Sunday, July 5, 2015

Vintage Dinosaur Art: The Lost World (Ladybird)

Ladybird books are a firm favourite of mine, since (like many other Brits) I have very fond memories of learning to read with them as a child - not just those bought for me at the time, but also hand-me-downs, which were all the more special. Their factual dinosaur book remains a favourite - laughably outdated these days, but still beautifully illustrated by LITC stalwart Bernard Robinson. Ladybird also published simplified versions of classic tales; as a child, I had their version of Robinson Crusoe. Until last week, I had no idea that these included The Lost World, and happily it's just as lavishly illustrated (by Martin Aitchison, this time) and entertaining as ever.



Regular readers will have noticed that, in the above image, I've actually bothered to stitch images of the front and back covers together for once; this is because they're worth viewing together as one piece. There's an awful lot going on, and plenty of palaeoart tropes to be had. The front cover's dominated by a very mid-20th century kangalizard Iguanodon, all tiny hands, prominent teeth and natty pebbliness (although sadly missing the dewlap). Meanwhile, Stegosaurus rules the back, looking stunning in classic Roofed Lizard Green with red trim; its pose appears to be based on an old Robinson piece. Pterosaurs swoop overhead, 'natives' lurk in the undergrowth, and an 'ape man' swings in from above. Best of all, though, there appears to be a fight between a Crystal Palace ichthyosaur and plesiosaur going on in the background. Beautiful stuff.


As with so many Ladybird books, the story's human characters are superbly illustrated, their faces vividly conveying their emotions and personalities. Here, the crew are aghast as a terrifyingly bug-eyed pterosaur nabs their dinner, like some sort of giant, leathery-winged seagull git. Well, most of them are; Professor Challenger, of course, is happy to have proven Professor Sumerlee (shown here collapsing to the ground in shock) wrong. "Ha ha, look! A Stoutian nightmare wraith with a voracious carnivorous appetite! Take that, Summerlee!" Professor Challenger is, of course, ably portrayed by Brian Blessed. And quite mad.


Speaking of which..."Iguanodon's ALIVE!" The crew enjoy a lovely moment of wonder (without Philomena), observing a herd of Belgians lost in the jungles of South America. These are your father's Iguanodon, described as looking like "monstrous kangaroos, twenty feet long, with scaly skins like black crocodiles". I can't decide what's most enjoyable about this image; the detail of one of the lizardy lummoxes accidentally stepping on the tail of a smaller dinosaur, or Summerlee's delighted expression.


The team later come upon a crater containing an entire nesting colony of grotesque pterosaurs, all bony arms and bizarrely ribbed necks. While exaggerated to more closely match their descriptions in the text, the animals appear to be based on contemporary depictions of Pterodactylus, as is particularly evident from the head. An especially superb detail in this illustration - and evidence that Aitchison had seen a few avian nesting colonies - is the huge amount of dried guano on each rocky outpost. It helps make things that little more authentically revolting.


Thankfully, the sinister pterosaurs don't come for our heroes in the night. Instead, they're visited by a large theropod, on its way back from a merry Iguanodon slaughter. The characters speculate that the animal might be a Megalosaurus, and Aitchison's illustration seems to take cues from Peter Snowball's oft-reproduced 1970s painting of the animal, right down to omitting the hallux on both feet. The shorter, wider head is probably deliberate; in the text, the creature is described as having a face like "a giant toad" (only with more teeth).


Thankfully, there's plenty of time for more dino-watching in between bouts of life-threatening peril. In the above illustration, the narrator (Edward Malone) has a close encounter with an old-fashioned Stegosaurus, the likes of which one might find in a 1950s Zallinger painting or Jurassic World. Unusually, the tail is depicted snaking up into the trees, rather than just dragging along the ground, which actually works quite well for the composition.

Of course, it's far too easy to be distracted by everything going on on the left hand side of the piece, where a panoply of retro palaeoart creations are chilling out by (and in) an otherwise quite serene-looking lake. A pair of plesiosaurs are shown sitting in the shallows (for some reason), snatching up passing fish and unwary pterosaurs alike. This may be a work of fiction, but such impossibly periscope-necked marine reptiles featured frequently in palaeoart until surprisingly recently (and now, with the benefit of hindsight, look completely ludicrous). Meanwhile, two '70s model kit Corythosaurus hang around by the shore, looking a bit glum as a squat Protoceratops joins them for a drink. There's also a deer because, hey, why not? In all, it's a marvellous piece of work by Aitchison, who seems to delight in cramming ever more tiny details into this rather surreal scene.


Of course, it's not long before the megalosaur returns, which the narrator describes as having come "snuffling after" him (a pleasant reminder of a time before pop culture dinosaurs were required to sacrifice the element of surprise by roaring at their potential victims in an inexplicable rage). When compared with the previous illustration, this theropod looks rather more awkwardly static and unconvincing, which may be explained by Aitchison's need to change the pose further from Snowball's original. On the other hand, there's a beautiful sense of sudden movement in the depiction of Malone stumbling into a trap set up by the locals (complete with a particularly deadly-looking pencil. Hardness rating: NAILS). I'm also fond of the way that a foreground detail (the carnivorous plant snagging a dragonfly) echoes the main action in the scene.


