Monday, October 29, 2012

Vintage Dinosaur Art: The Complete Book of Dinosaurs - Part 1

We have the nicest readers here at Love in the Time of Chasmosaurs (most of the time), and Jon Davies just happens to be one of them. The scholarly Mr Davies, in a gesture of profoundly moving generosity, has allowed me to borrow a stack of much-loved dinosaur books from his youth so that I might gently poke fun at them. Thank you, Jon, you are a gentleman!

Of course, there was always going to be one book from among the selection that particularly caught my eye, and it'll be quite obvious from the image below why it had to be The Complete Book of Dinosaurs. The cover alone is a source of unending joy - the fat sauropod is quite run-of-the-mill, but the warped theropod is a gloriously twisted, demented monstrosity. Having posted this image on the LITC Facebook page yesterday, it attracted comparisons with the Xenomorph from Alien and a Lovecraftian terror, both of which undoubtedly stem from the mismatched, disturbingly humanoid head. In fact, the front half looks like it belongs in a dinosaurian version of Basket Case.

Thankfully, nothing inside the book is quite this horrifying (which makes you wonder why they slapped such an awful thing on the cover). It's essentially a compendium of 1980s Beverly Halstead dinosaur books, with illustrations mostly from Jenny Halstead, but also occasionally Ross Wardle and Sol Kirby (the latter are taken directly from the abysmal second-rate Zallinger knock-off Dinosaurs of the Earth, which - wouldn't you know it - I reviewed for my first ever LITC post). The late Bev Halstead (he died in 1991, but still whispers in the ear of psychic Daily Mail drones) often had some rather eccentric ideas and held firm against the Dino Renaissance, but nonetheless is responsible for engaging many children with palaeontology - Darren Naish, for example, counts Halstead's The evolution and ecology of the Dinosaurs as one of his earliest dinosaur books.

Jenny Halstead, meanwhile, is a very accomplished artist who is still around today - her website shows off some truly stunning work in the field of anatomical illustration and, more recently, pastels and oil painting. Having said all that, her dinosaurs, er, could have been better. The animals frequently look cartoonish, and body parts drastically change shape and proportion even in the same scene. The scenes featuring Deinonychus (or "deinonychosaurus" as Beverly refers to them at one point) are particularly amusing, as the animals often have outsized googly eyes and comically exaggerated body parts - mostly the sickle claw, which often seems to subsume the entire toe.

Still, there certainly are some unusual scenes in this book. Every dinosaur artist has had a pop at illustrating a gang of Deinonychus reducing a dopey herbivore to hamburger, but how many have shown the animals foraging for frogs in a lake? Happily, this painting is also one of the superior scenes in the book - the lily-covered lake looks lovely, and the flamingo(-like bird)s, while looking a little too close to their modern counterparts, add a pleasing touch of faunal variety. Most importantly, the look of the animals is consistent, and they make some sense anatomically (for the time, of course).

Things get weirder a bit further in. While making it clear that Deinonychus was a highly agile and alert creature, Bev Halstead nevertheless maintains that "deinonychosaurs were cold blooded and needed the sun's heat". As such, we are treated to this truly strange image of juvenile dromaeosaurs sunning themselves on rocks like lizards, with their legs sprawling out to the sides...somehow. Note also how the individuals on the right hand side start to resemble those little squishy plastic finger puppets with wobbly arms. In fact, by far the best aspect of this painting is the very well observed blue-and-red lizard located in the bottom right hand corner, which I've cropped out because I am, in the end, heartless and cruel. And you're not here for lizards.

GODZILLA! Nah, it's just Tyrannosaurus. But what's it doing here? Well, since the tubby waddling softy could only scavenge the kills of other dinosaurs, it evolved the astonishing ability to travel backwards through time in order to meet its colossal energy needs by eating animals that had died close by in the distant past. In fairness, the little guys aren't described as being Deinonychus but, well, come on now.

I'm particularly fond of the fellow in the bottom left, who looks very contented with his meal of stringy viscera. Bless.

