Thursday, May 9, 2013

Vintage Dinosaur Art: Dinosaur Dream

In my last-but-one Vintage Dinosaur Art post - about three years ago now - I reviewed a book entitled Dreaming of Dinosaurs. While some commented that it wasn't very vintage, others (on Facebook, mostly) noted how its title reminded them of a different book that they treasured as a child - Dinosaur Dream. Well wouldn't you know, I've only gone and procured that one too! And no, as it's from 1990, it isn't very 'vintage' either. However, hopefully this will be forgiven on the grounds that it's really quite beautiful.

Both written and illustrated by Dennis Nolan, Dinosaur Dream is the charming story of a young boy's journey back through time, dressed in his snappy red pyjamas and accompanied by his juvenile sauropod friend. Whether or not the trip really was just a dream is, happily, left ambiguous. The boy - Wilbur - is disturbed in the night by a baby apatosaur's approach outside his window, shortly after he has put away his favourite dinosaur book and settled down to sleep.

Wilbur's room betrays Nolan's primary paleaeoartistic influences - and they are most definitely vintage. Wilbur not only has a poster of Knight's famous Tyrannosaurus v Triceratops piece on his wall, but an enormous great frieze of the Zallinger Age of Reptiles mural. Anyone who was obsessed with dinosaurs as a child will recognise that fundamental need to have absolutely everything they owned adhere to a prehistoric theme, right down to their duvet cover (I've got to say that my Jurassic Park example didn't quite have the timeless, graphical appeal of this one). If it seems a little odd that a child in 1990 would have a Knight poster on their wall, well, I imagine that's a little nostalgia on the author's part, which I certainly won't begrudge him.

When Wilbur first meets the young Apatosaurus, he immediately decides to name his new saurian friend 'Gideon', after Gideon Mantell (which is lovely - I might have felt rather differently had he named it 'Richard'). Rather less cleverly, he decides to try and stash the dinosaur away in a barn with a gaggle of disgruntled farm animals. Realising his error, Wilbur elects instead to try and get the Apatosaurus back to the Jurassic where it belongs, and the two set off on a long walk back in time. At this point, connoisseurs of dinosaur art will have already noted that Gideon has a distinctly retro appearance - rather portly and wrinkled, with inaccurate plantigrade hands and feet and a highly arched, humped back. Nevertheless, Gideon's a very active little beast, not only harassing livestock but easily keeping pace with his smelly mammalian charge, even through thick snow. Retro in appearance, but definitely Renaissance in habits.

While wisely keeping their distance from a herd of mammoths, the bumbling pair somehow end up alarmingly close to the business end of a Smilodon, and are forced to clamber up a cliff face to safety. The appearance of the toothily endowed moggy owes much to Knight, but definitely falls on the right side of the 'loving homage/lazy rip-off' divide. The composition of this illustration is beautiful, with Gideon's back and tail forming a wonderful, sigmoid shape opposite the near-geometric peaks of the distant mountains. All right, so Niroot may have pointed that out to me, but the point stands - Nolan is a superb illustrator with a keen eye for an excellently arranged scene.

The two go on to find a 'dawn horse' (presumably Eohippus), frolicking atop a suitably picturesque waterfall, and Wilbur realises that they are indeed travelling far, far back in time. Before too long, they pass through the Mesozoic border - thankfully rather lax on security measures to prevent the entry of temporal migrants in nightwear- encountering flocking Pteranodon as they go.

While the above illustration may give the impression that the pair are passively observed by Triceratops as they pass, the text describes Wilbur walking up to the sleeping ceratopsians, disturbing them, being charged and making a rather narrow escape. The use of perspective in this picture is wonderful, making ol' Pointyface look suitably massive and slightly sinister, if not a little retro once again. Of course, given Wilbur's predilection for getting into near-fatal scrapes with enormous, bad-tempered prehistoric creatures, it's only a matter of time before he's running for his life while a Tyrannosaurus snaps at his stupid little heels.

