Monday, March 24, 2014

Vintage Dinosaur Art: All About Dinosaurs

While it's exciting enough to get my mits on a book as genuinely vintage as All About Dinosaurs (1953), that this book was written by the legendary Roy Chapman Andrews is an extra special treat. This is a book that's part palaeontology lesson, part autobiography, with Andrews unable to resist relaying a few tales of derring-do. Illustrations are provided by Thomas W Voter, and essentially live up to expectation - these are the tail-dragging, slothful, reptilian flesh-barges of old, the 'great fossil lizards' that now seem as long-dead as the real beasts that inspired them. Oh yes, and a certain sauropod is stubbornly referred to as "Brontosaurus".

While the cover depicts a theropod that is presumably Allosaurus (based purely on the fact that it has three fingers and is quite large, which is enough to go on for most books of the period), Sexy Rexy manages to appear twice before the title page. The cover's pretty enough, but it certainly can't match the Tyrannosaurus v Triceratops piece below for visual impact - the composition effectively emphasising the towering height of old-school Nonsense Rexy, who seems to be chuckling quietly to himself. I love the palm trees, too - it seems that we rarely see strong winds in palaeoart, and they add that extra dash of drama. Poor Triceratops ends up looking rather lumpen and misshapen here, rather than a well-matched opponent a la Knight. One can't help but imagine the T. rex rolling it along with one foot like a barrel.

The book's second T. rex illustration is a more straightforward depiction of the animal in lateral view (or everything but the tail, anyway), and seems to be inspired by the old T. rex mount at the American Museum of Natural History. An amphibious (or, let's be fair, just swimming) sauropod adds some interest. But we all know what we're here to see.

Deadly dinosaur duels! Rather than play fair and pick on something with its own pointy things with which to defend itself, Rexy here sinks his teeth into "fat, hulking" "Trachodon", the unfortunate, web-handed fodder du jour. Still, the flipper-fingered one does at least put up something of a fight, albeit a half-hearted one:
"There is frantic thrashing for a time as the colossal beasts roll in the slippery muck. Then the Trachodon lies still. Its head hangs loosely, almost severed from the neck by six-inch teeth."
Ouch. Still, what a way to go - at the waggling atrophied forelimbs of "the most terrible creature of destruction that ever walked upon the earth!" (Don't be silly, Roy - everyone knows that's humans. Yeah, take that, conspecifics!)

Just lovely stuff. You can't beat an old-fashioned, salivating description of reptilian behemoths having at it, even if the illustrations are a little more convincingly bloody these days.

Happily, hadrosaurs aren't just depicted as an easy lunch in All About Dinosaurs. As is typical of a mid-20th-century work, they are imagined to have been amphibious and depicted as such, with their crests imagined as aqualungs (a concept so screamingly silly, only a pre-1960s palaeontologist could possibly have thought of it). The creatures do suffer a little from the 'gangly dork hadrosaur' meme that was popular into the 1970s, but I do still love the depiction of Corythosaurus contentedly doggy-paddling its way through a lake (below). There's some great characterisation going on here too - it's possible to sense the furtiveness of the foreground individual, frond in beak, as it glances to the shores where tyrannosaurs might be lurking.

If there is one creature that looks truly, irredeemably derpy, even for the standards of the time (forget not the great work of Burian), it is this unfortunate slug-bottomed monstrosity masquerading as ornithopod pin-up Iguanodon. On the other hand, I have the strangest feeling that this illustration has been 'inspired' by another, although I can't find it for the life of me; reader assistance would be most welcome.

While Stegosaurus fares considerably better in the illustration department, it is once again the recipient of much mockery aimed at its apparent brainlessness. Speculating on why the dinosaurs went extinct, Andrews posits that their tiny brains may have played a part; after all,

"In Stegosaurus, which must have weighed four or five tons, the brain was no larger than that of a small kitten. With such a brain, the animal could barely eat and sleep and muddle through life. The Thunder Lizard  and the other great sauropods were not much better off in brain capacity."

While it's fun to have a giggle at what are to us, all the way over here in Space Year 2014, amusingly outmoded concepts, it's worth noting that Andrews, unlike his contemporaries, did not view dinosaurs as evolutionary failures. In fact, he is dismissive of the notion that dinosaurs were the victim of "racial senescence", or basically just being too long-in-the-tooth (so to speak), and is quick to point out that a panoply of animal clades snuffed it at the end of the Cretaceous, not just dinosaurs.

