Sunday, February 1, 2015

Vintage Dinosaur Art: Dinosaurs (Domino)

One of the more obscure finds I've made on eBay, this Dinosaurs isn't a book as such - rather, it folds out like a pamphlet or map, and the illustrations effectively cover two frieze-like spreads. (You can also fold it completely flat, but there's no continuity between the two sides.) Published by Domino Books in 1979, its charming illustrations take us back to a palaeontological world in flux...while erring somewhat on the old-fashioned side. We're not out of the swamps just yet!

The illustrations were provided by Denys Ovenden, and naturally form the focus of the 'book' given its format. There's a pleasing warmth and solidity to them, even if some of the anatomy is downright suspect (so where does cover Rexy's neck end and his shoulders begin? It's a problem that seems to plague retro theropods). Given the age of the publication, it's little surprise that many of the animals take on a distinctly Zallingerian air - after all, most of the artwork in popular books of the time did - but a few telling contemporary scientific mores are starting to creep in.

Take this scene, for example - for the most part, it could well have been lifted from a book of the '60s, '50s or even earlier. The head-swap ceratopsians seem content to mill about, squatting and chewing on cycads (but of course cycads), and they sport those serenely smooth and glossy heads so prevalent in mid-twentieth century palaeoart. It's the 1970s now, though, so who should pop up in the background but a poster child of the Dinosaur Renaissance (the one without the beard), Deinonychus! Unusually, the mid-sized dromaeosaur is depicted nest-raiding rather than screaming and jumping on top of something; I can only imagine it's because that particular trope had yet to gain ground. This illustration is also an example of the curious tendency for artists to miss the hallux on their dromaeosaur feet, perhaps because they're thinking far too hard about how to draw that more famous digit in its duly raised position. It's a peculiarity that even plagued the Jurassic Park 'raptor' toys.

Deinonychus is also one of the few theropods to be shown in a 'modern', horizontal-backed position - the other being Ornithomimus (above), here depicted more as a generic small coelurosaur rather than an ornithomimosaur. Regardless of its proportions, it stands out as an incongruously modern-looking creation among a gathering of very vintage-looking ornithischians, including a highly Neave Parker-esque Polacanthus and a personal favourite of mine, a sprawling, short-tailed Scolosaurus. This artistic incarnation of the animal, though long banished from the pages of kids' dinosaur books, lives on in the form of hideous fibreglass models that pop up in visitor attractions around the world (but mostly, it seems, in the UK). Victoria Arbour harbours a secret love for it, or so I hear.

Meanwhile, the Psittacosaurus have an unusually knobbly look about them, and an attention to fine skin details that I really like.

While the massive bulk of Stegosaurus and, to a lesser extent, Iguanodon (with a rather dashing row of dorsal spines) dominates this composition, one's eye can't help but be drawn to the two much more dynamic-looking animals depicted in the top right. Although drawn as the croc-line archosaurs they surely were, Ornithosuchus and Saltoposuchus are here desribed by author Barry Cox as 'dinosaur ancestors'. Whatever - it was the '70s. More interesting is the fact that they are so dynamic - which makes me wonder about artistic precedents for depicting pseudosuchian, crocodolymorph etc. etc. archosaurs as seemingly being more fleet of foot than dinosaurs.

No need to guess the artistic precedents behind this depiction of Allosaurus, mind you - it's reminiscent of any number of depictions of the animal chewing on a downed sauropod, going all the way back to Charles Knight's, which was based on a mount at the American Museum of Natural History. Of course, in this case the prey item happens to be a Camptosaurus instead, but it's still a very familiar scene. As if to hammer home that this is a Palaeoart Standard, Ovenden even throws in a violently belching mountain. Nothing says 'primordial world' quite like some belligerent geography. Having said all that, the spotty pattern on Allosaurus' flanks is lovely indeed. Gorgeous scalation work, darling. Wonderful attention to detail, too, in the way that the allosaurs' claws are tugging on the thick hide of its victim.

Another solid indication that you're looking at old-school dinosaur art is the appearance of animal labelled 'Coelurus'. There's nothing wrong with that, of course - Coelurus is a valid taxon - but the creature seldom appears in art any more. Given that Ornitholestes was long considered a junior synonym of Coelurus, it's likely that many historic illustrations of 'Coelurus' depict that animal instead (which is somewhat better known), and indeed Ornitholestes has more-or-less now replaced Coelurus in its role in palaeoart. Aptly enough, Coelurus here shares a scene with a Euoplocephalus that appears to be a portmanteau of different ankylosaurs (with a dash of retro 'reptilian armadillo' artistic tropes). It's the Archaeopteryx that are most deserving of attention, though, as they are actually remarkably good - in that they're not wearing weirdo lizard masks and their hands actually form part of their wing. Ovenden clearly knew a thing or two more about bird anatomy than many of his contemporaries (and even many illustrators working since).

