Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Vintage Dinosaur Art: Prehistoric Animals and Fossils

Another Ladybird book! I have a particular affinity for Ladybird's numerous and varied dainty hardback books, as I had a collection of them as a child (some of them inherited, which made them extra special). Prehistoric Animals and Fossils is a 1974 title from Series 651(!), which was dedicated to natural history. It may run the gamut from the Palaeozoic to the last Ice Age, but it's the Mesozoic fauna we're most interested in, and fortunately there's a pretty decent amount of it.

In fact, the cover is dominated by two duelling dinosaurs, which appear to be Styracosaurus and a tyrannosaur of some sort. It's a bit of an odd choice, as many of the illustrations inside - by Robert Ayton - depict much more active, exciting-looking animals. These two look like they're going through the motions, although you've got to admire a tyrannosaur that won't let go even when it's been stabbed in the nether regions. There's also a 'wings...but with hands!' Archaeopteryx. On the other, er, hand, you've got to admire the beautifully detailed fossil sea creatures.

Since it's not, lest we forget, all about dinosaurs looking all mean and cool and stabbing each other with the blood and guts, this book also features a fair amount on geology and palaeontology, both the scientific and hobbyist sides. Hence, an image of a theropod running at full pelt is juxtaposed with a fossil trackway in the modern day. The animal's depiction owes much to Neave Parker's hugely influential Megalosaurus illustration, from its peculiar hunchback (don't think too much about how the neck and shoulders work's a bit mind-blowing) to its equally odd, but quite adorable, tiny hands with four little piggies. Nevertheless, this is notable for showing an animal with powerful thigh muscles travelling in a real hurry, its tail well clear of the ground - pointing away from the ground, in fact.

Now, I know what you're thinking and, yes, the text does explain that Dimetrodon and Stegosaurus did not live at the same time. It's still a fun scene, particularly as the Stegosaurus is providing a perfect comedy reaction. He's like, "Woah, what!?!" Again, the rearing posture is surprisingly active, and provides a wonderful contrast to all those pre-Renaissance illustrations in which it appears as if the stegosaur is pushing its head through the dirt in front of it.

There are some illustrations in this book that are more akin to what one might typically expect; namely, dinosaurs standing around, looking like fat toads with monster overfed python tails, and generally being a bit brown and dull. At least Styracosaurus is sedately munching plants here, rather than goring someone in the privates. Polacanthus is notably sporting its old-school, Neave Parker-esque armour configuration, which prevailed well into the '90s.

It's inevitable that Tyrannosaurus will show up at some point, so here it is, battling Triceratops amidst a wonderfully energetic swirl of colour. While T. rex, rather oddly, resembles a slightly modified version of the earlier megalosaur-beast, I am still very fond of this illustration - there's a real energy to it, and the sparring animals appear convincingly engaged in battle, rather than the ceratopsian being launched at a tyrannosaur standing on one leg while pulling up the edges of its frilly skirt and shrieking. There's also a sauropod (and its skeleton), inevitably identified as "Brontosaurus". It's a bit boring, though, so never mind that. Look, marine reptiles!

If you're not going to have a mosasaur and a plesiosaur fighting then, well, what's the point of your prehistoric animal book? Again, there's a wonderful energy and fury about this scene, with the mosasaur (complete with fancy frilly bits) lunging ferociously at its preposterously long-necked foe. The foaming, churning sea is excellently painted. According to the book's caption, the calm-looking ichthyosaur is 'awaiting results', presumably because it has £10 on the mosasaur down at Ladbrokes.

I mentioned the book's hobbyist bent earlier, and here it encourages the hoarding of specimens in your private collection, where you can keep them away from the grubby hands of the scientific community and gloat like a palaeontological Scrooge McDuck. (I'm kidding, of course - it's just suggesting that the reader make a nice display of the bits and pieces they find on holiday in the West Country). I remember reading this book as a child and being suitably inspired; at one point, I did indeed have my favourite specimens on show with corresponding informative labels (although most of mine were obtained from such places as the gift shop in Wisbech Museum). It's a charming picture in a genteel sort of way. For crying out loud, though, please don't go thinking that all museum curators are the genteel sort, should you meet any...

