Anyone who knows the slightest thing about the history of dinosaur science will tell you that the '60s and '70s constituted a pivotal period - the 'Dinosaur Renaissance', during which the old ideas about dinosaurs being 'great fossil lizards' (as John McLoughlin memorably put it) were overturned, and a new, more exciting picture emerged. In August 1978, National Geographic published an article by none other than John Ostrom, the man who named Deinonychus and helped lead this new wave in palaeontology. Accompanying the article were a series of paintings by Roy Andersen, and they provide a wonderful insight into how the palaeoart of the time still owed a great deal to the past, even as artists strove to capture something of the Renaissance.
The cover is quite resolutely old-school, and wouldn't have looked out of place back in the Zallinger days. Here is the great primordial struggle, rendered in moody, smoky hues, as one massive reptile looms out of the darkness and snatches another in its cruel, flesh-tearing jaws (as they no doubt would have put it back then). To modern eyes, the lumpen, saggy tyrannosaur looks completely bizarre; over on Facebook, Blake Ó Murchú dubbed this beast a "Mastiffasaurus", which seems fitting. On closer inspection, the hadrosaur is pretty weird, too - for one thing, it appears that its arms are growing out of its neck. Of course, all this means that this cover has instant vintage palaeoart appeal. It's really very evocative.
Inside, the article proper starts with a 'dinosaur parade', which is a bit like one of the ones used to promote PT Barnum's circuses, only the giant quadrupeds aren't decked out in glittering finery. My rubbish scanner wouldn't fit it all in, and I'm far too lazy to scan it in chunks, so here's a choice section. Again, the animals here look rather retro - there are tail-dragging sauropods, tail-dragging stegosaurs, and even our old friend, Dainty Limbed Hunchback Megalosaurus (straight out of a depressing-looking Neave Parker piece). However, there are hints of palaeontological progress here. The theropods, as a whole, are much more sprightly than the various herbivores; Allosaurus looks particularly lean 'n' mean in a fashion quite alien to the pot-bellied waddling fellows of earlier decades, while all the little fellows are breaking out into a jog. Which brings us neatly to the star of the show...
Deinonychus! In an adventure with scientists! This is a striking vision of the creature, in a highly Bakkerian sprinting posture, dapper dewlap in place, against a fierce red backdrop. Modern artists take note - this is how you do 'badass dinosaurs'. Even ignoring the poor sap getting mauled at stage left, this illustration is highly effective at conveying the perceived ferocity of this creature - and it's just a plain ol' lateral view, without any gaping maws, blood, or copious salivating. It helps, of course, that we are also provided with a skeletal reference, and a diagram depicting the movement arc of that famous claw. Great stuff.
When compared with Deinonychus, Sexy Rexy's portrayal initially comes across as disappointingly staid and conservative. On the other hand, while the posture certainly tends more towards the vertical, there's a definite sense of energy and movement here, most evident in the tail and legs. It reminds me very much of Burian's Tyrannosaurus, which while distinctly old-fashioned at first glance nevertheless boasted a long stride and an obviously burning desire to clamp its jaws around a juicy edmontosaur thigh. The head also shows an admirable attention to detail, unknown in a lot of 'classic' palaeoart. Again, the inclusion of the skull (seemingly belonging to AMNH 5027) is a nice touch. Oh, and there's a suitably Knightian encounter between Rexy and his eternal sparring partner Triceratops going on at the bottom there.
One of the finest illustrations of a fossil is this one of a Heterodontosaurus slab, featured alongside a life restoration of the animal. For all that it looks weird now (creepy needle fingers and cold, unduly tiny eyes!), this illustration of a horizontal-backed, fleet-footed ornithischian dinosaur with a straight, muscular tail serves as the perfect accompaniment to Ostrom's text, in which he points out that the animal's anatomy "[seems] to point toward endothermy" and an active lifestyle. Noteworthy for those tired of certain clichés in modern palaeoart is that both individuals have their mouths closed, with 'lips' covering their famous pointy teeth, which is quite unlike almost every single depiction of this animal since. I think Jaime Headden would approve (but I'll probably regret second-guessing him).
While there's naturally been a lot of fuss made about the spectacularly strange Deinocheirus recently (which, incidentally, is briefly mentioned in this article), let's not forget that even 'normal' ornithomimosaurs were pretty odd, too. Of course, retro palaeoart only serves to exaggerate their weirdness by giving them scaly hides and weedy limbs, as is the case with Andersen's egg-plundering stilt-walker. If you were wondering about the giant pelvis 'n' femur, it's related to the caption, which explains that birds "paradoxically" evolved from the 'lizard hipped', rather than the 'bird hipped' dinosaurs (while pointing out that birds were already well established by Struthiomimus' time).
Corythosaurus is next on the bill, and is used to illustrate the point pertaining to hadrosaurs being land browsers, rather than paddle-handed jokers partial to the odd swimming party. This illustration is a particularly good example of the 'transition' taking place in palaeoart at the time, and how much of it still recalled the vintage 'great fossil lizard' depictions. While the carriage of this Corythosaurus would be alien to an artist working in, say, the 1930s, the exceptionally dainty forelimbs and grumpy lizard lips are reminiscent of art from the bad old days. In fact, one could comment that the overall style of these pieces, that is to say the technique behind them, is rather retro - while some of the animals sport splashes of colour (see Heterodontosaurus above), the overall impression remains fairly murky and gloopy. And brown.
Which isn't to say that this piece is a throwback - far from it. But the next one is.
Alas, poor Bronto. For all that the other animals are given important updates (no matter how tentative they may seem), Apatosaurus still suffers the indignity of being lumped with a mismatched (and cross-looking) camarasaur head at one end, while its tail ploughs the ground behind it. While the animal's resolutely free from swampbound misery and being a defenceless flesh heap, it's still weird to see Marsh's error perpetuated in an article all about a new, more enlightened approach to dinosaur science. Not being horrifically fat is a significant enough change on its own, I guess.
At least Poor Bronto isn't pretty much a straight-up Burian rip-off, like this Stegosaurus. Come on Andersen, give us the Shiny Renaissance Future! Tail-dragging sluggard stegosaurs are so early twentieth century.
And finally...Triceratops. It's another blandly brown depiction that wouldn't have looked out of place in properly retro palaeoart, and is a far cry from the more radical depiction we might have expected. The skull, of course, is taken from the mounted specimen in the AMNH, on which the frill has largely been reconstructed. Curiously, the Triceratops at the foot of the page appear to have had their heads based on this mount, and subsequently look very Torosaurus-like, while the individual above has a more 'scalloped' and shorter frill. It's enough to make me wonder if the main illustration wasn't also 'inspired' by an earlier work, although I can't for the life of me think which one it might be. (Comments please guv!)
That's it...for now. I've avoided discussing Ostrom's article itself very much, famous and seminal though it is. Perhaps another time (especially if there's any demand for it. That's right, feed my monstrous ego). Coming up next (from me) - a book named after a cheesetastic Hammer film. Hurrah!