There can't be very many small, 'spotter's guide'-type dinosaur books that tuck a lovely surprise into their final few pages, after endless illustrations of animals standing around gawping in front of white backdrops - but, why look, here comes one now. Prehistoric Animals (first ed 1969, this ed 1974) is about as generic as they come, but offers up a pleasantly painterly few spreads towards the rear. It's just a shame that the artists aren't properly credited...
Although Barry Cox is credited as author, the book only lists 'Design Practitioners Ltd.' as the illustrator. Boo. In spite of the implication that the book was illustrated by a handful of people, there is no sense of discontinuity or disjointedness. The reconstructions of the animals have aged to varying degrees, with the dinosaurs probably coming off the worst. The cavalcade of retro tropes begins on the cover, where a slightly sad-looking, warty Triceratops (note the body-coloured horns; an upgrade only available on higher-spec ceratopsians) jostles for space with a grumpy Deinotherium and Rexy in classic Osborne guise (standing upright, that is - not espousing racism or anything like that). As usual, while the book might cover all prehistoric animals, dinosaurs are acknowledged as the real stars of the show. How fortuitous that they have the habit of turning up right in the middle of the narrative.
Most of the book consists of illustrations like these. Ah, but then we have the surprise near the back...
Lovely, romantic prehistoric panoramas! Over on the Fezbooks, Blake Ó Murchú remarked that the palette in the below scene (depicting Cretaceous marine reptiles) is "fucking gorgeous". And I quite agree. There is a wonderful, primordial murk to both that and the above scene, depicting Jurassic land animals (there is intended to be a division down the middle). That such tiny scenes - about 22cm across - should be so evocative is quite remarkable. Just take a look at the steaming swamps in the stegosaur scene, or the rush of bubbles around the diving bird below. Marvellous. The reconstructions are horribly outdated overall, and in some cases just Plain Wrong even for the era (with Colin the macrocephalic aquatic sauropod being a particular highlight), but the artwork's still quite lovely.
The Late Cretaceous scene is like something out of a picture book, with beautifully stylised, detailed foliage and a palette that delicately treads the line between colourful and naturalistic. Although disappointed not to find Rousseau's tiger lurking in the undergrowth, Rexy still finds time to wave courteously to a weird Protoceratops-alike. For some reason, his face reminds me of Barney from The Simpsons. "Yoo-hoooo!"
Perhaps my favourite of all these scenes takes place not in the Mesozoic, but millions of years later. In this beautifully realised illustration, a lone Uintatherium bathes in a shady swamp. It's far better than any panorama in a book like this has any right to be; almost worthy of Burian himself. With the eye drawn to the great grey beast just off-centre, it's easy to miss the terrifying nightmare lemur lurking to the far left. Avert its unrelenting, unfeeling stare, for there lies madness; shunning daylight and human contact, locking one's self into a dank cellar and producing Memo Kosemen-worthy artwork, for ever.
For all that it has an artsy side, the bulk of this books' illustrations do, indeed, consist of plain old prehistoric animal portraits. In fact, there are dozens of the things, spreading an impressively diverse number of different animal clades - I may have to devote another post entirely to them. For now, here are a few from the only section that (come on now) really matters - Mesozoic dinosaurs.
Having already popped up on the cover, Rexy puts in another appearance inside. Although depicted in a rather upright pose, it's worth noting that the back and tail are actually quite straight - not bad for a book dating back to 1969. The head, however, is a complete mess - like a crude rubbery glove puppet.
When the book's large ornithopods appear, there is a notable contrast between the Neave Parker-aping Iguanodon, with its resolute tripodal pose and customary dewlap, and a quadrupedal 'hadrosaur' (which appears to be based on Corythosaurus). This is perhaps the perfect illustration of how artists can become hidebound to a very particular depiction of an animal - as if there was simply no way that Iguanodon could ever appear except as a bloated tripod with a flattering neck accessory. Meanwhile, the Corythosaurus shows a little more invention. It appears to be lolling its tongue which, oddly enough, was a trope often applied to Iguanodon illustrations.
While most 'portraits' are full-body depictions, Pachycephalosaurus is unique in having its head alone illustrated, with the text indicating that this is probably because it isn't known from much else. Although the reference material available to agency artists would undoubtedly have been poor back then, it's clear that the illustrator at least had access to an image of a skull in lateral view - the dome, snout spikes and overall shape are there, but some finer details are off. Still, in light of modern restorations, it's interesting to see the animal restored without any 'cheeks'. Hey, Jaime Headden, have you drawn this one yet?
The book's depiction of pterosaurs is also a little different in that they are given a prop, namely a naked tree trunk. While the art isn't much to write home about, it's nice to see Dsungaripterus make an appearance; even more pleasing is that it's shown climbing a tree trunk, rather than hanging upside-down in defiance of pterosaur pedal anatomy, gravity and the collective rage of every pterosaur researcher in the world.
And finally...over on Facebook, ever-enthusiastic commenter Bill Lovell enquired as to whether this was the book with the 'weird kangaroo with the creepy human face'. It is indeed, Bill. While the majority of Sthenurus reconstructions can't help but make the animal look very strange, that's only because it really did look rather odd. This book is surely unique, however, in making it look quite so disconcertingly humanoid. I think it's those winning cheekbones.
Coming up next week: motorcycling dudebro maniraptor wranglers, probably.