Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Vintage Dinosaur Art: Spotter's Guide to Dinosaurs

Originally from 1980 (with this edition arriving in 1985), the Spotter's Guide to Dinosaurs & other prehistoric animals (always important to tack on those...others) from erstwhile publishing outfit Usborne is nothing if not typical of its time...with a few twists. For you see, even in the most outwardly generic of dinosaur-a-long compendiums, there's inevitably a creature or two that the artist had a particularly quirky take on.

In the case of the Spotter's Guide, it's most definitely pterosaurs. Sticking out like King Tut's dessicated thumb from an assortment of fairly dull, Bernard Robinson-inspired dinosaurs (and a lizard, or something), illustrator Bob Hersey's terrifying Zombiedactylus is an alarming hint of things to come inside. (I do like the Triceratops' displeased expression, too. D'awww.)

Of course, you'll find plenty of the more conventional in this book. It is perhaps unsurprising that this Iguanodon is actually rather good for its time - after all, David Norman is credited as the author (or possibly just's not made clear). There is something awfully peculiar going on with that pinkie, however. While everyone knows that the thumb spike evolved in order to resolve gladiatorial duels between lesser dinosaurs, whatever does the animal plan on doing with that thing? It doesn't bear thinking about.

The book's sauropods are a little more strange, but certainly not exceptional for 1980. As per contemporary rules governing the depiction of dinosaurs in popular media, Apatosaurus is a fatter, shorter-tailed version of Diplodocus, and was formerly known as Brontosaurus (which is sorta true, but not really). Meanwhile, Brachiosaurus appears quite resplendent, and without a murky swamp in sight, even if there's still something a little uncanny about its wrinkle-tastic, shiny-headed appearance.

Now this is more like it! Until far too recently, it was standard practice to depict all large theropod dinosaurs as being almost exactly the same, albeit with one or two distinguishing features to make it (somewhat) clear which genus was being depicted. Credit is due to Hersey for bothering to stick lacrimal horns on his Allosaurus, and for not making Megalosaurus a Neave Parker-style hunchback. However, the ultra-'70s inexplicably quadrupedal Spinosaurus and chunky, 'carnosaur' Dilophosaurus are rather laughable these days. This is particularly true of the latter, as its famous head crests appear to be attached to its neck.

Naturally, Tyrannosaurus receives a page to itself (discounting that Tarbosaurus skull), and is depicted as a gloriously tubby, limb-chewing leviathan, some 14 metres long (a minor overestimate repeated in Dinosaurs! - suffice it to say that, as a child, when books gave the length of Tyrannosaurus as a mere 12 metres, I got quite upset). Of course, the tendency for tyrannosaurs to pose triumphantly over often nondescript carcasses is known from heraldic emblems and coinage found just below the K/Pg boundary.

The Spotter's Guide also features a reasonable selection of small theropods, and rather presciently includes Deinocheirus under the coelurosaur banner, in spite of its huge size. While wisely opting to depict Deinocheirus as a disembodied pair of arms, thereby avoiding a speculative restoration that could prove to be disastrously wrong in the future, this spread nevertheless features one of the most bafflingly wrong illustrations of Velociraptor ever included in a serious, factual book. Sure, the long, low head is on the money, but where's the sickle claw? Why the tiny, feeble hands and fat tail? You've drawn a reasonable enough Bakkerian Deinonychus right there! Gah!

Of course, if you've been knocking around this blog for a couple of years, you may well remember seeing old Veloci-wrong reach the semi-final rounds in my needlessly cruel Terrible '90s [ish] Dromaeosaur Face-Off. I was a real meanie back then.

I do love the fiery colouration of the Sauronithoides here. As can be gleaned from '80s and '90s palaeoart, Saurornithoides had a crazy-eyed hatred for tiny mammals, like some sort of saurian exterminator. While Saurornithoides and the other animals depicted here would be suitably fluffinated in a modern book, there's only one place to see a feathered dinosaur in 1985...

...and that's on the Archaeopteryx page, naturally. Although the Berlin specimen has been quite beautifully drawn, the life restorations are of the primaries-attached-to-the-wrist, Sparkleraptor variety. The splayed 'roadkill' legs on the trunk-climbing beast are also a little disconcerting. Here, the text takes a turn for the cocksure - "Modern birds evolved from it," indeed! I suppose they ran out of space to clarify...