Halstead's sauropods are fat - often grotesquely so - and definitely owe something to Caselli's. The Apatosaurus in the background of this scene looks like it would move a lot quicker if it rolled along sideways, while the babies are quite sluglike in their rotundity; all of them sport so many rolls of lard that they make Eric Pickles look almost svelte by comparison. Noteworthy are the blunted, 'brontosaur' heads - indeed, the title of the book in which these illustrations first appeared is A Brontosaur (or so it says here).

In spite of their stumpy, seemingly near-useless limbs (good only for pointing into the middle distance), a few of the baby brontosaurs manage to survive into adulthood, at which point the adult males must fight for dominance of the herd using their tails is that? A tumour? According to Bev Halstead,
"The two dinosaurs stood side by side, head to tail, for this was the way they would fight...The apatosaur that was stronger of perhaps younger would have the advantage. The bony lump gave him added force."
So there you go - it's a 'bony lump', and actually quite beneficial. Just don't ask why none of the other apatosaurs have one. This is the lucky deformed brontosaur that could.

And finally...some rip-offs. These Barosaurus look positively sleek and dynamic when compared with their bloated brontosaur brothers, and with good reason - they're ultimately all based on a Bakker drawing. In Bakker's original, the tail of one barosaur disappeared behind the body of another, which itself had a tail affected by foreshortening - thus giving rise to the artistic meme of the short-tailed Barosaurus. In reality, of course, the animal would have resembled a slightly longer-necked Diplodocus. Darren Naish (him again!) covered all this back in Tetrapod Zoology Mk II, and his article's well worth a read if you haven't done so already - you'll note that the animal in the background of the below scene owes much to the frightening 'Cox 1975' Barosaurus as featured by Darren.

Come back next time for pterosaurs, Jenny Halstead-style!


  1. Good heavens. Bony lumps and lumpy baby 'brontosaurs'...

  2. "...the front half looks like it belongs in a dinosaurian version of Basket Case"...
    His normal ceratosaurus brother must have brought a date home.Oh yeah,I got the reference.

  3. "The scenes featuring Deinonychus (or "deinonychosaurus" as Beverly refers to them at one point) are particularly amusing, as the animals often have outsized googly eyes and comically exaggerated body parts - mostly the sickle claw, which often seems to subsume the entire toe."

    As you may remember, I recommended reading that book in an older comment ( ). In any case, I'm glad to see you review it here. Halstead's eccentricities make more sense to me in hindsight. He was basically dino paleontology's "Grumpy Old Man" ( ).

  4. I see that Halstead also makes that beginner's error of depicting Deinonychus clambering over a dinosaur that isn't Tenontosaurus.

    Also, if that "bony lump" gave any advantage for reproductive success, I would expect it to be selected for and we'd have found evidence of it by now. The only conclusion to be drawn from this is that Darwin must be wrong.

  5. Oh my actual God, the stumpy necks on those "brontosaurus" babies!

  6. The bony lump was the result of that apatosaurus breaking its tail, which then healed into said lump. The book that picture originally comes from told the story of one apatosaurus's life from birth until death. It was pretty similar to the "Walking with Dinosaurs" episode on diplodocus. A bunch of baby sauropods all hatch at once, get picked off by predators, the survivors live together hiding in the forest until they're too big, etc.

    The deinonychus story had a lot of anachronisms. Tyrannosaurus, protoceratops, euhelopus, tsintaosaurus, "palaeoscincus". There's a few scans in the vintage dinosaur art group on flickr:

    1. Someone else pointed this out on Facebook - I had a feeling that might be the case. Unfortunately, in this book it's presented completely without context, as if it's just a feature that some apatosaurs developed.

  7. "As such, we are treated to this truly strange image of juvenile dromaeosaurs sunning themselves on rocks like lizards, with their legs sprawling out to the sides."
    At first I thought it was some weird "evolution of Deinonychus" type thing...

