Monday, April 16, 2012

Vintage Dinosaur Art: Purnell's Revisited

Apologies for the lack of content recently - David's been very busy, I'm told, and I've just been feeling plain uninspired because I'm a massive grumpy miseryguts (or something like that). To tide the blog over until David can return and/or I get my mojo back, let us return to Purnell's Book of Dinosaurs and Prehistoric Animals, a book that I simply did not do justice to with my previous post. I must've been having one of those grumpy misery days.

Unlike a lot of similar books - in which dinosaurs utterly dominate the content, and a few other prehistoric beasts are tacked on - Purnell's actually features quite a lot of content on non-dinosaurs, even if the big lugs do tend to dominate the Mesozoic chapters. This is undoubtedly a Good Thing, as the (beautifully photographed) models of non-dinosaurs have (mostly) aged a lot better than the rather retrotastic renditions of Tyrannosaurus, Iguanodon and the rest. One of the more 'quirky' in the lineup is the above Dimetrodon, mostly because - gasp! - it has 'lips' covering its teeth. Which got me thinking - is there any reason why Dimetrodon is always depicted with protruding fangs, other than it looks cooler that way? (Any synapsid experts in the audience...?)

One of my favourite photos of the bunch is of this Pterygotus model, simply because it genuinely looks like something taken by a beachcomber who just happened upon it. Whether Pterygotus ever actually emerged onto land is another matter, and certainly the posture suggests that this one isn't dead. Whatever the case, it's a nice pic.

Ah, Eryops - you've got to love it. Just a preposterous-looking creature by modern standards, with its sprawling limbs, huge, solid-looking head and low-slung body - like an overgrown toad trying to impersonate a crocodile. Accordingly, it's often shown in art as being pathetic Dimetrodon-fodder, when in fact it's a very interesting animal in its own right and especially interesting in the context of tetrapod evolution. So there. Plus, it's been given a very natty colour scheme in the above photo. I definitely approve.

A brief interlude for some monochrome artwork featuring Mesozoic ocean-going fauna, if you please. That's obviously Pteranodon on the right, with an unnamed plesiosaur and what looks to be a young Xiphactinus on the left (although the fish, too, is left unnamed). Unlike the dinosaur illustrations in the book, this is actually pretty well done, and I really like the composition with the pterosaur's wings enveloping the scene. Unfortunately, however, the artist decided to give Pteranodon a set of very tiny and numerous teeth in its beak. Maybe they had this book to hand when researching for Jurassic Park 3 (if they bothered with research for that one)...

Back to the models. This Smilodon is notable as the model is still on public display today, alongside a mounted skeleton of Smilodon fatalis in London's Natural History Museum (it's hanging around at the bottom of this photo). That said, in the book it's simply described as a 'sabre-toothed cat'.

This scene is gorgeous, and it's puzzling as to why it's such a tiny image in the book - they easily could've had it completely fill a page and got away with it. Obviously it's intended to represent a prehistoric tar pit a la La Brea, and it's a wonderful artistic achievement, combining fine sculpting, painting, atmospheric lighting and miniature photography. It really is a shame that it's so small, as it'd be fantastic to examine the finer details of the tiny animal models in this scene.

I couldn't resist including a couple more dinosaurs - it is Love in the Time of Chasmosaurs after all. This Compsognathus is one of the more forward-thinking ones among the tail-dragging fatty sauropods and Godzilla-suit tyrannosaurs. Of note are the modern-style posture and three claws per hand (not two, as was often erroneously assumed).

And finally...Allosaurus. What often bugs me about old palaeoart is that, when it comes to large theropods, the artists seem to ignore much of the shape of the skull in favour of something a little simpler and more like a monitor lizard. Allosaurus had two not insignifcant horns stuck on its face (not to mention a pair of bony ridges), and while ideas about posture and soft tissue appearance have changed over the decades, there have always been skulls to look at. Even the greats - like Zallinger - did it. It's no wonder that for a long time Allosaurus was just 'T. rex, but with three fingers' in the popular imagination.

Still...nice colours.

And that's all for now! More books are on their way, and I'll be off on my travels in May to see yet more atrocious fibreglass dinosaurs from the 1970s (it's the kitsch, I think). Hurrah. Don't worry, David will be back with more soon I'm sure...


  1. I don't know for sure, but that Pteranodon looks a lot like John Sibbick's style. Was there no one listed as the artist for that piccie?

    1. Only "Wilcock: Riley Graphic Art Limited"

    2. It doesn't seem quite refined or technically assured enough for Sibbick, but I do see what you mean in terms of style. Given the date of this book, perhaps it could be from among his earliest work, if it is indeed him.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Thanks, Marc! I'll be sharing a repost/ update to an older VDA next Monday, and speaking of Sibbick, he'll be making a return appearance here soon...

  4. Mark - I've just posted a "widescreen" version of the La Brea image for your perusal over at Saurian.

  5. "Plus, it's been given a very natty colour scheme in the above photo."

    It's a nice change of pace from the usual green coloration.

    "I don't know for sure, but that Pteranodon looks a lot like John Sibbick's style. Was there no one listed as the artist for that piccie?"

    I thought the illustration as a whole looked very Bakker-esque.

  6. I never had a copy of the book, but as a child I had a set of dinosaur trading cards with these gorgeous images on them. Yes, they're a little outdated, but they do a much better job of conveying the liveliness of the subjects than some recent CGI. I recall a Brachiosaurus that was particularly well-done (even if shown in the water). OK, now I'm waxing nostalgic. . .

    1. You might be thinking of the Top Trumps set which used these models.

  7. Lovely follow-up, Marc. I hope this one wasn't written in a grumpy mood...

    I agree about the Pterygotus. Beautifully set up and alive.

    I completely failed to recognise that Smilodon as the same one in the NHM. Sigh. I'm supposed to be observant. My last strength is deserting me.

  8. Arthur Hayward: ;)

    Arthur Hayward's Famous Dinosaurs

    "Arthur Hayward was an artist employed by the Natural History Museum in the
    1960's. Back then it may have been the B.M.(N.H.). A gifted sculptor, he
    also collaborated with Ray Harryhausen (who had recently settled in London)
    modeling the maquettes for the stop motion dinosaur animation models for
    Harryhausen's films such as "One Million Years B.C." and "Valley of Gwangi".
    Pete Von Sholly alerted me to this rare video of Hayward at work.
    Burian's influence is readily apparent. In fact, in this clip Burian
    images are all over the studio.
    Note also that instead of the machined metal armature normally used inside
    animation puppets, Hayward creates an articulated dinosaur skeleton!
    The Harryhausen/Hayward relationship ended rather quickly for reasons
    still unclear. Hayward was never given onscreen credit for his work, yet he
    created some of film's most iconic dinosaurs." from

    Fabio M

  9. "his Smilodon is notable as the model is still on public display today, alongside a mounted skeleton of Smilodon fatalis in London's Natural History Museum"

    Heinrich Mallison has put up a picture of that Smilodon + model on Dinosaurpaleo:


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