And now for my favourite scene in the whole book (or pamphlet...or whatever). Nothing says 'the Savage World of Long Ago' quite like somebody having their head bitten clean off. For a sauropod to wander out of the water in vintage palaeoart is, of course, certain death, and it's great to see Ceratosaurus taking charge and dealing the damage for a change (rather than cowering in the shadow of that certain 'other' Morrison theropod). The dappled and stripy patterns on the animals here are quite lovely and well-executed, and (unlike in some of the other scenes) attention has been paid to the animals' skeletons - note the blunt-nosed look of the juvenile camarasaurs and the osteoderms and three horns on Ceratosaurus. It's also worth noting that the text describes how the sauropods were, in fact, well adapted for a life on land - a sign of how the times were changing.

Disappointingly, Rexy doesn't get to indulge in such violent, bloody savagery, in spite of being so large, famous, and sexy. Instead, he's depicted merely flashing a smile at some very retro-looking hadrosaurs, with Corythosaurus looking particularly unimpressed. When compared with the Ceratosaurus scene, there's a greater tendency here to just lean on old palaeoart tropes - as exemplified by the weirdly beakless and tripodal hadrosaur. Rexy certainly has some suitably massive thighs on him (and that purpleish colour scheme is rather natty), but his left leg has presumably adopted some rather strange angles, and his first toes are reversed for no good reason. (Basal tyrannosauroids confirmed as arboreal perchers? Yeah, why not? What do you mean, 'no evidence whatsoever'? Quiet, you!) Meanwhile, Tsintaosaurus has a red rocket. On its head. Again.

And finally...a grey brachiosaur. To Ovenden's credit, most of the animals in this book-type thing have excellent skin textures - just the right mix of pebbly scales, osteoderms and the occasional flashy spiky bits, with colour schemes that are naturalistic without being dull. The dappled patterns on this sauropod are, again, rather pretty (I think Niroot would heartily approve), but it suffers from having a very saggy, wrinkled look, probably based on extant large mammals such as the heffalump and nose-horn. It's a bit disappointing when compared with the far more convincing (and reptilian) look that he applies to other creatures, but is reflective of a trend that persisted for far, far too long. Having said that, it's interesting that Ovenden drew the nostrils further down the snout, while still depicting the nasal crest - hinting, as with the Archaeopteryx, that he had something of an intuitive grasp of certain aspects of animal anatomy. It's easy to have a chuckle at these old books (and Gryposaurus knows I've done that an awful lot over the years), but there was an accomplished illustrator at work here.

That giant pacycephalosaur is still amusing, though. Tee hee.


  1. Anatomical issues aside, the paintings here are really, really beautiful. My favourites are the Iguanodon & Stegosaurus and (gasp) the Allosaurus devouring the Camptosaurus. Really good find, Marc. Its format, however, can't help but remind me of a certain project I missed out on. :'( *Sobs quietly*

    And yes, I do indeed approve of the dappled-leaf markings.

  2. I'll never understand why that even to this day, Archaeopteryx is shown in trees despite the fact that there were little trees on it's island.

    Another interesting thing I noticed here is that while the text is sorta modern, the art is pre-Renaissance. This is noticeable in the Hadrosaur section. It says that they fed on land plants even though they're drawn in the water.

  3. The cover claims to have "all principal types illustrated". I can't help but wonder who curates the offical list of principal dinosaurs.

    1. These days, I think it's Universal Studios.

  4. He really does add some skillfully naturalistic details - I like the sexual dimorphism in the Psittacosaur's coloration.

  5. Haha, I *do* love bulbous, spiky-tailed Scolosaurus! It's such a funny art meme to have taken hold.

  6. Is there a 'page' that you're not showing us? By my count, 17 are shown (including the 1-page cover), and there are a pair of un-accounted for arms coming in from the left on the Ceratosaurus 'page'.

    1. Yes, I missed out at least one page - it had some rather dull semi-aquatic sauropods in it.

  7. I had this very thing blu-tacked up on my bedroom wall for the whole of my childhood - I loved it! So great to see it again (and I love your descriptions)...

  8. I love the site, and the vintage art series in particular. It takes me back to my childhood, especially the post about the Mysterious World of Dinosaurs, with its creepy, zombie-like dino's. Here is a link I recently came across to some seriously vintage, Victorian art by Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins, that may be of interest:


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