Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Vintage Dinosaur Art: Album of Dinosaurs - Part 1

Not every kids' dinosaur book of the early 1970s featured lumpen and entirely static mounds of flesh dotted around belching volcanoes. Album of Dinosaurs - from 1972 - is a beautifully illustrated (by Rod Ruth) and sizeable book that's absolutely dedicated to dinosaurs being exciting animals. Yes, there's a fair amount of volcanic activity and typically, er, loose interpretations of the animals' anatomy, but this is still a fantastic book for the time.


Of course, in many ways this remains a fairly conventional pre-Dino Renaissance tome - complete with such well-worn and now discredited tropes as the swamp bothering sauropod and tottering upright tyrannosaur, alongside a number of palaeoart memes that still receive the occasional airing today. However, the illustrations have an undeniably bold and lively quality that adds greatly to the impression of dinosaurs being animals worth taking a second glance at. We may still be some way away from flashy display organs (oh yes) and vibrant colour schemes, but it's undeniably engaging material.


The book starts out, naturally enough, in the Late Triassic, where a rather spindly-limbed Coelophysis is busy dashing after the lizard-like reptile Trilophosaurus. Meanwhile, the customary volcanoes are making the atmosphere resemble Beijing's on a bad day. Although this illustration depicts a distinctly active creature, the lizardy muscles remain tellingly Knightian. It's nice enough, but what one really wants from one's old-time dinosaur books is a bit of hot bronto action, and of course the Album is happy to deliver.


Now, what with it being a book that actually listened to its scientific consultants and all, the animal is correctly labelled Apatosaurus. Nostalgia isn't eschewed completely, however, as the illustration clearly depicts a chimeric 'brontosaur', complete with boxy macronarian head and twenty-milkshakes-a-day fatness. Ruth effectively emphasises the animal's great size through judicious placement of foliage and puny pterosaurs, not to mention the fact that the animal's head threatens to disappear up out of frame. The cloudless, solid yellow area of sky at the top draws further attention to the animal's mismatched fizzog. Ol' Bronto has a highly endearing facial expression, appearing rather disheartened by it all. Perhaps it's tired of all those boring, mushy aquatic plants. No one in the right minds loves gloopy plant material, which is why you should stay a good number of paces away from anyone consuming mushy peas with their fish and chips. Those dangerous lunatics...


Just as the bronto illustration makes excellent use of flora in emphasising the subject's huge size, so the Compsognathus illustration is dominated by looming vegetation that dwarfs the tiny theropod. Ruth's composition is excellent, drawing attention to the animal while also giving the foliage plenty of space in which to show off. This is also a wonderful piece for presenting the animal as part of a much larger ecosystem in a way that was quite rare at the time, while its body forms a beautiful shallow U-shape.


Of course, most of the book's illustrations are more conventional 'dinosaur book' fare, with the animals up front and centre. This feeding Allosaurus is obviously based on the famous mount in the American Museum of Natural History, as also brought to life by Charles Knight several decades prior. Noteworthy here are the suspiciously modern-looking crocodilians and grasses, and the way that Ruth has ignored Allosaurus' distinctive horns, as was the annoyingly baffling norm at the time. More positively, the hind limbs are at least nice 'n' meaty, and it's good to see an Allosaurus illustration in a book this old in which it isn't improbably sinking its teeth into the neck of a much, much larger (but of course utterly helpless) lardy sauropod. Oh, and the water looks lovely.


In fact, there aren't too many depictions in Album of Dinosaurs of giant predators having it all their own way; there seem to be rather more of 'peaceful' herbivores teaching them a thing or two about staying away from their spiny business ends. Ruth's Stegosaurus is actually rather good for the time, given its appropriately small head, upright posture and (almost) dead-on number of plates. Its scaly skin texture is also quite expertly painted, and the row of osteoderms are a pleasing touch. Its adversary, Jazz Hands Ceratosaur Guy, doesn't fare so well (hey, at least the nose horn isn't rounded). Nevertheless, this is another painting filled with gorgeous, tiny incidental details, such as the trackways and dragonfly in the bottom left.


Everyone knows that before David Norman et al came along, Iguanodon was invariably depicted standing stiffly upright, feeding from a tree, with its tail dragging limply (and impossibly) along the ground. While Ruth's illustration is indeed dominated by this rather dull and predictable stereotype - note also the obligatory wattle/dewlap that somebody, somewhere, at some point must have invented and everyone else thought was absolutely spiffing, pip pip - there's also an individual wandering along in the background with its tail in the air. In spite of its retention of the perma-flexed elbows, this Iguanodon is surely taking great strides (geddit?) towards modernity. Once again, the trees are fabulous (the background silhouettes!), and look - a cute widdle tortoise! Hope he doesn't get stepped on, or swallowed as a gastrolith.


