Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Vintage Dinosaur Art: The Mysterious World of Dinosaurs - Part 2

In the first part of our examination of The Mysterious World of Dinosaurs, we came upon chubby, oily-looking tyrannosaurs, alarmingly carnivorous-looking stegosaurs, and Godzilla. However - and as the title implies - this book goes beyond the eponymous archosaur clade, taking a look at various other Mesozoic monstrosities. Bring on the zombie-pterosaurs!

Now let's be fair - depicting pterosaurs in dessicated, mummy-like fashion was commonplace at the time this book was produced. Contemporary mass estimates had giants like Pteranodon weigh about the same as the shrivelled walnut that sits between Ken Ham's ears. In order to make sense of this, life restorations had to be stripped of all but the most essential bodily tissues, and occasionally even of those. Phillipps' Pterodactylus (above) is not an aberration, but the norm - right down to the erroneous dangling bat-posture. As it happens, I believe this is a rather effective plate - it's striking, nicely composed, and shows the animal's key attributes and overall form rather nicely, without being all dull and diagrammatical about it. So there.

...Having said all that, some of these illustrations are still pretty gruesome. Phillips' Rhamphorhynchus (above) is arguably not as extreme as William Stout's Quetzalcoatlus, but still resembles a nightmarish phantasm, a pitch-black, skeletal wraith ready to descend from the skies with an unearthly screech and peck Daniel Radcliffe's eye out. Rhamphorhynchus (is that really how you spell it?) was rather scary-looking anyway, what with its jagged array of grotesque, jutting teeth. Nevertheless, in the world of palaeoart at least, it has tended to come a distant second in the freakiness stakes to a certain big-bonced basal pterosaur found by Mary Anning...

...Except in this case, where Dimorphodon actually has rather a sad air about it. It's those cow-like chops, but more than that, it's that gaze - a wet-eyed look of wearisome resignation. Life just ain't fair if you're a sunken-headed pterosaur in an out-of-print children's book. Although clearly upset about its general appearance, the bat-like black colour scheme actually looks rather slick; as Christian Bale would tell you in between screaming at film crew, everything looks better in black. (Of course, my own tendency towards sombre attire might, er, colour my views, somewhat.) The fur is noteworthy - in spite of their rather emaciated appearance in the illustrations, pterosaurs are not described as panda-like evolutionary failures in this book. Rather, they are declared to be likely warm-blooded, active, and relatively intelligent.

But brains or no, pterosaurs do have an alarming tendency to end up as somebody's lunch in TMWoD. This particularly applies to Pteranodon, which not only seems to fly directly into a tyrannosaur's mouth on the cover, but is later caught unawares by a very Knightian mosasaur. Phillipps' skill with a brush comes to the fore here, as the swirling, tumultuous seascapes are quite beautifully painted. Given the artists' obvious talents in this area (and, er, rather similar works by Burian and Knight), the following piece seems, quite happily, inevitable...

LET THEM FIGHT! It's the classical scene of crest-backed mosasaur versus impossibly snake-necked, rearing elasmosaur; a retrospectively silly palaeoart trope that nevertheless produced some brilliantly exciting artwork. Like this. Phillipps can't top Burian's more realistic and well-informed approach, but this is still a wonderfully lively and engaging piece - from the furious vortex of the waves, to the creatures' bloody wounds reflecting the crimson sky. This painting, we now know, is fantastical...but you've got to love it anyway.

The illustration that's aged perhaps the most gracefully also features a marine reptile, namely Nothosaurus. No doubt it's not entirely correct (those eyes don't look to be in quite the right place, for one), but the body plan is there, as are the snaggly teeth, correctly showing variation in form. Most importantly*, it's very beautifully painted, with a naturalistic approach that seems to be missing from many of the dinosaurs in this book - maybe because they were thought of more as 'monsters'. I particularly like the eye. Reminds me of pigeons.

Similarly well-painted is this Ornithosuchus. The book follows the once-popular idea that this animal was ancestral to theropods, and the illustration makes the animal appear more theropod-like than it likely was (even if certain Triassic pseudosuchians really did end up looking quite theropodesque). In spite of any inaccuracies, this plate is highly evocative in placing the animal in a very naturalistic-looking environment. It just goes to show that, even when they don't really know the animals they're portraying, decent artists can still pull through in the end. (Whereas Pixelshack never will. Give it up, DK.)

And finally...over on our Facebook page, Fabian Wiggers asked if this post would feature "that duckbill leaning against a tree in an awkward way and trying to chew a droopy branch". Well, here it is. After being all effusive about those other pieces (or at least, I probably was from the point of view of marine reptile bods), I'll have to shrug my shoulders and admit that this one's pretty bad. It's retro in the worst, 'let's copy other artists and insert generic backgrounds and vague trees!' kind of way. It's brown and dull and wrinkly and blah.

Of course, it could be worse.

*What can I say? When I drink, I betray myself.


  1. Ive got this book at home. Love the retro dino art in it

  2. 'Most importantly*, it's very beautifully painted...
    *What can I say? When I drink, I betray myself.'

    You may be assured of my hearty approval in this case, then.

  3. What on earth is going on with those pterosaurs? Pterodactylus and Rhamphorhynchus look like what little head flesh they've got is inside their bones, like they're wearing skull-masks or are invertebrates or something. I actually LOL'd when I scrolled down to Dimorphodon after being primed by your text. It's face is hilarious. And it's got a rat's tail.

    Made my morning. Thanks Marc.

  4. Weirdly enough, the pterosaurs' feet are correct which makes me scratch my head all the more, how anyone could think they were dangling from branches. One swift wind and they be swept away, uncontrollably tumbling into some large predator's eagerly waiting ja... oh.

  5. That Pterodactylus has an extra pair of nostrils! David Peters was right!

    The elasmosaur vs. mosasaur picture evokes paintings of whalers.

  6. Somewhere Mark Witton is in a fetal position weeping

  7. "Contemporary mass estimates had giants like Pteranodon weigh about the same as the shrivelled walnut that sits between Ken Ham's ears."


    "pterosaurs are not described as panda-like evolutionary failures in this book."

    Why panda-like?

    "Similarly well-painted is this Ornithosuchus"

    I'm surprised you didn't mention its shiny scales (which is my favorite feature) or puppy-dog eyes.

    "Whereas Pixelshack never will."

    You really should review their work sometime (specifically, Brusatte's "Dinosaurs" &/or his "Field Guide to Dinosaurs"). I'm going to do so at some point, but the more the merrier. At the very least, you'd do a better job ripping the art apart.


    1. Oh, it's a reference to the old joke about pandas being Evolution's Cruelest Mistake. Which isn't true - humans are. (Yeah, take that!)

      Re Pixelshack: I might have to, if I can borrow a copy of the Brusatte-o-pedia. 'Cos I'm not buying it...

  8. That dimorphodon needs a Nazg├╗l rider...

    1. I can just hear Mr. Burns (The Simpsons): "Smithers, release the ptero-DACtyls."

  9. Is there an author credit? The "WHSmith " on the cover looks like a publisher's logo.


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