Saturday, May 9, 2015

Vintage Dinosaur Art: The Superbook of Dinosaurs

Given the despairingly awful recent parliamentary election result in the country in which I happen to live, it's a good thing that Vintage Dinosaur Art is on hand to cheer everyone up. Especially as I've been quite looking forward to writing about this one - it might mostly be a fairly typical book of the period (1985), but it features a few tropetastic pieces that definitely raise a smile. Furthermore, much of the art is actually pretty good - at least at a technical level - and there are one or two early pieces from now well-established names. It's no less than The Superbook of Dinosaurs!

The cover (also featured inside) is instantly recognisable as a Bernard Robinson piece, what with its hyper-detailed scalation and distinctly reptilian dinosaurs. We've looked at Robinson's work plenty of times before, but to recap, he was largely active in the '70s and '80s and produced a great deal of illustrations featuring convincingly detailed and fleshy dinosaurs that were nevertheless of a rather old-school, lizardy bent. This is mostly evidenced in their rather puny Knightian limb musculature; note the toothpick arms on the T. rex above. Hopelessly outdated as it now is, his work still has a palpable solidity and 'reality' about it, and certainly left a great impression on many childhood dinosaur enthusiasts. Plus, I can't help but feel that more people should try giving Tyrannosaurus glassy black eyes. Like a doll's eyes...

As is typical, the book covers more of Palaeozoic life than is really necessary for a title that is ostensibly about dinosaurs, and so we are presented with a highly detailed Dimetrodon basking on what appears to be the surface of Mars. It's tempting to ascribe this to Robinson too, but a signature in the bottom right informs us otherwise - why, it's none other than J. Sibbick himself! These days, Sibbick has developed a unique style that is recognisable from forty paces, but one would be hard-pressed to pin this piece on the palaeoillustration stalwart; it's clear that his technique evolved quite quickly between this and the Normanpedia, which is still recognisably 'Sibbick'. It's also interesting to compare this work with a later illustration that appeared in Dinosaurs: a Global View, particularly in terms of how the palaeoenvironment in the latter is far more richly realised.

Onwards to the Triassic, and back to Bernard Robinson. A spread on the 'rise of the dinosaurs' is dominated by a Robinson illustration of a Plateosaurus being mauled by a, shall we say, rather fanciful-looking Ornithosuchus (not a dinosaur, but a croc-line archosaur). Although armour-plated, the latter still suspiciously resembles some sort of basal theropod dinosaur here; not surprising, as the text describes it as such, reflecting what was for a long time the consensus view on the animal's phylogeny. In any case, I love that the Ornithosuchus-thing has managed to grab a great wad of plateosaur flesh in its jaws. Looks painful.

Curiously, this spread also features a photograph of a nicely made model Ornithosuchus that is proportioned rather more like how it is envisaged nowadays, i.e. with a shorter neck and larger head, more croc-like than dinosaur-like. This looks like something that might have come out of The Age of Dinosaurs: a Photographic Record, although I can't find my copy to confirm [EDIT: it isn't - see comments].

Happily, it's not all hyper-detailed scaliness all the time here, and as the book enters the Late Jurassic we are treated to this monstrosity. Darren Naish looked at this piece back in 2010 as part of his examination of the 'freaky giraffoid Barosaurus meme' - it dates to 1975, and unfortunately I can't shed any more light on who the artist was (as none of the pieces in the Superbook are credited). As Darren noted, this illustration seems to take the famous Bakker barosaurs as its starting point, and then splices in elements of racehorses for a thoroughly horrifying beastie mish-mash.

While the giraffe-like flexi-tongue is troublesome enough, it's that steroidal musculature that truly unsettles. It's almost certainly an example of Dinosaur Renaissance thinking taken rather too far - an over-reaction to the outdated views of the palaeontological 'old guard'. Yes, sauropods certainly weren't blobsome fatties that floated around in fetid swamps all day, their eyes glazed over, barely good for anything except reliably being elected as the Tory MP for Mid Sussex. However, they also weren't out declaring that they, in fact, had the power, battling Skeletor and making rubbish friends designed to pad out the action-figure range. What I'm saying is, it's creepy. Really creepy.

