Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Vintage Dinosaur Art: The Day of the Dinosaurs

Lampoon me if you like for digging up an obscure book from the early '90s and treating it like an ancient relic, but one look at that cover will confirm that this is a tome from a completely different time. For where would one see such lizardy, Burianesque Iguanodon, tail-dragging, sour-faced sauropods, friendly, frog-mouthed Dimetrodon, and horribly dessicated pterosaurs, all united together on the front cover, these days? The Day of the Dinosaurs might only be from 1991, but it certainly makes 1991 seem like a Very Long Time Ago.

The cover alone is fantastic, conveying a lost world in which hackneyed, discarded palaeoart tropes roam the earth in all their brown-grey splendour. Compositionally, it's excellent in a way I can't quite put my weirdly clawless finger on. The Iguanodon almost seems to be saying, "Oh yes, that's right...dinosaurs". Except, of course, a lot of the animals here aren't dinosaurs. And the Diplodocus might have at least three knees. As if that matters.

As with so many books of the genre, The Day of the Dinosaurs is structured around a series of panoramas, depicting multifarious lifeforms at different points in Earth's history, mostly in the Mesozoic (for obvious reasons). Given that artist Chris Forsey is tasked, as is typical, with uniting an awful lot of different animals in one scene and making it look natural, I think this view on the Triassic is actually rather nicely done. The inclement weather adds a great deal to the atmosphere of the piece (how often do you see a rainbow in palaeoart?), while the shuffling herd of rhynchosaurs in the background help disguise what might otherwise have been Now That's What I Call Late Triassic Megafauna. Note the Stuttgart-style Wide Load Plateosaurus to the right of the scene.

Unusually, Forsey's Late Jurassic scene sees comparatively humble Camptosaurus take the starring role, looking as if it had just walked in from a mid-'80s Sibbick piece (that aspect isn't so unusual). The foreground also features some 'wings...but with hands!' Archaeopteryx and curiously dumpy Compsognathus that probably shouldn't be hanging around in North America, while the showstopping sauropods are shunted back. Again, there is a lovely atmosphere about this scene; a primordial world of peaceful animals going about their business, rather than predators hollering at everyone and making a mess. The wonderful sky certainly helps.

Still, there's plenty of nature red in tooth and (terrible) claw in the Late Cretaceous scene, which sees the popular anachronistic antagonists Tyrannosaurus and Styracosaurus take a break from puncturing one another to have a chuckle at a pair of gormless Deinonychus having a scrap. Rexy himself looks a little peculiar here, no doubt due to a slight lack of shoulders and his upper tooth row extending rather too far back (a common problem with theropods in this book). The Styracosaurus is somewhat odd too, but I just can't get over its bovine smile. D'awwww. Landscape-wise, while the ground's a little bare, I'm sure all palaeoart fans will appreciate the actual sloping ground (see Mark Witton's blog for context) and superb use of foreground foliage to create the sense that we are peering in surreptitiously on this strange world.

While there aren't too many full-colour illustrations outside of the full spreads, a few do appear to present more notable animals in a suitably dramatic fashion. Forsey's Allosaurus is unmistakably based on Sibbick's Normanpedia work, as is clear not only from its peculiar 'Michelin Man' skin texture and stocky limbs, but even the specific posture of its forelimbs and (fer cryin' out loud) colour scheme. The head appears to take cues from Sibbick's T. rex, what with its flesh-rippin' action and all. His Ornitholestes, meanwhile, is a rather generic small theropod, but we are at least spared any attempts at grabbing nearby feathery things. According to a nearby caption,
"Its name means 'bird robber'. Its fossil jaws are toothless which suggests that it probably had a horny beak like a bird, with which it snapped up insects and other small animals."

The majority of the supplementary illustrations in The Day of the Dinosaurs are presented in a simpler, monochrome-'n'-green style. Here we have the quintessentially '80s sinister Troodon, its soulless cats' eyes all aglow, ever on the hunt for something cute and fluffy to snatch up with its grasping little hands. "It may well have been a fairly clever hunter, tricking and trapping its prey," we are told. On the other hand, it might well have been like the birdy feliney creature it is often drawn to resemble - not incredibly smart, but very good at it what did. Its business was chowing on your ancestors and expelling their hard parts in chunky nuggets, and I'm sure business was good.

Here, Sibbick's Protoceratops has foolishly turned its back on its nest, where its terrifyingly staring, hook-clawed, mutant progeny are bursting forth, ready to exact their revenge on Cretaceous Mongolia in a string of increasingly convoluted and improbable scenarios...

...While here, an army of retro-Iguanodon are on the march. Note the perma-flex elbows and, to the right, the now-rejected proposal that the smaller iguanodonts present at Bernissart were females. Said animals are now classified in different genera, never mind species, although some of the splits are, admittedly, pretty recent. While on the subject, this seems like a good idea to advance my hypothesis as to why so many ornithopods ended up buried in a pit together. While others have proposed death-by-flood or some sort of mass suicide, I'd like to put forth the idea that the animals were hammered on heady beer brewed by trappist Hypsilophodon, and plunged to their doom in drunken shenanigans gone tragically awry. Lab News, here I come!

Of course, it's not just dinosaurs in The Day of the Dinosaurs. You've got to have Dimetrodon in a book about prehistoric animals, and so here it is, showing off its inevitably burnt-orange sail to boring old Varanosaurus. Both of them look remarkably Burianesque.

Elsewhere there are pterosaurs, and boy, do they look weird. There's no cliff-hanging going on, but the animals' anatomy takes a few strange turns here and there, particularly as far as upper arms are concerned; what the Pteranodon's right forelimb is supposed to be doing is anyone's guess. Rhamphorhynchus remains hirsute in the tradition of olde-fashioned pterosaur restorations, but Pteranodon sprouts a simply magnificent chest-rug worthy of a 1970s tennis star. (It's a shame that the animal would be most suited to playing as the net.) For all that, though, Forsey knows his way around a cloudscape - it's quite pretty.

Equally, the vivid hues and swirling, bubbling action of this aquatic scene are well executed, even if this particular illustration feels the most like an attempt to shoehorn in as many different large animals as possible. The plesiosaur (apparently modelled on Cryptoclidus) has a rather generic 'insert reptile head here' noggin, but other animals fare somewhat better, and at least it's not shown doing something daft, like posing for the 'surgeon's photo' or basking on the rocks like a seal. For all its action and colour, I'm pretty fond of this illustration - a good one to go out on I think. Also, it features Henodus, illustrations of which always remind me of Gamera, and it's good to sign out with a smile...



  1. Oh my god! This is a book I never thought I would see again!

  2. Henodus looks like Gamera indeed


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