Monday, April 15, 2013

Vintage Dinosaur Art: Dreaming of Dinosaurs

Have you ever dreamt of dinosaurs? John Rice surely did, and was thus inspired to write a fine book of poetry about them. Fortunately, his poems tend to be either jolly whimsies or meditations on the meaning and significance of dinosaurs in a temporal context - as opposed to being incomprehensibly surreal and containing psychosexual themes that, on waking reflection, have terrifying implications for one's mental wellbeing (or is that just me?). In line with the mix of tone in the poems, Charles Fuge's illustrations vary between being 'serious' and cartoonish and amusing, while always remaining bold and characterful.


While not ostensibly an educational book on dinosaurs (although there are factual snippets here and there), the reconstructions are bang up to date (for 1992), in that they depict post-Renaissance dinosaurs - highly active, often brightly coloured and with nary a dragging tail to be seen. The cover depicts just such a creature - a garishly coloured dromaeosaur chasing a dragonfly through the Primordial Mists. It's a suitably, uh, dreamlike image, and the eye is immediately drawn to the looming, toothy maw of the animal. The dromaeosaur also resembles the Velociraptor-things in Jurassic Park, which it of course predates, although it does lead one to imagine the movie monsters decked out in a similarly flamboyant, stripy, bright yellow colour scheme. Maybe an idea for the next film, if they insist on them being all nekkid...?


Now, you might regard the inclusion of the pliosaur Kronosaurus in a poem entitled Dinosaur Songs as being cheating, but I'm quite sure it was entirely justified in the name of that wonderful illustration, in which it gargles out a ditty while dressed as an orca. The head, in particular, is remarkably well observed - the rather stretched body can probably be attributed to the use of Plastersaurus as a reference. The distant brachiosaurs, too, are quite lovely. It's just a shame about Archaeopteryx, showing off boringly familiar wrist-fingers and appearing to have been pasted onto the page at the last minute. As for the poem - well, I don't review poetry. Not since I finished my English Literature A-level back in 2006, at any rate. It's quite nice, I suppose. I like the repeated and pointed use of the word 'perhaps', a pertinent reminder of the uncertainties inherent in reconstructing prehistoric creatures, and arguably also a caution against 'typecasting' them. That's all you're getting.


At the more cartoonish end of the scale we have this Diplodocus, an illustration for a delightfully rollicking and silly poem about the animal rocking and rolling all over the Late Jurassic. Here, the elongate fatso has entirely outgrown his collapsed bed, but doesn't appear too concerned about it (tiny brain, see). The more 'cartoony' aspect manifests not just in the fact that, well, it's a dinosaur sleeping with a pillow and sheets, but also in its elephantine feet and overtly rotund body (not to mention that contented smile). Unfortunately, I had to chop off the little Leptoceratops-like creature on the right hand side, trying to prod our dozy hero awake...


It's a scientific fact that tyrannosaurs didn't like the rain very much. Close analysis of the structure of the animals' brains, based on cranial endocasts, has revealed that, due to an expansion of the centre devoted to an innate dislike of getting their tootsies all wet, tyrannosaurs would have dashed for cover like big, ugly, soggy cowards. Here, we see a Tyrannosaurus in a girly panic at the thought of being caught in a shower without its umbrella (equipped with super-telescopic handle). Actually, given the general tendency of this book to be very contemporary, there's something curiously 1970s about this T. rex - the big old osteoderms and crocodilian belly scales were a feature of a number of models produced in that decade, including the much chewed (by kids and pets) Invicta toy. Also, that first toe is bizarre. That aside, I absolutely adore the colour scheme - without looking too outrageous, it still manages to pop from the page.


Speaking of toothy, ugly things, the illustration for Limerickosaurus might just be my favourite in the book. Yes, ceratosaurs and pareiasaurs didn't live at anything like the same time, and yes, giving a hatchling reasonably well-developed horns and the colouration of a northern cassowary is a bit silly. But on the other hand, that colouration doesn't half look fantastic, and hey, duh, it's supposed to be silly.  Furthermore, very few illustrators have managed to make pareiasaurs (like Scutosaurus) look remotely cute - but just look at the winning smile on that little fellow. Here's hoping that meanie Cerato-cassowary will splinter his teeth on that pavement of scutes.


There's very little violence in Dreaming of Dinosaurs, so it's a bit disconcerting to come across this bloody scene, in which a pack of stripy Velociraptor (a 'smart adaptor', rather like that handy thing you attach to your phone charger to use it in Europe) rather optimistically take on a much larger, and quite cross-looking, Styracosaurus. While the predators scratch and nibble rather ineffectively, the Styracosaurus has used its horn to impale one of them straight through the effing guts. Dromaeosaurs had a habit of leaping like land-piranha onto much larger prey back in the '90s, but it's a trend that's definitely lost momentum; in fact, these days the prey are just as likely to be seen turning the tables...which can only be a positive development.


We haven't heard of Saltopus for a while, have we? That's probably because it's known from fragmentary material (and might not even be a dinosaur at all), but nevertheless it was an animal that featured in a number of popular books back in the '80s and '90s, before disappearing from view. Here, there is even a poem dedicated to it. The illustration would appear to owe much to the model photographed in The Age of Dinosaurs: A Photographic Record, and envisages a delicate, nocturnal creature, "Tall as a baby learning to walk/quick as a gymnast over the rock".