Having spent some time on the plateau, our ever-ingenious protagonists start improvising contraptions to walk among the unfriendly prehistoric denizens without being eaten (because that's what aristocratic, unflappable Edwardian explorers would have done, damn it). In the above illustration, Lord John Roxton heads off to steal a pterosaur egg, having whipped up a protective cage from bent canes. The dramatic red sky here is quite lovely, and the knowing expression on Roxton's face is just priceless.


Of course, this leads to our heroes presenting a pterosaur to a sceptical audience of scientists in London.  Naturally, this leads to uproar, as indicated above by the shocked-looking audience members and a lady in dire need of her smelling salts. By contrast, the four protagonists appear to be taking great delight in being able to present the living proof behind their tall tales, and none more so than Brian Blessed, unleashing an aggressive carnivorous animal on the audience with a toothy grin and a theatrical hand gesture. The pterosaur itself has adopted an equally dramatic pose, holdings its wings up like Dracula's cloak and giving the audience a steely glare from its giant red eye.


And finally...as everyone reading this blog surely already knows, the pterosaur promptly escapes the Queen's Hall and goes on a brief sightseeing tour of London before making its way down to Devon, perhaps because it had heard something about the 'Jurassic Coast'. This occasions the above illustration, depicting the beastie terrifying one of the fine men in silly hats who help keep our fine democracy's hereditary head-of-state-for-life a good bayonet's length away from the peasants. The way that the pterosaur looks almost as startled as the guardsman is quite brilliant. Bearskin hats off to Aitchison for his fine work on this one, I think!

16 comments:

  1. Squeee! I've wanted an illustrated version of The Lost World from the time I was a 10 year old dyslexic child trying desperately to slog my way through the novel. This is a fantastic find, and I will digging up a copy of my own. Thanks to you, Marc, for another awesome article, and for bringing this little gem to light.

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  2. Wow, this is very beautiful. Poor in scientific accurary but immensely rich in artistic quality. Every creature portrayed (and that certainly includes the humans) looks stunning and very realistic.

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  3. A nice review of one of my favourite books from childhood; I've always loved the art (and, as a kid, I was always perplexed by that scene where one Iguanodon is treading on the tail of the juvenile. That deer is not any old deer - it's supposed to be a Megaloceros. Incidentally, I've had cause to use one of the illustrations (the one where Malone comes face-to-face with an ape-man) in talks: it's relevant to claims that Doyle was perhaps behind the Piltdown hoax. Long story...

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    1. Long but fascinating, I'm sure! I've also heard that Doyle attempted to pass off footage of the 1925 film version of The Lost World as proof that his novel was based in reality.

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  4. note fur on the pterosaurs. that's a bit ahead of it's time isn't it?

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    1. More surprisingly up-to-date than ahead of its time - this book dates from 1981, whereas pterosaur 'fur' was discovered earlier.

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  5. I remember this, the illustrations in particular. What a blast from the past!

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  6. And isn’t it a tragedy that, as far as I know, Brian Blessed has never gotten to play Professor Challenger.

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    1. It's not too late! I mean, he did get to play Henry VIII for the reopened London Dungeon a couple of years ago, so he'd probably still be up for it...

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  7. What a lovely find! Wonderful art that perfectly captures the story.

    I always liked how the 'megalosaur" was described as toad headed. The characters, of course, would identify it as megalosaurus because it was one of the few 'carnosaurs' known at the time. Then many decades later we do find large theropods in South America and Carnotaurus and its relatives Do have toad like heads! What a wonderful guess by Doyle. In my heart the Challenger crew were actually menaced by an Abelisaur.

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  8. http://www.amazon.co.uk/Dinosaurs-Childcraft-Annual-1987-World/dp/0716606879/ref=sr_1_fkmr0_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1436539951&sr=8-1-fkmr0&keywords=dinosaurs!+1984+childcraft

    I wonder if you've come across this book, especially with being a Brit and the 80's meaning something to you. There was a whole series of Childcraft books but Dinosaurs! was my personal favourite. It's full of interesting and mixed paleoart that I think you'd get a kick out of if you could get your hands on a copy.

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    1. Haha, well, I think you'll love it! Seems like it'll be right up your street, judging from the blog. Let me know what you think of it when it arrives.

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  9. Your blog is amazing! I've been passionate about dinosaurs ever since I was little and saw you-know-what-film. I've written a post recently about the science behind the idea of bringing back dinosaurs (largely based on previously mentioned film, obviously haha) I'd love to hear your views http://afrenchguyinlondon.com/2015/06/could-we-actually-bring-back-dinosaurs/

    Keep up the good work! :)

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  10. I have my original copy of this book and read it to my 3 year old daughter who loves it. It really captured my imagination and bred my love of dinosaurs as a child. What I also have is the read along cassette which has the most amazing music on it and to this day I have not been able to find out who that music is by which is sad, so if anyone knows then please put me out of my 35 year misery!

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