Sexy Rexy strikes a suitably athletic pose in Nolan's gorgeously lit scene (the sky! Look at the sky! By Bakker's beard, it's beautiful!), but again its loosely interpreted head and rather lizardy limb muscles show off his very old-school influences. Nevertheless, it's difficult to argue with something quite so fantastically painted, and I love the panicked, galloping pose of Gideon. Just as the dino-dream threatens to come to an abrupt and rather gastronomically unsatisfying conclusion, the hapless pair escape into a river...

...only to be hurled straight over a waterfall. While the characters' expressions are priceless, this painting does unfortunately reveal that Nolan really did have no idea where to put sauropod nostrils (thanks to Hugebody McTinyHead on Facebook for pointing that one out. No, I don't make these names up).

At last, Wilbur is able to reunite little Gideon with his retrotastic extended family in the Great Valley (maybe). While these humpbacked mountains of flesh are quite comically backward-looking, even for 1990, they are nevertheless possessed of a certain charm, no doubt enhanced by their gormless, perma-smiling faces and pleasant demeanour. A larger-than-usual double page illustration (detail shown above) helps emphasise the sheer size of these nostalgia-tinged brontos, with the entire left hand page being dominated by the Burianesque body of one of the beasts. This is further enhanced by the perspective, which is at Wilbur's level; from here, the sauropod necks crane up very high indeed.

Finally, an exhausted Wilbur is given a lift back home by the largest Apatosaurus of the herd, falling soundly asleep in the many folds of its gigantic hump. Another ludicrous-looking dinosaur (who else is reminded of the Dino Riders toy?), but a sumptuous illustration boasting an expertly painted and highly evocative skyscape. It's a fittingly warm conclusion, in every sense, to such a deservedly adored book. Dinosaur Dream really is the cat's snappy red pyjamas.


  1. I was just going to remark how that T. rex illustration reminded me of the Sharptooth chase sequences from The Land Before Time, then you made the reference yourself at the end.

    This really is a charming, atmospheric and beautiful book. I'd love a copy myself now.

  2. There are college graduates who were born in 1990. I think we can call it "vintage" now. (Not that I'm happy about it.)

  3. Apart from the model of the bed, that WAS my room in the 80's!!! I had both those pieces on my wall (though the Knight one was a small part of a larger composite info type poster)!!!

    I had the giant Zillanger diarama on my wall until my parents moved out of that house in 05. Sadly it was damaged in the move and we had to throw it out.

  4. Oh my goodness. This is the cutest little book, I adore the illustrations! I gotta find a copy somewhere!

  5. Those are gorgeously illustrated, I love the lighting. Nolan has made all of the rocks quite muted, which does push the subject into the foreground, but also gives the impression that he ran out of time detailing Wilbur and Gideon or he just doesn't find rocks very interesting.

    I always wonder how much leeway we should give non-palaeo artists, especially when illustrating fiction. They can't pop down to the local zoo or grab a coffee table book of photos to see what an Apatosaurus looked like. If their only references are Knight and Zallinger, you're going to get tubby, elephant-footed sauropods (at least they're not waist-deep in water so you can see actually see their feet).

    However, the bottom of that Apatosaur's foot in the 2nd last pic looks like what you'd see if you turned a plastic model upside-down. Rexy's legs and orientation are also strongly reminiscent of John Sibbick's work, particularly from The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Dinosaurs.

    1. I can't believe I didn't recognize it sooner, but you're right. It looks like the Daspletosaurus.

    2. Yeah, that was a real forehead-slapping moment for me too! It makes sense, because the silhouettes on the 'Time Chart' later in the book are highly reminiscent of those in Norman's Illustrated Encyclopedia.

    3. My forehead-slapping moment is only now occurring to me after you've all mentioned it. Which only betrays, for the Nth time, my deteriorating brain.

  6. Wow. Those pages are beautiful! How had I never read (or even heard of) this book?

    As a child of the 80s/90s (born in 81, classify that however you'd like), I actually had that exact Zallinger poster in the exact same spot above my bed.

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