As the Superbook moves on in to the Cretaceous, so it wheels out the marginocephalians, the headbutting, tyrannosaur-foiling heroes of the children. The illustration of two pacycephalosaurs having at it (above) is intriguing, and may well be another very early Sibbick (although don't quote me on that; it's not credited). The striped blue and orange colour scheme is rather natty, and I like that they're placed in a topographically varied setting. On the other hand, there's something rather odd about their necks, which seem distinctly sinewy rather than necessarily muscular. The two animals also seem to be missing each other, although that could well be intentional. Not too bad for the time, in any case.

It's probably best you don't pay too much attention to that Triceratops skeleton. Here's looking at you.

Elsewhere, we have this rather poor Burian knock-off, in which the ankylosaur has been slightly repositioned in order to be delivering a mild reprimand to its classically well-fed gorgosaur opponent. Take that, fatso!

And before you know it, we've reached The End of an Era. There are a few palaeoart memes present in this illustration, not least those of the 'gangly dork hadrosaur' and the disturbing, tiny-handed, stilt-legged ornithomimosaur. Absolutely any reference material on ornithomimosaurs will tell you that their fingers were actually quite long, so how exactly they kept ending up with miniscule, often disturbingly humanoid hands in palaeoart is something of a mystery. Equally, the 'gangly dork' hadrosaur, with its peculiarly long, thin legs, truncated arms and determinedly upright posture, is arguably just as far from the mark as even the Burian-era tail-draggers. But then, such is the power of the palaeoart meme.

Having said all that, I do like that the illustrator of the above piece thought to include (what I take to be) a champsosaur rather than a generic 'modern-style' crocodilian; it's a nice reminder of that oft-forgotten reptile group that survived the K/Pg event, only to go extinct later. The poor sods.

So, the dinosaurs are gone, but the book goes on to remind us of all the wonderful institutions in which we can view their fossilised remains and even, occasionally, the odd lovingly-created diorama...such as the one above. Granted, the grey colouration is a little dull, but the model Rexies still have a pleasingly lean, 'modern' appearance for the era. The book only mentions these as being on display in 'a museum', so I'd love to hear from any readers who have any inkling as to exactly which museum this was displayed in [EDIT: it was the Smithsonian! Again, see comments].

And finally...seemingly from the same artist who brought us the 'giraffoid barosaur', here we have a classic 'size comparison chart' featuring a procession of disturbingly veiny, oily brutes, including one of the oddest Iguanodon I've seen since that one with the theropod head. I shared this picture over on the Facebook page, and comments on the spiky-thumbed one's neck compared it to "an Egyptian-style hair piece" (Saka Haumavarga) and "a squash" (Blake Ó Murchú). Talcott Star, meanwhile, remarked on the animal's proximity to Procoptodon, "just in case there was any doubt as to where that pose came from", while Benjamin Hillier remarked that the human had to be (British actor, TV host and archaeological dig enthusiast) Tony Robinson (owing to his diminutive stature). I don't know, Benjamin - based on the below comparison, I think they might be on the money...

Photo by Niroot.


  1. The Ornithosuchus model was included in Richard Owen's book 'Prehistoric Animals - The Extraordinary Story of Life before Man' (1975), albeit in a different photo. It was made by paleoartist Arthur Hayward, like the other photos of prehistoric animals in that book.

  2. I'm sorry, the author is ELLIS Owen. Anyhow, the photo is not from 'The Age of Dinosaurs: a Photographic Record'

  3. In a childhood book I forget the name of, Ornithosuchus is illustrated as basically neckless.

  4. I agree about suspecting that the Pachycephalosaurus might be an early Sibbick also, though I obviously don't know for certain either.

    Rather uncomfortable perspective fudge in the Euoplocephalus & Gorgosaurus illustration. Eep.

  5. I feel like I've seen that "T. rexes fight over a dead hadrosaur" diorama in a few museums; I could almost swear Boston's Museum of Science at least had something very similar.

    That Iguanodon, though... O_o

  6. The rexes are from the Smithsonian museum in Washington, DC!

  7. The Tyrannosaurs are from the National Museum of Natural History (The Smithsonian Museum of Natural History).

  8. Actually, I think the Iguanodon's neck looks rather like that of a frilled lizard.

  9. If I recall correctly, there's a similar sauropod (may be Barosaurus) with the tongue hanging out in Dinosaurs and More Dinosaurs, which you reviewed some time ago.


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