Out of the somewhat more 'serious' illustrations, I'm particularly taken by this depiction of a Maiasaura mother with her brood, set against a beautiful backdrop of horsetails and an inky night sky. It's a wonderful, dreamy (sorry), serene picture...except for those glowing eyes in the undergrowth. It's pleasing to see splashes of bright colour on a female hadrosaur, as artists have often had a tendency to deck them out only in a thousand indistinct shades of brown (ranging from 'mud puddle' to 'deep', uh, 'chocolate'). In addition, it's wonderful to see hadrosaur babies doing something other than cower under their parents or be dragged away by hungry theropods/lizards/pterosaurs/centipedes/killer snails. Play behaviour in hadrosaurs - why not?

In a similar vein, this beautifully painted moody Triceratops accompanies a poem that is a meditation on the passage of time on a geological, or even cosmic scale:

"Look up! A comet flashes past.
Another wanderer who'll return again
when Triceratops is no more,
and again
when the river is no more
and again
when the mountain is no more
and again
when we are no more."
It's a stanza moving in its simplicity, and is haunting in invoking the fleeting nature of life on Earth, and indeed the impermanence even of the geology that we take for granted. The time will come, sooner than we like to imagine, when we will be just as completely and utterly gone as Triceratops, the mammoth, Steller's sea cow, and the twenty species of amphibian that were wiped out so that a forest could be cut down to make way for the mine to extract the precious metals for your mobile phone. You MONSTER.

Sorry, I said I wouldn't do it again. Look, it's a dinosaur playing guitar!


Forget Doug Henderson - this is my favourite depiction of a swimming Dimetrodon. Just fantastic. And who doesn't want to send their post by pterosaur-mail? Polka-dot hadrosaurs, dancing to Strauss! Just marvellous stuff. There's a lot to be said for this book - while often daft (as here), it's clear that Rice nevertheless takes dinosaurs very seriously as a subject, and their treatment is surprisingly, commendably mature - as are the illustrations. Stripy yellow trebles all round, I think.

17 comments:

  1. Interesting. I'd like to see the book! However, I don't think that something that's 21 years old really qualifies as "vintage." When I saw the title for your article, I expected something at least 50 years old, or more.

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    1. It doesn't, really, but if you go back through the archives, you'll see I've stretched the definition of 'vintage' a fair number of times before. It was the original title of the series, and it just sort of stuck.

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  2. do you need some vintage books to review? I have quite a few. Hell, my flickr is full of old dino books.

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    1. If you wouldn't mind sending some to me to borrow, that would be fantastic. I can e-mail you my address. I do like to look at the books myself.

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    2. sorry for the delayed reply. I'd be happy to loan you some books. tnthielen82@gmail.com. I can understand wanting to look at them yourself.

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  3. the illustrations in this book are quite nice.

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  4. 'as opposed to being incomprehensibly surreal and containing psychosexual themes that, on waking reflection, have terrifying implications for one's mental wellbeing'

    Good heavens. What other dinosaur poems of that nature have you encountered?

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    1. I was referring to my own dreams, there. They're terrifying, I tell you. TERRIFYING.

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    2. Ah... I know something of terrifying dreams...

      But lest I forget to comment about the book: it's a delight, and I agree the illustrations do suggest that the artist very much cared about what he was doing, even if the dinosaurs aren't in a 'serious' context (cough). And I actually think the poems themselves are lovely too. Wry and sometimes wistful, not merely whimsical (I swear the alliteration is unintentional).

      'Dancing to Strauss' is definitely my favourite line from that poem.

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  5. Thanks for yet another Vintage Art review, Marc. Disppointingly, some of the pics were not too bad so it was a bit of an anti-climax compared with the previous How and Why Wonder Book. (I know that these reviews are not always intended to poke fun at laughingly inaccurate depictions by jobbing artists but, let's be honest, that's why we're here. Well, me anyway.)

    I note that those Deinonychuses appear to have made bee-lines for the boniest parts of the Styracosaurus. Except for that poor, misguided fellow at the back, but I suspect that he's just trying to climb up and get a mouthful of frill-spike like his mates.

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    1. Clarifying, "...at the back,..." meaning at the back of the pic (and hidden behind the Styracosaurus) not at the tail-end of the Styracosaurus).

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    2. Well, truly vintage and terrible books are rather more difficult to obtain, alas. The posts would be rather more infrequent if I only went for material of that, er, 'calibre'.

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  6. "The head, in particular, is remarkably well observed - the rather stretched body can probably be attributed to the use of Plastersaurus as a reference."

    What do you mean by "Plastersaurus"? Just wondering.

    "The distant brachiosaurs, too, are quite lovely. It's just a shame about Archaeopteryx, showing off boringly familiar wrist-fingers and appearing to have been pasted onto the page at the last minute."

    Maybe it's just me, but that Archaeopteryx seems to be a knock-off of Sibbick's ( http://www.nhm.ac.uk/resources-rx/images/1008/archaeopteryx-flying-117148-1.jpg ).

    "That aside, I absolutely adore the colour scheme - without looking too outrageous, it still manages to pop from the page."

    That color scheme reminds me of the T.rex in the 1st issue of Dinosaurs! Magazine ( http://chasmosaurs.blogspot.com/2011/05/vintage-dinosaur-art-guest-post.html ).

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    1. I've heard that that particular mount is known as 'Plastersaurus' (or possible Plasterosaurus?), as much of it is sculpted. It famously has too many vertebrae.

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  7. Replies
    1. This comment, am I really supposed to take it seriously?

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  8. I didn't actually read the whole blog post, I just scrolled down to write a comment after I saw the Kronosaurus: my mind was wandering today (I just started working for a museum and was doing a session at a kindergarten talking about dinosaurs) and I pondered on the idea of illustrating a Mesozoic marine reptile in the garb of a Killer Whale. I just recently added this blog on my reading list and I was surprised to find that I, apparently, have some kind of psychic ability.

    Keep up the vintage dino art posts!

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