Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Vintage Dinosaur Art: Let me tell you about...Dinosaurs

Dinosaur books aimed at children haven't changed much over the last few decades, even as dinosaur science has gained a terrifying, unstoppable momentum, like a Dalek rolling down a mountain. Let me tell you about...Dinosaurs is from 1983 (with this edition arriving in 1985), but you'll find its haphazard mix of slightly iffy anatomy and flagrant copying in a great many books that occupy a small niche in kids' bookshops around the world today. What's more, many such modern books are completely bloody uncredited, and so is LmtyaD. It's especially annoying as it would appear that a number of illustrators worked on LmtyaD, and some were, shall we say, rather more accomplished than the others.

The illustrations on the cover, for example, are actually pretty good from a purely artistic perspective; the shading and texturing, in particular, are rather impressive. Of course, the animals themselves are pretty bizarre - just check out zombie-hands Droopy the T. rex, and the Triceratops with legs that don't seem to have any muscles...or joints. The Apatosaurus, meanwhile, is the typical hump-backed Discount Value Pack Sauropod. It's a decent indicator of what's to come.

I'm rather fond of the work of one particular artist in LmtyaD; Niroot, too, has expressed a liking, and you definitely should listen to him, 'cos he's a professional artist and everything. The artist - let's chauvinistically presume they're male and name them Jambo van de Apenheul - makes excellent use of a deceptively diverse earthy colour palette and achieves some quite lovely, subtle patterning and texturing. Of course, he also draws Barney-like tyrannosaurs with tiny heads, which are a little distracting, but one can't help but feel that van de Apenheul could have made a very decent dinosaur artist, if only he'd had the right guidance.

Van de Apenheul is clearly also behind this illustration of Melanorosaurus, here mislabelled as Melanosaurus (which was actually a lizard, or so says Wikipedia - and who am I to question Wikipedia?). The slightly later Fabrosaurus, another one of those genera based on teeth that palaeontologists just love to spend all of their spare time sorting out, is shown to demonstrate how greatly even early dinosaurs could contrast in size. Unlike Melanorosaurus, poor Fabrosaurus is even dwarfed by its own name. The basal sauropodomorph is considerably less chunky and advanced-looking when shown in art these days, but hey, at least it's out there on the land. Quite unlike...

....this unfortunate brachiosaur, who seems to have wandered out to sea by accident. That's what having a tiny brain will do for you.

Back on the beach, and this depiction of Ornitholestes illustrates the pitfalls of combining copies of different artists' versions of the same animal. The animal in the background appears to be based on Giovanni Caselli's bird-nabber (itself a riff on Charles R Knight's original), while the individual in the middleground is based on Bernard Robinson's work. Consequently, they look like different species, with the Caselli-like creature sporting (more accurately) a smaller head and a reduced 'thumb' on its hand, while the Robinson-esque animal has more obvious lizardly 'lips' and a rather derisory expression on its face.

About halfway through the book, the artwork takes something of a turn for the worse - certainly in terms of depicting believable-looking creatures. Although T. rex isn't described as the bumbling silent movie comedian of some early '80s books, the artwork doesn't do the 'King of the Tyrant Lizards' too many favours; the above image could be a poster for Attack of the Killer Granny Smiths from Outer Space. Still, perspective is tricky when you have limited access to 3D references, and at least its head is the right sort of shape, and doesn't resemble a rubbery Halloween mask.

Oh boy. Hey, is anyone else reminded of one of those full-body dinosaur costumes, in which the wearer's polyester-wrapped legs are distractingly visible? Well, if the toothy front end isn't being waggled in your face, of course.

In a similar vein...ah, I love retro ankylosaurs, and this Euoplocephalus (formerly known as Ankylosaurus...wait, what!?) is simply a magnificent example; a sceptical-looking armadillo with barely-there legs and a tail terminating in an oven mitt. Meanwhile, Palaeoscincus (i.e. Edmontonia) is particularly cross, having lost the majority of its tail - which I'm quite sure has absolutely nothing to do with the fact that the tail was hidden behind another animal in Caselli's illustration.

Just as bizarre is this tottering Compsognathus, which resembles the bastard offspring of a hen and Dale Russell's 'Dinosauroid' (the tail was shortened during adolescence, you see) - rather fitting, given that a hen is mentioned in the text. The style is somewhat Caselli-esque here, too, with the thoroughly disgruntled face resembling that on Caselli's Compsognathus "corallestris". Thankfully, the flipper hands were left in the '70s, where they belong.

And finally...the anonymous author is having no truck with your reprehensibly unscientific questions. Every fossil find, from a 75% complete skeleton of Spinosaurus with preserved gut contents and eggs containing dainty spinosaur embryos, down to a tiny ammonite that's fallen from a Dorset cliff into someone's ice cream cone, is exciting to somebody.

Pffft. Cop-out. Bernard Robinson-esque Allosaurus is not impressed.

Many thanks to Adam S Smith for letting me borrow this book, a childhood favourite of his (although he nevertheless brought the disparity in illustration quality to my attention). Adam's a palaeontologist with a particular affinity for plesiosaurs and other marine reptiles. Check out his Plesiosaur Directory website and, of course, the Dinosaur Toy Blog.


  1. Ah, the memories. Great overview too. I remember being disappointed with the artwork later in the book, though there's a rather nice painting on the inside back cover, if I recall correctly.

  2. Replies
    1. Victoria, I first read that as 'those dear ankylosaurs', which made me laugh.

  3. Mooi naam, Jambo van de Apenheul. Wie heeft dat verzonnen?

    1. Jambo is the name of the silverback at the Apenheul zoo in Apeldoorn. I'm not trying to infer anything with that choice, it's just a silly name!

    2. Oh yes, I should also mention that I know that Jambo is 'hello' in Swahili. Seems like it's a popular name for gorillas.

  4. I see a lot of Burian in that Dimorphodon! And a lot of Godzilla in the Tyrannosaurus profile; I'm just waiting for the atom-ray!

  5. I think that *Ornitholestes* in the foreground, munching the carcass, owes a lot to and early John Sibbick piece depicting an *Allosaurus* next to a carcass, while some *Ornitholestes* eat from the scraps it's left.
    I'm also reminded of his carcass-eating *Albertosaurus* in 'The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Dinosaurs' in terms of posture and behaviour.

  6. That's one chubby Dimorphodon on the cover. By contrast, the Apatosaurus is so lean, it might be a hunchbacked Diplodocus. Is this animal depicted the same inside? Strikes me as odd in books of that time.

  7. This is the book I mentioned in another recent post called "All About...Dinosaurs." I guess the one you have posted was the original title and the one I got as a child was revised. Seems to be exactly the same. I do think the posturing of a lot of the dinos in this book are excellent and yes there are different artists seemingly spread across this one. I think I noticed that as a kid and some of them seemed to be sweating profusely while others seem to be cooler to the core. Definitely more science-fiction than facts in the book, but it was the book I loved. A few years later my brother who is 7 years younger than me decided to outline a dinosaur or two with a black marker. I happen to buy another version of the book years later from amazon. This time with a light blue background. I think they had a lot of these books printed in the 80's.


Trolls get baleted.