Sexy Rexy's giving you the eye. For all its strange contortions of anatomy (that torso...what the hell?), there's something I really like about this painting - the murky green tones are suitably forbidding, while the eye is drawn immediately towards the gleaming highlights of the animal's eye and pearly whites. Ruth also realises that the key to making a predator appear sinister is not to remove all the mystery by having it charge at the viewer with its jaws agape - this is a beast that's quietly reflecting you, and clearly pondering its next move. In other words, less is often more, as John Conway recently demonstrated.


While there's a great deal to admire in this book, there's also a lot of silliness (which I hope to explore more in later posts). Ruth isn't afraid to add to the 'tyrannosaurus stooping down so that armadillo-like ankylosaurs can thump them on the noggin' canon. The Ankylosaurus is like an angry pineapple on legs (or maybe just feet), while T. rex's torso is up to its usual laterally flattened, super bendy tricks (in spite of the fact that T. rex had a ribcage like a beer keg). So gloriously retro and wrong, it's really quite adorable - and lovely trees as always.

Next time: more illustrations, including the supplementary monochrome ones, plus a few words on the often quite brilliantly dramatic text. If you thought Part 1 was a bit limp, you're probably right, and apologies. But there's more!

18 comments:

  1. One of my favorite books that I fell in love with way back in grade school. Soooo much terribly inaccurate info, but all the b/w drawings really brought them alive for me.

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  2. Charge me with being too generous about the artwork if you will, but I agree that they're gorgeous in this book, outdated aspects aside. The composition of the Compsognathus is beautiful. I agree about the T. rex too. There is something almost cinematic in its atmosphere and emerging menace.

    It suddenly occurs to me that T.rex bending down to be smacked in the head may not always be such a laughably convenient situation after all. The only way in which it could attack is with its head.

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    1. "The only way in which it could attack is with its head."

      That doesn't mean T.rex had to attack the tail end. In fact, if Tarbosaurus is any indication, T.rex could've attacked the head end (Quoting Holtz: "In fact, there is a skull of the giant ankylosaurid Tarchia with a wound that was almost certainly produced by the bite of the even larger tyrannosaurid Tarbosaurus").

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    2. No, but it doesn't mean that the ankylosaur could not have moved in the meantime either. ;) Granted it would have needed to be a pretty nimble creature. I don't know, I suppose I'm just playing devil's advocate.

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  3. I have a real soft spot for the type used on the cover.

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  4. Also, that Compsognathus deserves honorable mention in any line-up of the "bird hunting" meme.

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  5. Loved this book as a kid!! At the time it didn't bug me, but knowing the fossils now: those have to be teeny baby Trilophosaurus, since the adults are about as long as but more massive in the torso than an adult Coelophysis.

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  6. I have this book, but under the title "The Collins Book Of Dinosaurs", with a note inside reading "this edition fully revised 1978". Adored it as a kid, and still love it now. Some good moves towards modernity, as you say - I like the description of Allosaurus running with its tail stuck out behind, for instance, which is a nice step up from the older, lumbering beasties. Beautifully imagined battle between a T rex and a Triceratops too. The text is as engaging as the art. It does love its snorkelling sauropods though, I must admit!

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  7. My favorite dinosaur book as a kid. I spent countless hours trying to copy that compsognathus pic. Even as a kid of the 70s though I thought the legs were way to thin for the animal's bodies.

    My version as a kid even stated that pterosaurs had fur! oddly enough the copy I have now is a revised reprint that came out in the 1990s and it claims pterosaurs were not hairy after all. Weird how the earlier version was more accurate.

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    1. That's very strange! Although it features snorkeling sauropods and the like, the original book is remarkably up-to-date for its time.

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  8. I checked this one out of the library frequently. I'm sure that's why I always picture Tyrannosaurus under a moody, watercolor sky.

    I also adored the prehistoric mammal companion book (sometimes the two "albums" were published in one volume) which had a wolf-fighting Alticamelus and a Brontotherium looking back at an exploding volcano. The orange glow of the lava is still pretty vivid in my mind's eye.

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  9. I'm so glad I've found this blog! I LOVED dinosaurs as a kid and had a lot of fun looking through the archives, finding books from my childhood and reading the commentary :)

    This book was one of my favorites. The anatomy is a bit strange, I could see that as a child too but the artwork is quite atmospheric which is good for the imagination. The compsognathus pic was my fav, with it's unusual perspective, making those cycads look gigantic because of the unusual small size of the dino.

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    1. Thanks for reading! Although hopefully you didn't find some of the older posts by me to be TOO mean (because I think they were, in retrospect).

      I'm glad so many people are praising the Compsognathus illustration, because it's definitely one of the best, for the exact reasons you mention.

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  10. This book was one of my favorites as a kid. I checked it out of the library multiple times.

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  11. Excellent. Brought back a million memories. Thanks.

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  13. whole thing scanned here:
    http://www.idoc.co/read/74466/album-of-dinosaurs-rand-mcnally-1972

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  14. I think it was this book, along with the Field Museum, and Land Before Time, that made me a dinosaur fan. My mom would read the Spanish translations of the series (other Albums are Prehistoric animals, Reptiles, Horses Sharks, and Whale, all beautifully illustrated)

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