    ( Love the blog by the way! First time poster, long time reader)

  8. Wow, these are so ridiculous they are cute.... my favourite are the deinonycho-lizards lying in the sun! lol. I have many old dinosaur books (love them), but I've never seen anything like that before.

  9. Wow, the only thing ridiculous here is the pointless criticism everyone is levying. I remember these books from when I was a kid, and they got me interested in both science and art. I didn't care if the author's taxonomy was incorrect or if the illustrator got the frickin' proportions of a toe claw wrong--that's not the point of these books. I just got an old used copy of Brontosaurus in the mail today, and guess what? I still think the art and story rocks: now as an adult, I can appreciate that they didn't patronize kids by toning down the content of the illustrations or dumbing down the language. These books tried to make zoological and paleontological science accessible to a very young audience, and they succeeded. And for me, if I'm criticizing the artwork based on actual graphic art theory, the illustrations demonstrate a solid use of colors for capturing mood and atmosphere, forms are dynamic and expressive, and they function to carry the narrative--all qualities of good illustration. But then again, I realize blogs of this nature aren't about truthful criticism or open discussion. As usual it all boils down to the tired belief that there's a positive correlation between popularity on the internet and caustic commentary. Sigh.

    1. I'd wager by your freshly minted Google pseudonym that you haven't read much of the blog, but if you actually read the breadth of Vintage Dinosaur Art posts, I think you'll find a few things:

      1. We attempt to critique the illustrations in the context of contemporaneous paleontological knowledge (and gratefully accept corrections from astute readers). This does actually include commentary on those places where artists make bizarre anatomical choices, flagrantly copy earlier work, or seem to have ignored available research for some reason.
      2. We don't hold back when illustrations are deserving of criticism (come on, not all of these are genius), but freely praise them when they work (or did you skip those parts of Marc's post here?)
      3. We give exposure on the web to artists who otherwise would be pretty obscure. Not saying this is the greatest blog in the world, but I am proud of the fact that we shed light on work that deserves more than gathering dust in consignment shops and libraries.

      So much of the work we feature in these posts sits in an odd space. It's not thoughtlessly dashed off cartoons, but it's not always the pinnacle of paleoart. Sorry we don't vacuously praise every dinosaur committed to illustration board, but I think that on the whole, we're far from "caustic."

    2. ^^^Well put, David. Not to pile on Spacepunk, but check out Marc's recent loving, almost doting series of posts on Burian's work, or the innumerable times David has singled out contemporary and nostalgic paleoart for praise. Heck, check out the header image of the blog. I just can't characterize this blog as simply finding and flaming all things risible in the paleo-continuum.

    3. I'm very sorry that I stepped on your childhood, but I'm going to stand by what I wrote. Jenny Halstead was - and is - a superb artist and illustrator (in fact, I used words like "accomplished" and "stunning" in the review), just not of dinosaurs. Even for the 1980s, these books are anachronisms. That said, I do acknowledge their positives (particularly in their imaginative depiction of animal behaviour) and praise Bev Halstead for engaging people and getting them interested in palaeontology - just as with Darren Naish, and yourself.

      What's telling is that you don't frikkin' care about the anatomy, or the science (the anatomical blunders in this book go quite a way beyond an out-of-proportion toe claw, and yes I do mean by 1980s standards). In dinosaur books - educational books - these are highly important. 'They're for kids' is not an excuse - kids deserve better.

  10. Deinonychus : The Terrible Claw was such a great read as a kid. I became obsessed with Deinonychus after reading it and watching docus like Christopher Reeve's Dinosaur! so by the time Jurassic Park came around and mislabled my fav dino as a "velociraptor" my obsession was fulfilled.

  11. Wait! The dromies and T. rex together might actually be accurate (kind of); if accidentally and still anachronistic in a different way.

  12. I have fond memories of this author's "Brontosaurus the Thunder Lizard". I should try to get a new copy

  13. The "brontosaurs" look rather phallic (the babies and the adults).


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