Among all the dinosaur groups in this book, ankylosaurs are perhaps among the most unrecognisable when compared with modern depictions. The illustrations here harken back to a time when these animals were very poorly understood, and often restored as turtle-like, sprawling, short-tailed, no-necked monstrosities with weirdly mammalian heads. This particularly applies to poor old Euoplocephalus and Ankylosaurus. The Scelidosaurus here appears to have been inspired by a model still on show in London's Natural History Museum, and is considerably less spiky than it would be today. Bizarre as these fellows are, though, I've saved the best until last.

Over the years, pterosaurs have frequently had something of an image problem. Described here as "fragile", the books of my youth (and the preceding decades) often depicted them as sickly-looking beasties with paper-thin wing membranes rendered useless by the slightest damage. They seemed less like a spectacular and highly successful group of flying animals completely unlike anything we have today, and more like Evolution's Cruellest Mistake, doomed to be superseded by the vastly superior dinosaurs as soon as the latter could be bothered to evolve feathers and take to the skies.

Perhaps the nadir of this sort of thinking is in illustrations like these, which depict animals that appear to lack any musculature or internal organs whatsoever. Now, let's be fair; William Stout did it, and he was one of the most important and influential palaeoartists of the era. However, that doesn't stop these zombie-pterosaurs from being utterly terrifying. Equally terrifying is the pin-headed, nightmarish Quetzalcoatlus, identified as the 'Texas Pterosaur', although given that it hadn't even been named yet such inaccuracies can probably be forgiven. Its appearance here is also noteworthy as a very early one in a popular book.

Flying back to Bald Mountain.

I may well end up returning to the Spotter's Guide in future - there are plenty more old-timey illustrations to gawp at yet. Next week, however, I'm moving on to something rather different...and just as scary. Do stick around!


  1. I wonder if we may make 'fluffinated' as popular a term as Jaime Headden's 'enfluffened' yet.

  2. D'awww, that T. rex on the cover has the same expression as my neighbour's dog when he knows he's about to get a treat.

  3. Thanks Marc. Definitely some horrors there.

    The dinos in the first few pics (all before p30) are cribs of John Sibbick's work that appeared in Norman's The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Dinosaurs. However, I think that settles the question of identity regarding this from an earlier post.

    That Ceratosaurus would have had great trouble seeing where it was walking with those antorbital bollards blocking the view. They look like they would have been perfect for mounting and securing spectacles, since pince-nez are impractical with such a wide snout and ear-arms are never going to work. Unfortunately, according to the history book from which Marc sourced the Late Cretaceous coinage information, optically suitable glass wasn't manufactured until the Barremian, some 20my after the last Ceratosaurus fell in to one of those deep-sided lakes that the sauropods lived in.

    A certain DP would prob be pleased to see Podopteryx included with the pterosaurs, given his er... non-standard perspective.

    1. "The dinos in the first few pics (all before p30) are cribs of John Sibbick's work that appeared in Norman's The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Dinosaurs"

      ...I'm not sure that they are. Granted, they could have been inserted for the 1985 edition, but otherwise this book predates the Illustrated Encyclopedia. There's a chance that Sibbick and this artist were cribbing from some other source. (He was known to do so back then!)

    2. Sorry, I should have been clearer. I wasn't implying that Hersey had necessarily copied from the Encyclopedia itself, merely from the work. Perhaps, as Norman was author/consultant, he had access to Sibbick's work prior to publication in the Encyclopedia?

      However, I've since had a look at various editions of the Spotter's Guide, and they all seem to have different artwork. So, it's at least possible that the 1985 edition had it's illustrations updated with Sibbick cribs.

      Also, notwithstanding what you say about Sibbick cribbing himself, I thought that the artwork in Illustrated Encyclopedia was pretty original. That Dilophosaurus pose is a bit of a standout and I don't think I've seen it anywhere else, other than Sibbick knockoffs, of course. Am happy to be corrected if I'm mistaken (in fact, pls do).

    3. I remember Darren Naish pointing out that Sibbick's rearing Saltasaurus echoed an earlier Mark Hallett piece, although I haven't seen any obvious forebears for his theropods (other than the Deinonychus with obligatory wattle, perhaps), so that's fair enough.

      As for this book cribbing Sibbick, I can see a resemblance, but it's not as strong as in some of the more blatant Sibbick copies.

  4. That Quetzalcoatlus is pretty cool looking, in it's own way...

    As for Velociraptor, this must have been a common issue back then. I don't think I know it was at all associated with Deinonychus until around the time JP came out. I always thought of it as the generic coelurosaur fighting Protoceratops, the same way Ornitholestes was the generic coelurosaur always chasing Archaeopteryx.

    The idea of Dromaeosaurus as a unified group of Deinonychus like critters must not have permeated pop culture until shortly before or even because of JP.


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