Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Vintage Dinosaur Art: Dinosaur Mysteries

Following the outlandish (but highly artistically accomplished) work in Dinosaurs and more Dinosaurs, we're back on more familiar ground this week, with a Dino Renaissance-flavoured title from 1980. Don't be fooled, however; the weirdness doesn't end here.

I should also take a moment to again thank Dave Hone, who let me borrow this book in addition to DamD. The impassioned talk given to me in the pub was surely worth it. [Also, stop press: David's gone and blogged about the artist before. Don't mind the repeats, please.]

So, let's not beat around the bush here - those Deinonychus have clearly picked on the wrong Iguanodon, seeing as it boasts a suspiciously carnivorous-looking maw stuck all the way up there by the title. No such chimeras appear elsewhere in the book, so why this Godzilla-like beast is featured on the cover is a bit of a mystery. Perhaps the artist, Susan Swan, had finished the top half of the illustration close to deadline, before receiving the dreaded phone call from the publisher. "Nah, forget T. rex, it's so 1970s. We want some of those scary swarming guys with the giant claws. And a dinosaur giving a thumbs-up."

The cover exemplifies the distinctive, rather unusual art style employed in the book, mostly consisting of simple, bright colours and flat washes, giving a minimal, almost naive look. A departure from this style comes in the inside cover pages, which feature the beautifully complex, shaded illustration shown above. It's reminiscent of some of William Stout's work, and is packed with easily-missed incidental details - not least the dragonflies, which are something of a motif in this book.

Far more typical is this illustration, in which a Tyrannosaurus menaces a weirdly gangly Parasaurolophus. Although rather older than T. rex, the trombone-headed one has nevertheless ended up on The King™'s menu (uh-huh) many times in art over the years - perhaps because it's more interesting to look at than boring old Edmontosaurus. Noteworthy in this painting are the lovely butterflies and white Pteranodon. White Pteranodon! Makes a change from brown, I guess.

Dinosaur Mysteries is thoroughly modern in outlook, with the text presenting dinosaurs as fleet-footed, successful animals, rather than glacially slow reptilian flesh heaps. Accordingly, the illustrations, for all their simplicity, showcase lean animals striding magnificently about with their tails held well clear of the terrain; note the horizontal T. rex in the image above, and recall that other artists were painting toddling tyrannofatties well into the 1980s. Of course, it didn't mean that Swan was shy of paying homage to the old greats - the Rexy and Triceratops up front clearly owe a lot to Charles 'Chazza' Knight.

Furthermore, there are some slightly silly memes that, like creationists on deviantArt and tiresome misogynists everywhere else, simply refuse to go away. Here we have Swan's entry into the glorious 'tyrannosaur being smacked in the face' canon; Swan manages one up on other artists by really selling the impact with a delicious (and, given the style, slightly incongruous) blood splatter.

But never mind that - I know you're all really looking at the flowers, for beneath the tough facade of every dinosaur geek is a keen botanist struggling to get out.Yes, those are some quite beautiful flowers. I'm glad you noticed.

Perhaps the most prominent examples of Dino Renaissance thinking to feature in the illustrations are the sauropods. Even if they were finally tramping about on the land, knocking over trees and making a mess of everything, the sauropods of the 1980s were often still rather slothful beasts, hauling their limp tails behind them. But not here! I really rather like the composition of this scene, with the foreground sauropod's curving shape serving to frame its fellows.

I had thought that the pink butterflies didn't really make any sense, but it turns out they did have lepidopterans back then, at least. So, hey, fabulous pink butterflies all around!

I know what you're thinking, but the truth is that, no, this isn't Psittacosaurus. It's Protoceratops. You know, the one with the enormous neck frill and cheek bones like one of Madonna's more famous undergarments. How Swan ended up painting this strange and rather shy no-necked creature is another mystery. I like to think that she only had access to old restorations of juveniles, and extrapolated from there.

The background reminds me of Charlie Chalk. I know, I'm old.

In addition to providing the most unlikely Protoceratops ever seen in palaeoart, Swan also gives us some fantastically '80s quadrupedal spinosaurs. These pin-headed lummoxes are a far cry from the modern day butchery-on-legs; truly, they just don't paint 'em like this any more (right?). I'm fond of the sun and surrounding sky in this one - an evocative atmosphere is created with just a very few, broad, carefully placed brushstrokes.

Remember Saltopus? Occasionally popping up in dinosaur books back in the day, you don't see very much of this rather obscure and poorly known animal in space year 2013. Here, Salty stands in for Syntarsus in demonstrating the crazy notion of feathered dinosaurs. That's not very scary!

