Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Vintage Dinosaur Art: more from The How and Why Wonder Book of Dinosaurs

Yes, it's back! After the rapturous reception it received last time, a return to the glorious How & Why Wonder world seemed absolutely necessary - vital, even. This was, after all, the "terrible, terrible book" that proved to be a key source of childhood inspiration for a number of celebrated palaeontologists. Also, how could I have left out this disturbingly anthropomorphic creature last time...?

Why, "Trachodon", if it weren't for your alarmingly flattened facial features, you would be quite outrageously sexy. The forelimbs in particular here are absurdly, comically/distressingly humanoid and dainty; this is a creature best imagined seated at a piano in a cavernous mansion, playing hauntingly beautiful piano pieces to itself while staring blankly from within its dark, bovine eyes, its beaked face utterly expressionless. I should probably also mention that illustration rather obviously, er, references Burian. The shading is still wonderful, too, although here it has the disconcerting effect of making the animal look rather...smooth. Shudder.

Ankylosaurus, that perennial tyrannosaur-clobbering lumberjack, is shown - typically for the time - as an extremely squat, short-legged, neckless and permanently grumpy creature, although the tail here is not as truncated as was frequently depicted. The shoulder spines would appear to owe something to Edmontonia, suggesting that this illustration may be inspired by the chimeric "Palaeoscincus" that often popped up in pre-Renaissance palaeoart. The texture work on the animal's back, and in particular its scutes, is actually remarkably well done; it's possible to imagine running a hand over their tough, bony surface. These monochrome illustrations are by far the most accomplished in the book.

Protoceratops, the nesting lizard - a palaeoart canard that took decades to die and was adopted by absolutely everyone, from Neave Parker to Zallinger (if anyone can enlighten me as to the origin of the whole 'sprawling limbs' trope, I'd love to know). For me, this one resembles Parker's in particular, and, well, it's a bit dull. Really, Protoceratops just serves as the warmup act in popular dinosaur books for everyone's favourite...

...Triceratops! Here, 'old three horns' (or whichever corny, affectionate nickname you're most fond of) appears suitably stoic and battle-weary - probably because it's a dead ringer for the animal in Charles Knight's famous Triceratops v T. rex painting, right down to the perspective and alarmingly chunky limbs (knees? Where we're going, we won't need knees!). Still, drink in that highly skilled texturing and marvel at that tangible fleshiness, for we are about to return to the book's colour illustrations, where things really do go downhill somewhat.

I should point out that the anachronisms in the above picture are deliberate (and the title relates more to the text than the illustration), but these are still some seriously goofy-looking beasties. Charles Knight's painting of a misidentified Dimetrodon/Edaphosaurus chimera seems to have inspired the cutesy-pie Dimetrodon in this image, but while Knight's had a Dimetrodon head, this one appears to have the skull of a loveable frog. I'm also very fond of the crudely drawn 'ornithopod', complete with tiny arms sprouting from its neck. Bless.

The book's pterosaurs fare little better, boasting as they do some seriously bizarre and grotesque heads - I mean, more so than in reality. The googly-eyed, lumpen-headed Dimorphodon is a particular highlight here. Note also the inclusion of Archaeopteryx on the pterosaur page because, well, it lived alongside the dinosaurs and it flew, right? It made good sense at the time, of course, but it's heartening to look back and reflect upon how far the science has come, and all the hard work it took to get us to where we are today - much of it inspired, in the first instance, by this very book.

I've come over all sentimental. Quick, another silly illustration!

One lazy trope that absolutely, positively refuses to die - even after literally generations of writers have used it - is the direct comparison between extinct marine reptiles and mythological sea monsters. It gets right on my nerves, so it does. While THWWBD doesn't quite sink to mentioning Nessie, it sets the trend for many, many books and articles since in which plesiosaurs are referred to as 'monsters', complete with a little sojourn into the realms of cryptozoology - since after all, they could be alive today, hanging around in the abyssal depths with Godzilla and that giant killer newt thing from Cloverfield, and we'd never know, wooooo! The illustration plays up the 'serpentine' aspect of the ludicrously long-necked Elasmosaurus by giving it an equally long tail, when of course it had a rather stumpy one in reality; however, this would again appear to have been inspired by Knight, specifically his late 19th century painting of the animal (the snaking neck of which would also inspire a meme that lasted a good century).

I'd like to end on a monochrome illustration, however, for they represent THWWBD at its best. The Styracosaurus here is actually rather good for the time (I await the first reader to point me toward the much earlier illustration it's a copy of), while the Allosaurus - with its relatively short arms - is a far cry from the bizarre-looking creature that features in one of the book's colour plates. It's enough to make one wonder if they really were by the same artist...

Whatever the case may be, and at the risk of repeating myself (see previous post), this is a charming book, and it's no accident that it got so many people hooked on dinosaurs. We have an awful lot to thank it for, and it remains an entertaining read!


  1. I laughed at the image of the Trachodon playing piano.

    1. Lucky you. My brain immediately went here instead: http://25.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_luqk21m3Gx1qbeprmo1_400.gif

  2. That Trachodon is the source of one of my earliest memories - a nightmare I had when I was 3-4 years old, in which I was put on an assembly line, stuffed full of pills, and turned into a Trachodon in that exact pose, except white with pink polka dots.

  3. I think the 'Trachodon' makes a good companion to Darwin the Allosaurus, don't you?

    That chimerical Dimetrodon looks to me as though its head is tuned away rather than in possession of a frog face, though I do love that idea.

    1. 'Turned away', not 'tuned'. I still need more sleep.

  4. When you're doing a tiny background doodle of a phytosaur, you just have to keep one thing straight: go ahead and draw a crocodile, but the nostril is above the eyes, not at the tip of the snout. One...thing!
    Another Knight crib on the Kannemeyeria, too.

  5. Styraco is taken from Knight's version in Feb 1942 National Geographic article "Parade of Life Through the Ages" which was my iconic go-to dinosaur source. I had HWWBD too, but Knight was The Man.

  6. Aha, there's my man Trachodon, Brontosaurus' little brother in terms of fond memories. Now, how do I get that picture out of my head of him singing Andrew Loyd Webber songs while wearing a Gerald Butler mask? Dammit, Marc!
    Still, I find it fascinating how such a bizarre book influenced so many people, yet most of those came out alright.

  7. Thank you so much. I had this book as a kid and always wondered what it was called as I enjoyed the black and white style of the illustrations

  8. I think the anthropomorphism was one of the reasons I loved these pics as a child. The dinosaurs were characters, and they were often elegant - think of the Iguanodon, or the background Trachodon in the water (on the following page from this illustration). They also made me think of, I dunno, deer, or horses, with their long, slightly dished faces. Never have got over seeing dinosaurs illustrated as Not Pretty.

  9. Forgot to add: in my copy, Dimetrodon didn't have a head at all! The picture went off the edge of the page.

    I always thought Ornithopoda was cute, and Elasmosaurus awesome, not least for that red eye.


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