In a similar vein, here we see two people in appropriate period dress assembling a brontosaur diorama. Model dinosaurs being a particular love of mine, this is one of my favourite illustrations in the book; being beautifully painted doesn't do it any harm, either. This illustration accompanies a page suggesting that the reader set up a 'fossil club' with some of their fourth-form school chums, what ho. Actually, that's not fair - it's the way that this book completely avoids patronising its young audience that makes it so charming and inspiring. There's the sense that this is a world that you could be part of, even if you're only knee high to a grasshopper.

And's Leonardo da Vinci.

Many thanks to Dominic Murray for letting me borrow this one! You're the best. I'll send you a nice card.


  1. What dinosaur book isn't complete without a sketch of da Vinci agog over a fossil?? ;)

    1. I'm almost tempted to declare it the best part of this book! And I'm being perfectly sincere, too.

    2. I can't recall anything similar in any other book - children's or otherwise.

  2. Thanks Marc! Another nice selection.

    These are mostly what I call "mammal-toads" altho' most of them are otherwise quite nicely drawn. The head of the unidentified tyrannosaurid on the cover appears particularly dog-like, albeit one without ears. It also admirably demonstrates what would happen if a large theropod was to stand with its legs that far apart; "Oops, there goes my femur popping out again".

    I also like the beaten up look of the Dimetrodon's sail, something to be expected due to it surviving an additional 120 my.

    I'm assuming that the book doesn't name the mosasaur but it looks like how Tylosaurus was often depicted. Have to award points for the posterially displaced nostrils though.

  3. It's a little known fact that later ceratopians were specifically evolved to stab tyrannosaurs in the groin (three-horned species developed the additional ability to stab both the victim's kidneys, too). This made them the apex predators of late cretaceous north america. A vistorious Triceratops would often carry the fallen tyrannosaur on its back for days, both as a trophy and adding the specific taste and easier digestability of a freshly rotting theropod corpse.

  4. I also have a feeling that the Archaeopteryx "wings ... but hands!" meme is not reflected inside the book itself ...

    1. This is true, but only because there is no illustration of Archaeopteryx inside the book! A paragraph on the animal refers the reader to the cover illustration.

    2. *slaps forehead* Confusing it with the other Ladybird book ...

  5. "rather than the ceratopsian being launched at a tyrannosaur standing on one leg while pulling up the edges of its frilly skirt and shrieking."

    Are you referring to the T.rex/Torosaurus fight scene in "Dinosaurs - A Picture Dictionary"?

    "namely, dinosaurs standing around, looking like fat toads with monster overfed python tails, and generally being a bit brown and dull."

    That reminds me of Arthur Conan Doyle's "The Lost World" (which describes the large theropod's face as "broad, squat, toad-like").

    "This illustration accompanies a page suggesting that the reader set up a 'fossil club' with some of their fourth-form school chums, what ho."

    What does "fourth-form" mean?

    "And's Leonardo da Vinci."

    What did it say about Leonardo da Vinci? I'm especially curious b/c I've only see him mentioned once in reference to anything dino-related ( ).

    1. 1) I'm referring to a few illustrations, including one by Bernard Robinson that appeared in Dinosaurs!, and another that appeared in Album of Dinosaurs - they always show the T. rex up one leg.
      2) That's interesting, I haven't read the book myself.
      3) It's an old-fashioned way of saying a certain school grade.
      4) It doesn't say very much at all, other than he might have expressed some interest in fossils. It's part of the usual explanation of how people found fossils hundreds of years ago, but didn't recognise what they truly were.

    2. "2) That's interesting, I haven't read the book myself."

      An adult dino-fan who hasn't read Arthur Conan Doyle's "The Lost World"? That's crazy talk! Seriously, though, I recommend reading it at least once. It's been a while, but I remember it being good, although keep in mind that it's definitely a book of its time (if you know what I mean).

    3. A good reminder for me to re-read it, I think. It's been many years.


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