Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Vintage Dinosaur Art: The Illustrated Dinosaur Encyclopedia

Dougal Dixon must be one of the all-time most prolific authors of popular dinosaur books. Back in the '80s and '90s, it certainly seemed like he was everywhere - bookshops would dedicate entire shelving units to him, and he employed a cadre of bodyguards in order to move around the streets without being mobbed by dinosaur-loving schoolchildren. (No, not really.) I've already reviewed a number of books from the DD stable, from the rather good to the plain embarrassing (hey, if you churn out that many books, there's bound to be the odd stinker every so often). This is one of the better, not to mention more weighty, entries in the Dixon oeuvre, and features a considerable number of illustrations - not by Dixon, mind you, but Andrew Robinson and David Johnston, who apparently "collaborated on many scientific and natural history publications". Most of them are pleasing enough for the late 1980s without being anything particularly special, but still offer an interesting slice of dinosaur illustration history.

Baryonyx was still the hot new kid on the block back then, and so naturally it gets the cover star treatment - depicted hurling a fish up into the air in a composition that's certainly striking and makes an excellent first impression. Unfortunately, most of the illustrations in this book follow the old-fashioned 'just-about-anatomically-rigorous-enough-to-not-look-terrible-lateral-view' model, as exemplified by Ceratosaurus below. The larger dinosaurs in particular don't get to do very much in this book, other than walk around a bit and look menacing.

Although we are never told who produced which plate, the differing styles of the illustrators quickly become apparent, although they aren't so jarring as to interrupt the book's sense of continuity (the animals are arranged in chronological order...most of the time). The artist behind, among others, the Megalosaurus below is definitely my favourite - the scaly skin textures are wonderful and their animals are much more convincing in terms of overall anatomy. Having said that, the Megalosaurus definitely owes something to the Invicta toy from the 1970s - in fact, it almost resembles someone's updated interpretation of it. "Megalosaurus was a hunter of Iguanodon," Dixon notes. Ah, that old trope...

Speaking of old tropes, here's yet another bloody T. rex that has had an ear inserted into the temporal fenestra behind its eye. WHY? Why did they keep doing this back in the '70s and '80s, and why only to T. rex? The mind boggles. Anyway, apart from that (and the dodgy skull in general) I'm actually quite fond of this one; the textures and lighting are nice, and I like that it's delivering a withering stare while standing in a pile of someone's guts. In case you were wondering, Dougal Dixon had revised his views on Tyrannosaurus by this time, noting that "scientists have reached a compromise: it was both a fast hunter and a scavenger". Hurrah!

There's nothing quite like a 1980s-style Spinosaurus - every bit as sweetly nostalgic to me as wrong-headed 'brontosaurs' (which were pretty much extinct by the time my childhood rolled around) are to slightly more well-worn older ladies and gents. Although far from the finest exemplar of the genre, the artist wins plaudits for the hilariously flattened individuals sunning themselves in the background.

More Baryonyx, and again the European spinosaur is treated to one of the book's lovelier illustrations. It's just unfortunate that the animal is only depicted in a quadrupedal stance, or this work might have aged a lot better. There's some iffy perspective work going on (that leg...hmmm), but the artist creates a lovely, painterly lakeside scene, not to mention wickedly glinting and pointy claws on the animals. The background Baryonyx has, of course, just used telekinesis to launch its fishy prey skywards with a summoning finger. After all, as Dixon points out, "Baryonyx breaks all the rules for flesh-eating dinosaurs!". Quite fitting for the '80s, really - it's totally radical, dude!

Perhaps my favourite illustration in this book, simply because it's quite 'radical' itself, is a tiny little thing positioned in the shadow of a huge scaly Deinonychus (that's clearly, uh, inspired by a considerably earlier Bakker piece). Look - feathers! At last, the wild ideas of Bakker, Paul and the rest were filtering down to a truly mainstream audience. If only you knew, 1980s Dougal Dixon, if only you knew!

Finally, a truly evil, crazily patterned Compsognathus adopts a casual air by leaning against a plant while contemplating how to cruelly finish off its insect prey. Yes.

You might have noticed that I've only scanned pictures of theropods for this post, but that's because this book is really rather thick - and I fully intend on revisiting it down the line. After all, how could I not include Plateosaurus? Everyone loves Plateosaurus...


  1. That is an interesting pattern on the Compsognathus. Can't recall seeing something quite like that before.

  2. I like how all of those dinosaurs are facing the exact same direction save the Compsognathus.

  3. Another childhood staple... I remember getting my mom to buy this one from the bookstore when it came out. It went well with the then new Baryonyx action figure from the British Museum.

    I'm trying to recall the other illustrations in that book. I think the Chasmosaur was okay. I'm remembering the Triceratops as silly... These are only foggy memories. I haven't looked at my copy in 7+ years (though I do need to do a very thorough scanning of my old Dino book collection when I get back to Canada for you guys)

  4. I would like to heap some praise upon the heads of you fine folks here at LITC,if you don't mind.These vintage dinosaur art posts are the highlight of my day every time a new one is posted.Truth be told I am a bit of a fanby for this charming website of yours.I have been single-mindedly obsessed with dinosaurs from a very young age,and seeing so many of the books I grew up with reviewed on this website makes me pretty sappy and nostalgic.Your commentary on the books is quit chuckle worthy at times as well."...standing in a pile of someone's guts".Classic.Keep up the good work!

    1. Thanks so much for the kind words, it means a lot. In fact, it's all the motivation I need to keep inflicting my blog posts on the world well into the foreseeable future. WHAT HAVE YOU DONE? ;)

      Really though, it's always good to know that people are enjoying these things...that's my aim, after all! Thanks again.

  5. thanks for all the information. nice blog.

  6. Thanks to you folks, I will never be able to look at images of that dinosaur flipping fish out of the water with a deft claw-flick without thinking they're actually doing some Jedi maneuver.

  7. Ahh, yes, another book from my childhood - I seem to remember tracing some skeletons out of the book and adding my own flesh and muscles to them. Is this the one with the emu and cassowary painted near the back of the book that their composition ends up making it look like some kind of avian "Pushmee-Pullyou"?

  8. So Dougal Dixon's Megalosaurus was based on the Invicta toy? Interesting, as I have a toy dinosaur clearly based on Dixon's art, with a nearly identical pose, back ridges, and everything.

    It's an endless loop, I tell you!


Trolls get baleted.

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