Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Royal Dinostamps

If you're a Briton (like me), then you'll no doubt have heard that the Royal Mail...was privatised recently, according to Prime Directive 2 of the inordinately wealthy neoliberal androids who run the country. But don't despair! Or rather, do despair, but also pay heed to this welcome distraction. For the Royal Mail also recently issued a new set of prehistoric animal-themed stamps, illustrated by John Sibbick. There are ten to collect, each one featuring a Mesozoic creature discovered in the UK (only six of them actually feature dinosaurs).

The rather, er, mixed reaction to these stamps in Social Media Land only made me more intrigued, so off I popped to the Royal Mail website to stuff a little more cash into the foul capitalists' pockets (by which I mean, I ordered a set).

Remember, all images are copyrighted. So don't go making hipster t-shirts out of them or anything. They'll find you.
John Sibbick is one of the most respected names in palaeoart, having been on the scene for decades now, so his involvement in the stamps was promising, even if other, equally prominent artists might have lost out. Sibbick's tiny, highly intricate detailing would also seem to suit the stamp format rather well; there's an awful lot to look at within each stamp, if you're willing to squint hard enough. At the very least, it's a relief that Royal Mail didn't commission some godawul CG hackwork, the likes of which is seen on much officially-stamped NHM merchandise. From a purely artistic standpoint, each piece is really rather beautiful, with typically Sibbickian muted shades interspersed with bolder stripes and dappling.

My favourite stamp of the set by far is the Iguanodon pair, depicted bellowing away at who-knows-what; they are detailed down to the uneven edges of their beaks, with a very fetching colour scheme and row of spines. The Polacanthus is quite lovely too. In fact, it's with the non-dinosaurs in this set that things really start to go awry - I'm certainly no authority on the subject, but there's something just a bit...off about them. Just look at the stumpy dorsal fins and slightly cylindrical bodies on those ichthyosaurs...

...and then take a gander at this slightly strange-looking Ornithocheirus. I'm not really a pterosaur sorta guy, but I'm quite sure that there should at least be the hint of a keeled crest on the end of the jaws, and while the neck has been affected by foreshortening, it still appears rather too short in relation to the body. I'm not sure the wing membrane's quite right, either. Got to love that toupee, though.

Plesiosaurus, meanwhile, sports rather slender-looking flippers and a sunken forehead. In fact, all of the animals have unfashionably delineated fenestrae, which while not necessarily incorrect, lends them a slightly old-fashioned look. The Cetiosaurus further adds to this with super snorkel nostrils and (possibly) a few too many claws - nitpicks, definitely, but it seems a little odd that Sibbick would be neglecting these admittedly very tiny details. On the other hand, Megalosaurus and Baryonyx are quite well done, although I prefer the former, as its image is enlivened by a big old swinging hunk of meat, evoking Sibbick illustrations of old. I'm also very fond of the Megalosaurus' dapper colour scheme and overall chunkiness - Sibbick has always imbued his large theropods with a solid, weighty quality.

Finally, we have...these two. It's nice to see Hypsilophodon given its due, and Sibbick includes the notorious 'angry eyes' as he has always been careful to do. It seems a little strange to see Hypsilophodon restored without some speculative, Tianyulong-inspired integument these days, but this is a solid enough illustration.The Dimorphodon sports an inspired livery (complete with parrot-like tie-dye head), but seems a little bit nekkid.

While not worthy of Sibbick's best work, this is still a fairly decent set, by and large, and not as bad as all that (certainly not as bad as it might have been). Nevertheless, one can't help but be struck by how conservative these stamps seem. The choice of animals - which almost certainly wasn't down to the artist - is very predictable. With the exception of Baryonyx, the same set of beasties could have graced stamps released 50 years ago or even more, while the palaeoart style is reminiscent of (admittedly the best) 1990s work. The failure to include, for example, a fuzzy Eotyrannus - which might have surprised audiences - seems like something of a missed opportunity.

All the same, they'd definitely be a nice touch when posting birthday cards/threatening letters to any dinosaur-inclined friends/enemies, but I wouldn't rush out and buy a set. Especially as you'd effectively be endorsing the wholesale privatisation of formerly public services, sort of. Don't encourage them!


  1. Those Pterosaurs look like they flew straight out of The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Pterosaurs from 1991, I bet that Dimorphodon will engage in a spot of bipedal running after landing.

  2. Time for Deutsche Post to do a corresponding one with German dinosaurs. Sciurumimus and Archaeopteryx would take care of all the nakedness in no time ;-)

    As for my darlings, the pterosaurs: Ornithocheirus seems to be missing its pteroids and holding its head really awkwardly. Dimorphodon's hindwings are... interesting, I've never seen them done this way, anchoring to a toe. Anybody having any idea if that is even possible? The colour on that one is lovely, though.

    1. In Pterosaurs by Mark Witton, there's a diagram of a Rhamphorynchus, I think, with membrane attached to the toes. In the diagram, though, it seems to be attaching much further back on the tail than it is in the Dimorphodon above, which might be why it looks so weird. Also, what is true of Rhamphorynchus may not be true for Dimorphodon. So, possible, but I'm not sure about likely.

  3. Marc Vincent: "I'm not really a pterosaur sorta guy, but I'm quite sure that there should at least be the hint of a keeled crest on the end of the jaws,"

    To be fair, it's probably a female ( http://www.azmnh.org/exhibits/images/skies/img8.png ).


  4. As artwork, I really do love these. I haven't yet bought a copy, but I plan to buy one of the framed sets to add to my gloriously anachronistic set of Brooke Bond tea cards that I had framed earlier this year.

  5. The anatomy was probably modified so the pictures could fit on a postage stamp. Still very fine portraits anyway.


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