Monday, May 20, 2013

Vintage Dinosaur Art: Dinosaurs (a Little Golden Book)

After so many trips back to the '80s and '90s, it's good to return to a book that's properly vintage. Dinosaurs was number 355 in the impressively diverse Little Golden Book series from Golden Press of New York, and was published in 1959. It was a simpler time, when a kids' dinosaur book could be purchased for a mere 25 cents, and palaeoart consisted of lush forests, erupting volcanoes, and giant lizards...all too literally.

For you see, while the illustrator William de J. Rutherfoord was clearly an immensely talented individual - just take a gander at the beautifully painted cover art, with its murky, ashen sky and vibrant, surprisingly dynamic dinosaurs - he was a little prone to quite literally applying lizards' heads to dinosaurs' bodies. The cover provides one such illustration, with the noggin of a slightly perturbed-looking small lizard grafted atop the body of a generic sauropod. It looks bizarre to say the least, especially given that the chasing tyrannosaur appears to have the head of, you know, a tyrannosaur. The anatomical mash-up makes the book an entertaining read, though, as you can never quite be sure when a lizard-headed beastie will pop up next.

In the tradition of countless dinosaur books before and since, the reader is taken on a (mostly) chronologically ordered trip through the ages, with illustrations of and snippets of text on the various animals to be found at different points in Earth's history. As such, the crocodylomorph Saltoposuchus makes an appearance early on - slightly ill-proportioned, but with lovely skin textures and patterns. For whatever reason, it's depicted standing next to the much later dinosaur Compsognathus, itself sporting a shrunken head and extra lizardy digits; it may be that the illustrator intended the animal to be Procompsognathus, but it ended up mislabelled. Regardless, these are very conventional depictions for the time, which makes what follows all the more baffling...

Now, prior to the Dinosaur Renaissance, artists had a habit of interpreting dinosaurs' anatomy somewhat...loosely. Not only were the dinosaurs' obviously mightily muscular limbs reduced to weedy stilts propping up exaggeratedly blobby frames, but features like skulls were often smoothed over or their shapes changed in order to be closer to living reptiles, and in particular lizards like monitors. In this sense, Rutherfoord's approach can be seen as a particularly extreme example of an artistic convention, but...really? An iguana? For Allosaurus? Really!?! As already noted with the cover, what's strangest of all is the lack of consistency - even in the very same illustration, as the wonderfully knobbly Stegosaurus is entirely normal (even rather good) by contemporary standards. On the other hand, images like this wouldn't be so fantastically bizarre if Rutherfoord wasn't so good at painting, well, lizards - it's the realism evident in the iguana head that makes this image all the more amusing.

Continuing with the theme, we see here two suspiciously serpentine sauropods - the Diplodocus in particular looks like a snake that's swallowed a decapitated elephant. That said, the vibrant skin patterns - at a time when sauropods were inevitably depicted as dull in every sense - are a very welcome change from the norm, and really help enliven this otherwise quite static (and somewhat familiar-looking) scene. And speaking of the familiar-looking...

It's good ol' snorkelling Brachiosaurus again, here described as having the evasive habits of a cartoon ostrich - again, though, the bright-green-with-yellow-stripes look is just fabulous. Darling. I can't help but feel that an opportunity was missed for a rhyme here...
There was Brachiosaurus, biggest of all.
Massed fifty tons and was forty feet tall!
But he couldn't run. He couldn't fight.
Instead he went waltzing, all thro' the night.
Or, you know. Something like that.

Entering the Cretaceous, we encounter the usual suspects, all of which look rather conventional - there's a none-too-shabby Triceratops, an ever-so-slightly creepy "Trachodon" (and yet certainly nowhere near as creepy as it could be), and a gleaming Struthiomimus being impolitely hassled by the only large pterosaur that anyone knew about until the 1980s, Pteranodon.

Tyrannosaurus rex killed small animals for fun,
Not unlike an old man wearing tweed with a gun.
But thwarting his plans with a wry little smile,
Was Ankylosaurus, who went clubbing with style.

I'm so sorry. But Sexy Rexy's appearances in this book really are marvellous. Just as the coolest action movie stars walk calmly away from the searing heat and eardrum-threatening sound of dramatic explosions, so the awesomeness of T. rex is emphasised by its standing proudly, resplendent with its glowing yellow head, in front of a very violently erupting volcano. But, glorious though it is, such an illustration is not enough to firmly establish the animal's infamous belligerence. Fortunately, then, Rutherfoord provides another T. rex showcase.

What this plesiosaur was doing on land is anyone's guess - and so far from the sea! - but T. rex is having none of it. Yes, I know, it was once thought that plesiosaurs might have come on to land to lay their eggs etc. etc., but to modern eyes this image is still fantastically deranged-looking. It has a faint 19th century air about it - it's reminiscent of those early etchings in which Iguanodon and Megalosaurus cheekily grabbed each other by the rump, and plesiosaurs and mosasaurs had bloody, eye-gouging battles out in the surf while bat-winged pterosaurs watched. The only way this could possibly have been improved would be if T. rex were to have the head of a bearded dragon. I suppose this will have to do.