There aren't very many illustrations of fuzzy Saltopus in existence, although I believe John McLoughlin (see below) also produced one. Indeed, a number of illustrations in this book appear to, er, be in debt to McLoughlin.

Other totally radical ideas on dinosaur soft tissues are featured in Dinosaur Mysteries, providing a fantastic (and quite rare) glimpse at some of the less likely ideas doing the rounds at the time. Here, we have a McLoughlin-inspired Torosaurus, its frill completely held down by flesh and rendered immobile; both Darren Naish and Trish (who is in no need of a surname) have blogged on McLoughlin's work before, so go and have a read if you haven't already.

Oh boy. Handily, and very, very unusually, this illustration is actually acknowledged as being "after G. Irons" - that'll be Gregory Irons, then. The original is featured over at TetZoo.

And finally..."It's a what? A WHAT? Look, this line's bad, I think I got it. I'm off for a beer." For the sake of fairness and in the interest of maintaining my outstanding reputation as an entirely scrupulous and reliable gent, I should point out that the text refers, correctly, to Pachycephalosaurus. It doesn't, alas, stop the caption being hilarious. If any readers have their own examples of amusingly botched dinosaur labels in old books (a long shot, I realise), do share them; I'd love to compile them. As for this one - why, it's the biggest mystery of all!


  1. Why, yes, I did notice the flowers (a Lilium, I suspect), though it as as much my being a frustrated cod-botanist as their red spattered colouring echoing that of the stricken tyrannosaur's blood in a rather curious way. One can't help but notice them, really.

  2. I think those Protoceratops were also inspired by McLoughlin. He did an illustration of on that looked very similar to the ones shown here, and the weird appearance is the result of his odd idea about muscles covering the frill, as also seen with the Torosaurus.

    And on the subject of botched dinosaur labels, I remember seeing one in the book Dinosaurs of the Southwest, where a photo of a Chasmosaurus skeleton is labeled as a Barosaurus! Not a weird misspelling, but still pretty amusing.

    1. I think you're probably right, actually, although it's still a little odd that, whereas elsewhere McLoughlin's ideas are presented under a "what if?" banner, they aren't in that particular case. In addition, other ceratopsians (like Triceratops) are shown looking a bit more 'normal'.

  3. I agree with Ian, I think the intention was to depict the Protoceratops' with McLoughlin style muscle attached frills.

    Regarding incorrect labels in books, I have seen many but none that come close to Tachycethalosaurus. Most are simple typos or a misplaced/added letter such as "Erlicosaurus", "Priveteausaurus", and "Anautosaurus" but these are no worse than have appeared in the formal literature from time to time; eg the six or more misspellings of Euoplocephalus, including "Europocephalus" and "Erroplocephalus", both by Nopcsa.

  4. The White Pteranodon is probably inspired by Burian's blue/brown Pteranodon, which has almost exactly the same posture (Zdenek Spinar & Zdenek Burian, Leven in de oertijd. Haarlem: Holland, 1978 (2nd. Dutch Ed.), p. 129).

  5. Other than the his ceratopians I did not know much about McLoughlins reconstructions before, so thanks, they're fascinating. Apparently those Parasaurolophus are his idea, too.
    Does anybody know if this is "hommaged" to anything? Because it looks a lot like a typical picture of some ornithomimids with hands and head changed to ole trumpethead.

    "No such chimeras appear elsewhere in the book"
    You sure? That Spinosaurus looks a lot like a pointy-teethed Ouranosaurus.

    So what we learned from this: Don't let Susan Swan get anywhere near your ornithopods.

  6. While it's not an old book, Barnes-Svarney/Svarney's "The Handy Dinosaur Answer Book" gets a lot of dino names wrong (E.g. In Chapter 9 alone, Dilophosaurus/Rahonavis/P.robusta/dinosaurs/coelurosaurs are referred to as Dilaphosaurus/Rahona/P.robust/dinosuars/coelurasaurs, respectively).


  7. In the first color pic of your review, the palm trees in the foreground are taken directly from the snap-tite ("Aurora") Styracosaurus model that has been around since "forever":


  8. "The most unlikely Protoceratops ever seen in palaeoart"- I've always thought that the "Baby dinosaurs" in All About Dinosaurs were much more bizarre (if they are indeed supposed to be Protoceratops)

  9. And of course, there's what's probably the most famous mispelling: "StegAsaurus", in Jurassic Park


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