Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Vintage Dinosaur Art: Prehistoric Animals (Hamlyn)

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 The reconstructions are horribly outdated overall, and in some cases just Plain Wrong even for the era (with Colin the macrocephalic aquatic sauropod being a particular highlight), but the artwork's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.


  1. Does the book say what the leftmost aquatic reptile in the marine panorama is supposed to be? I just can't put that face anywhere but "the artist's dog photobombing the late cretaceous".

    1. I'd guess it's probably Kronosaurus or some kind of pliosaur, though the skull is reeeaally odd.

    2. It's what I was referring to with "Colin the macrocephalic aquatic sauropod" - but yes, it's supposed to be a pliosaur.

    3. I'm wondering if maybe they were going for an alligator-type look with that. Even so, the perspective is rather off.

  2. I've seen that pic of the uintatherium somewhere else, though it eludes me as to where. It was long ago, when I was a kid (not too long after dinosaurs trod the Earth), but as soon as I saw it a lightbulb of recognition lit up. Great find, regardless!


  3. I second your idea of devoting another post to the rest of the illustrations in this book. You also missed out a few of the dinosaur ones. My favourite being a brown, pop eyed Ankylosaurus with what appear to by large sugar puffs decorating his back. I ca also recall a fat Eryops and a Cynodont as well as a nice selection of post Cretaceous mammals. I foolishly chucked the book out years ago, but I can remember at the time I felt that this was perhaps the first set of illustrations where the artists seem to have added their own creative spin on these reconstructions, rather than just a dry accurate illustration, They’re almost dinosaur caricatures.

  4. Another book that tugs on the childhood strings, though in two directions I think. Even as a child I was impressed by some illustrations, disturbed by others.The panoramas are wonderful even if some of their inhabitants leaves something to be desired. The marine scene reminds that in many vintage panoramas all the beasties are facing in the same direction as if they cannot stand the sight of each other. Pteranodon flies against the tide, but then, he has the whole of the sky as his domain - he doesn't have to look at anyone. Well done again.

  5. PS. I remember being very pleased by the illustration of Dsungaripterus, because I had discovered a pterosaur that wasn't Pteranodon, Pterodactylus, Rhamphorynchus or Dimorphodon. Also the giant marsupials made me cheer for my homeland.

  6. No comment on how "not so sexy rexy" is dancing?

    Or about how archaeopteryx looks somewhat decent this time?

  7. Can anyone please help me? I'm looking for a painting that was in one of the final pages of a dinosaur book I had when I was a kid in the mid 70s. It was a painting of a desert with a mesa, and the skeleton of a triceratops, lying on its stomach, and partially buried in the sand. The triceratops was supposed to be recent deseased and represented the end of the dinosaurs. I've have been trying to find a copy of this painting for years. It was one of those that sparked my life-long for dinosaurs.. Please help me.

    1. Your description sounds similar to a Mark Hallett painting titled "Dawn of a New Day". It has several small mammals squabbling over a Triceratops (or some such) skull 'face-on' so to speak, with the rest of the skeleton trailing off into the background. No mesa, but there are hills or mountains in the far distance. The Triceratops is skeletonized, hardly "recently dead", and the piece may be more recent than what you're talking about. (It would help if you remembered anything else about the book.) There's another, by Ely Kish, of a skeletonized Chasmosaur in a more deserty setting with a small theropod scavenging the carcass. (Both have been posted at this site.)
      If these aren't what you're talking about I'm working on cataloging a lot of paleoart & I'll keep my eye out for you. Is there a better way to contact you (since this is rather off-topic for THIS page)?
      [As I post this, I'm having a flash of something that I've seen recently.]

    2. I think I found it- Animals of Long Ago, Raymond Jones (1965) has a 2-page illustration by Hamilton Greene that pretty well matches your description, right down to the mesa. Too bad you haven't responded at all- I'd send it to you.

  8. These illustrations are familiar from my childhood, too, but from a different title - Hamlyn's Dinosaurs And Other Prehistoric Animals by Alfred Leutscher.

    Adapted from the all-colour paperback and published in 1971, this was part of the Hamlyn Pointer Book series, which included, if memory serves, titles on military uniforms, weapons and space craft - all of which were juvenile fascinations of mine. Many of the more evocative scenes did not make the Pointer book, but are familiar nonetheless - those Hamlyn books were stables of school libraries back in the 70s.

    I'd hoped to be clever and reveal the artists' names from this other edition but again, only Design Practitioners is credited.

    To my eye, the illustrations came a poor second to Zallinger's work in Dinosaurs And Other Prehistoric Reptiles - which was my absolute fave dino book.

    The Pointer book has four double-page illustrations that may not appear in the earlier paperback:

    1) A bunch of Pterosaurs ‘gliding’ rather awkwardly over a river to scoop up fish, while an archaeopteryx swoops down, presumably to snatch a fish - he has speckled, pheasant-like plumage with purple wing feathers.

    2) A couple of plesiosaurs basking in the sun on the shore, as if they were seals, while a school of ichthyosaurs leap dolphin-like in the ocean. I guess it’s not impossible that plesiosaurs did that.

    3) Two brachiosaurus doing their old-fashioned submerged-in-water thing, while a brontosaurus looks on. The picture is spilt in half by the waterline, so we see the brachs in all their aquatic splendour.

    4) A herd of mammoth in a snow-covered landscape, accompanied by a wholly rhino.

    As you say, the book has many of the old dino tropes, but actually, the paintings avoid cribbing from Zallinger’s work, which many other artists appeared to do at the time.


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