time.

    1. I'm a bit ashamed of my posts from back in the day (or, six years ago), so I hope this doesn't come over as too harsh. I've written about your dad's work plenty of times since, and even if it's aged badly scientifically (as has almost everything else from the '70s) his artistry was stunning.


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