Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Vintage Dinosaur Art: The BBC Book of Dinosaurs

In terms of saurian-related output, the BBC is best known these days for Walking With Dinosaurs, the super-expensive CG-laden Brannagh-narrated behemoth, sire of numerous tie-in books (and a movie that we won't mention). Nine years earlier, however, Auntie Beeb saw fit to give its endorsement to this little lost nugget of dinosauriana - The BBC Book of Dinosaurs. Authored by Paul Appleby and illustrated by Gill Tomblin, this rather obscure book is sweetly nostalgic for those of us raised on slightly shonky early '90s dinosaur books...even if we'd never actually seen it until now.

As is so often the case with late '80s/early '90s books, regardless of whether or not one has come across this specific publication before, everything seems ever so comfortingly/tiresomely familiar. The cover features an ensemble of dinosaurs being measured up, by way of grid and dotted lines, against that scientific size comparison staple, the Striding Streaker. Why the grid was deemed necessary is a bit of a mystery, but it's probably down to the need to stress that this is an Educational Book (which might also be why Triceratops has been reduced to a skeletal diagram). Rexy and Diplodocus are plainly cheating, mind.

The Beeb Book hails from a time when theropods were still going through an awkward transitional period in many popular books - a lot of artists simply didn't know what to do with them, resulting in some weirdly contradictory reptilian monstrosities that look rather laughable today. This is particularly true of maniraptors, which have long had a particularly rough ride in poorly researched art, bless 'em. When drawn more accurately - such as by Luis Rey - naked dromaeosaurs inevitably looked 'plucked'. However, most of the time early '90s audiences were subjected to the likes of the above, in which pin-headed weirdos straight out of the Super Mario Bros. movie gather round to gnaw ineffectually on an unfortunate green fellow. It wasn't pretty.

When Tomblin does turn in a half-decent maniraptor - in the form of the above Troodon - the Sibbickisms are quite evident. Pieces 'inspired' by Sibbick's Normanpedia take on Troodon are very easy to spot - just look at the feet, where the second toe will inevitably be flicked backwards. In the late '80s and throughout the 1990s, this very particular take on troodontid feet became a mini-meme all of its own.

Speaking of Sibbick...his Normanpedia work might have been very beautiful, and quite unnervingly hyper-realistic, but that didn't mean that copying it was always a good idea. Many of the Normanpedia dinos were scientifcally outdated even when they were created, and some a lot more so than others. Bring on Oviraptor!

Oh boy. Admittedly, dumpy-bodied, lizardy-looking Oviraptor were two-a-penny back in the early '90s, with Dinosaurs! magazine featuring a particularly memorable series of them. All the same, the inclusion of the mistaken 'nose horn' interpretation is telling, as is the extremely Sibbickian skin texture and musculature (or rather, lack of it). This is also another one of those theropods without much in the way of shoulders to speak of. At least it can boast a pretty colour scheme, as can...

...this adorably humanoid Compsognathus! One can easily picture it donning a dapper outfit (top hat and tails, naturally), then taking to the stage and performing kicks while singing a jaunty music hall number. That Iguanodon foot could be appropriated as a Monty Python-esque prop, although it might be worth painting the creepy human fingernails on its toes first.

As with many popular dinosaur books, panoramic scenes of prehistoric life in a certain place and time period accompany the 'profile' illustrations, and are inevitably crazy-packed full of interesting fauna. In this scene, the (until recently) butt of many puerile jokes, Tsintaosaurus, joins forces with Corythosaurus, birds, butterflies and flowers in order to make the place look vibrant and colourful (while Triceratops just squats around looking boring and a little grumpy). Hogging the foreground - as usual - is Rexy, here looking a little too friendly and welcoming for a terrifying flesh-tearing dino-tank. It's almost as if he's inviting the reader into the party. "Hey guys, welcome to the Late Cretaceous! Enjoy a refreshing dip in the river, feed the oddly toothy birdlife...just watch your back, 'cos you look like you've been treating yourself a little too much recently, and I do enjoy a plump one."

Corythosaurus and Tsintaosaurus (shown impersonating a sea monster from a medieval map) also appear alongside Parasaurolophus and plain ol' Saurolophus in an illustration depicting hadrosaur diversity. The inconsistent approach to hadrosaur 'cheeks' here is a little odd, although it's good to see both possibilities explored, I guess. I also really like the red patch on Parasaurolophus' face. We don't see enough brightly coloured hadrosaur heads these days.

Triceratops appears again too, looking, er, completely different; here, it sports plate-like scales and osteoderms that will look very familiar to anyone who has seen the scale model next to the Triceratops mount in London's Natural History Museum, or indeed has ever owned the similar-looking Invicta toy. The white sclera on the adult makes the eye really 'pop', and gives the creature appear amusingly as if it's nervously giving us the eye.

And's THE END! Copious volcanoes erupt noisily in the distance, snow blankets the ground, immaculately bleached hadrosaur skeletons lie about the place, and tottering tyrannosaurs throw up their tiny arms in fright. It's a horrifying scene of death, destruction and gloriously bright head crests. It's a little nonsensical (when is this scene set, exactly?), but great stuff all the same. It's also worth mentioning that the book goes on to point out that perhaps dinosaurs aren't extinct after all. To wit:
"So the survivors of the dinosaur line were the birds, and they are the dinosaurs that are still alive today!"
Not bad for a popular book from 1990!


  1. Retro dorsal osteoderms aside; it is striking how accurate they were on the rest of Triceratops' integument, down to the "nipple" centred feature scales, some 17 years before the surfacing of the "Lane" mummy.

  2. Was it common for Oviraptor to have its nostrils put on its "horn"? I only now realize it, but this may not be the first time I've seen it.

    1. You know, I hadn't even noticed the nostrils. I don't recall seeing that anywhere else (although see Mark Robinson's comment).

  3. Akshulee, that iguanodon foot reminds me of Earl Sinclair...

    By the way, have you guys seen the 'How It Works: World of Dinosaurs' book-magazine thingy on shop shelves currently? I noticed it in Sainsbury's, and had to buy it for the entertainment value. So much palaeoart fail. I'm tempted to scan excerpts meself. Was there a retro/bad palaeoart flickr group, or something...?

    1. If it's the magazine with the skeleton kit (? - or some free gift) attached to the cover, I have seen it in a newsagent near my work, but I haven't bought it. If it's good for a laugh, I must just have to.

    2. Here it is:


  4. Yeah, I've seen the nostrils-on-the-nose-horn Oviraptor somewhere else, too. (I also notice that she's eating her own eggs again...)

    That "unfortunate green fellow" in the second pic looks like it's been labelled as "Tenetosaurus" which is a sauropod apparently.

    I'm guessing that the magenta flowers in the scene with the derpy rex are magnolias which must have been the only flowering plant in the Cretaceous since that is what is always illustrated whenever the sudden appearance of the angiosperms in the fossil record is mentioned.

  5. "In terms of saurian-related output, the BBC is best known these days for Walking With Dinosaurs, the super-expensive CG-laden Brannagh-narrated behemoth, sire of numerous tie-in books (and a movie that we won't mention). "

    Just a heads up: December's Amazon Reviews are gonna be WWD-related to coincide w/the 1 year anniversary of that movie/missed opportunity.

    BTW, are any experts acknowledged in Appleby's book as having helped? If so, who?


  6. "It's not easy being green" (cue Kermit)

  7. Any comments on the apparent labeling of "Epanterias" as bigger than T. rex? (see the text box titled "The Challenger" in the Deinonychus drawing). Pretty forward-thinking for an 80's-90's popular book, even if they were off the mark with regards to their "challenger".


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