Plesiosaur fans will be happy to learn that their favourite sauropterygians aren't just unlikely tyrannosaur fodder in the Little Golden Book - they also get to happily splash about and, er, bask on the grass. The water is beautiful - Rutherfoord has clearly taken great care over the reflections on the gentle waves and the wake and splash left behind by the elasmosaur and ichthyosaur, respectively. I'm also very fond of the unusual python-like colouring of the smaller plesiosaurs...although perhaps not the python heads. The text, meanwhile, is rather rude about our saurian friends. Tiny brains? Whenever did that matter...?

Don't you hate it when you head out for a picnic close to your favourite spot in your home town  - next to the river, with a picturesque view of the hills and the old willow trees - only for it to be spoiled by a group of phantom dinosaurs? The last thing you need on your day off is to be swatting at the ghostly noggin of some dino-geist as it vainly attempts to swipe the pastries from your pick-er-nick basket. In all seriousness, though, this is a wonderful image - show this to a kid, and after they've pointed out how outdated the restorations are because all kids these days are such precocious know-it-alls, damn them, they'll be entranced. It's an enchanting way to link the present with the distant past, to connect the vanished Mesozoic with the now - after all, both we and the dinosaurs are part of the history of life on Earth, and one day we'll be as utterly dead as they are (er, except birds, of course). 


After my usual Facebook preview, many readers expressed how fondly they remembered this book from their childhoods. Among them was Terry N Thielen, who received it as a Christmas present back in 1984...

Thanks Terry!


  1. 'Diplodocus in particular looks like a snake that's swallowed a decapitated elephant'

    I was reminded instantly of the famous quotation and illustration of 'a boa constrictor digesting an elephant' from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's The Little Prince.

  2. Oh my word, I remember this book. So good.

  3. Niroot, same here! While I agree that Rutherfoord has apparently mostly grafted (quite nice) lizard heads onto dino bodies, the Diplodocus and Elasmosaurus both seem to have the front half of a boid sticking out of their shoulders. Perhaps Rutherfoord took the "snake threaded through a turtle" description literally?

    When I saw the top of the third pic I thought it was going to be Iguanodon so I was a bit surprised to see it had such big claws. I think that the stance is still reminiscent of some depictions of Iguanodon. And the Allosaurus leaping on the plesiosaur looks a bit like Zallinger's Allo attacking "Bronto".

    Lastly, just what is that Diplodocus doing in the fourth pic? I believe the answer, when added together, is "number threes".

    1. 'Lastly, just what is that Diplodocus doing in the fourth pic? I believe the answer, when added together, is "number threes".'

      Oh, good grief. I of course saw that a previous owner had scribbled on the page, but I hadn't tweaked at just what they were scribbling.

    2. We can thank previous owner 'Billy B' for that one.

  4. Did anyone notice how the Trachodon looks like a Baryonyx?

    1. Funny you should say that. Back in...ooh...1992 or so, I bought a Trachodon postcard believing it to represent Baryonyx. It was one of a series of (even for that time) very old fashioned diorama shots.

  5. "I'm also very fond of the unusual python-like colouring of the smaller plesiosaurs...although perhaps not the python heads."

    Actually, they seem to be a perfect match for grass snakes both coloring-wise & head-wise ( ).

    "The text, meanwhile, is rather rude about our saurian friends. Tiny brains? Whenever did that matter...?"

    I concur, although it's nothing new for pre-renaissance children's dino books.

  6. It's a little unsettling that I can recognise precisely which extant squamates inspired the head shape and coloration of many of the animals here.

    Saltoposuchus: Ocellated lizard (Timon lepidus)
    Compsognathus: Chinese crocodile lizard (Shinisaurus crocodilurus)
    Allosaurus's head reminds me of a sailfin lizard (Hydrosaurus sp.)
    Diplodocus looks like a stretched-out Wagler's pit viper (Tropidolaemus wagleri)
    I can't figure out the exact species that inspired the Brontosaurus, but there's something rather skink-like about it.
    Tyrannosaurus colour scheme seems to be based on a northern caiman lizard (Dracaena guianensis).
    And as Hadiaz mentioned, the plesiosaurs have the heads and coloration of grass snakes (Natrix natrix).

  7. This was my first dinosaur book as a kid - I probably have read it (and before that had it read to me) more than any other book in my life!

  8. This was the very first book about dinosaurs I ever had. I remembered iguana-like depictions of dinosaurs in a book I had as a child, and I still think of them. I could not remember the actual book, since I was four years old when I got it in 1973. How long I have waited to see these images here. If you guys couldn't find and publish them, I doubt anybody else would. Thank you.

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  10. A little back I found the cover of this book in a rummage store. Only the cover, and it had been altered to read "DINOSAUR DANCE PARTY", which totally matches the dinos' poses. I bought it for $1. It's on display on top of one of my bookcases at home.

  11. I had that book when I was four years old

  12. Is the whole odd bit about sauropods having multiple brains actually still scientific consensus? I remember blindly accepting this as a child, but damn if that shit isn't weird as hell to me now.

  13. Loved this book as a kid. Plus Deinonychus the Terrible Claw by Beverlyy Halstead.

  14. Thanks...I had that one and just remembered it. :)


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