Of course, a refusal to accept that dinosaurs were the result of Evolution's Difficult Middle Years doesn't prevent Andrews from occasionally being a bit unkind toward them, albeit in a rather tongue-in-cheek manner. This is perhaps best exemplified in the caption for the illustration below, which happens to depict a creature named after him. In the text, Andrews describes P. andrewsi thusly:
"...he was one of the ugliest of all the small dinosaurs. His short, toad-like body seemed to be mostly head. A piece of bone from the frill projected downward on each side of his face. It looked like a long wart. His short legs were badly bowed. The tail was fat and thick. He crawled on his belly. No leaping or running for him...No, I can't be proud of his looks."
Andrews' delicious description of Protoceratops, in addition to Voter's accompanying illustration, probably helped cement the image of the ceratopsian as a sprawling fatty even into the 1990s.  Modern depictions are rather different, but Andrews' unflattering portrait of the animal still raises a smile.

Of course, Andrews is keenest on mentioning Protoceratops in connection with eggs - he was the man who famously discovered the first dinosaur eggs, after all. Unfortunately, Voter's Protoceratykes are quite terrifying - rather than lacking frills (as Andrews describes them), their faces appear to be entirely frills, with eyes and a beak bolted on. The foreground individual reminds me of Mr Sweet from the Doctor Who episode The Crimson Horror. That beak...brrrr.

Next time: more Andrews/Voter! Hooray.


  1. Along with the first T.rex illustration, the cover Allosaurus has an equal air of having shared a private joke with the viewer.

    That paragraph about Protoceratops from Andrews is just brilliant. For whatever reason, it brought to my mind a Gaskell character disassociating him/herself from their wayward offspring.

  2. I knew it, dinosaurs were green!

    Thanks Marc, another nice write-up about a classic book. I've seen the poses of the T. rex and Triceratops from the second pic in a number of low-rent kid's dino books before. The perspective's a bit weird too, esp the placement of Rexy's feet - it looks like he's trying to walk along a narrow plank and the first toe of the right foot somehow manages to be prominently visible.

    Those baby Protoceratops (especially the nearest) remind me of Hyperodapedon.

  3. As for the Iguanodon: This looks like somebody mixed a few illustrations of Charles R. Knight into one... thing. The stance and sluggish tail look a lot like his Trachodon:
    There's also wherever the picture of an "Edwardian" Iguanodon comes from on this page:

    Speaking of Trachodon, how on earth did it end up with a Baryonyx's head in this book, in the 1950's no less?

  4. Those li'l protos remind me of Guy Davis' style.

    Only, I kinda like *Guy's* work.

  5. Another lovely look at yesteryear's dinosaurs. I do enjoy your Vintage Art posts! I wonder if the Iguanodon is modelled on Neave Parker's Hypsilophodon? If indeed Parker had painted dinosaurs yet. Now I know you're having fun when you dig at the way dinosaurs were portrayed in the days before it was trendy to have them prancing about like ballerinas, a la Bakker. But do remember these were the interpretations of the finest scientists of the day: Owen, Seeley, Cope, Marsh, Swinton, Colbert, etc. These people were no fools. And who knows? Maybe in the future blogwriters will poke fun at the way we portray dinosaurs now. Indeed, some ideas are already in the process of being debunked. And I get a bit protective too, because these old dinosaurs were my dinosaurs - the beasts that fascinated by little boy's mind. My Brontosaurus (not Apatosaurus) will always be slowly munching pondweed in a swamp, with a volcano erupting in the background and a vertical Allosaurus gnashing his teeth on the shore! So maybe not lay the ridicule on quite so much?

    Thanks for bringing us some fun and nostalgia. It's such a joy to see my old books and artists again.

  6. I'm a lot kinder than I used to be, back when I was a young git. I love these old books too, even if they were before my time. Any mockery shouldn't be taken too seriously.

  7. I'm a lot kinder than I used to be, back when I was a young git. I love these old books too, even if they were before my time. Any mockery shouldn't be taken too seriously.

  8. Yeah, I know you're only havin' fun! Thanks again for brightening my day!

  9. When i was a child, i used to have a coloring book with a T.rex drawing similar to the third picture (the one where the rex is standing near a lake with a sauropod in the background.

  10. Rod Ruth's tree-climbing hypsilophodon that he referenced from Parker totally looks like that derpy iguanadon, so maybe it also used the same Parker reference.

  11. Someday you should make a montage of all depictions of Tyrannosaurus vs Triceratops you can find.

  12. Another one that I loved as a kid. (Did anyone ever go back and find that fossil in ironstone that Andrews mentions- the one that was "a new Family"?)

    I find it a bit ironic that so many writers call dinosaurs "failures" because of their small brains (sponges, worms, spiders, etc do very nicely, thank you much) and the damn big-brained monkeys doing the complaining are going to be extinct in another hundred years.


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