Did you know that if you placed every dinosaur book written by Michael Benton end-to-end, they would stretch three times around the equator? Along with good ol' Dougal 'Dixie' Dixon, Benton is surely one of the most prolific authors of popular books on extinct saurians. Similarly to Dixon, the sheer number of Benton-authored books means that the quality of the illustrations contained within them varies greatly. While not dreadful, the art in The Penguin Historical Atlas of the Dinosaurs isn't particularly memorable; it's the sort of serviceable, highly Sibbick-inspired artwork you'd expect to see in a randomly selected dino book from the mid-'90s. That said, it's still interesting to spot all those beloved '90s tropes, some of which still refuse to die. (Oh, and I have cheated a bit - this book's from 1996, so isn't quite old enough to qualify for VDA. Then again...rules, who needs 'em?)
By far the best aspect of this book is the large number of maps on offer, each displaying the lie of the land and the distribution of different animal groups in a given time period. As one might expect given the title, these maps are the book's real emphasis, and do indeed provide a wonderful sense of the shifting continents through geological time. Arguably, the illustrations (produced by Ralph Orme, Steve Roberts and Peter Smith) are of secondary importance to the maps, but occasionally the artwork is brought to the fore, with entire pages dedicated to a single animal - as is the case with Plateosaurus, below.
The illustration's rather uninspiring - a gaggle of grey dinosaurs standing about in a largely barren landscape, their skins wrinkly in a highly '80s Sibbickian, Michelin Man sort of way. They're very droopy-tailed, and sport rather shapeless limbs - again, no doubt inspired by Sibbick's Normanpedia era work, as so much '90s dinosaur art was. On the other hand, it's worth noting that the plateosaurs remain firmly bipedal, unlike Sibbick's own. The German palaeontologist Friedrich von Huene concluded that Plateosaurus was a biped decades earlier, and while others have since argued in favour of an habitual quadrupedal posture, further work by the likes of Heinrich 'Caudofemoralis' Mallison has borne this out. So...hey, it's actually aged quite well! If you ignore everything else about the animals' postures.
Come the Early Cretaceous, we're treated to a classic Wealden scene in which a very obviously Sibbick-inspired Iguanodon (now with forward-curving thumbs for greater stabbing efficiency!) steals centre stage, while brachiosaurs and (presumably) Hypsilophodon look on. It's always pleasing to see dinosaurs in a rainstorm (if nothing else, it helps to distract from the lack of vegetation), but the most curious thing about this illustration is the creature lurking in the middle-right. What exactly is this long-necked, small-headed, sharp-thumbed beast? I'm tempted to assume it's Baryonyx, in which case this is one of the strangest illustations of said dinosaur out there. Could the head be partially submerged? Maybe, but it doesn't look it. Weird.
Speaking of spinosaurs...here's a gloriously '90s Spinosaurus complete with neat, semicircular sail and generic 'carnosaur' head. Note also the short arms, which made perfect sense under the assumption that this was some sort of weirdo allosauroid. It's not the artist's fault that Science Marches On, of course, but it's always amusing to look back.
Equally outdated - but less obviously so, at least to most people - is this Quetzalcoatlus, which, once again, is heavily inspired by Sibbick's work - especially the head. Even the colour scheme on the noggin is a near-direct copy of Sibbick's. Mark Witton discussed the genesis and legacy of Sibbick's Quetz at Tetzoocon last year, but suffice it to say that the much-copied head nubbin is a mistake, and the jaws are also likely too short.
I'm quite sure that the book's Saurolophus (above) has also been copied from somewhere, although I can't quite place it - the original may have appeared in Dinosaurs! magazine. At least it's nice and colourful, as is the handsomely dappled hadrosaur in the background which, based on the accompanying caption, is presumed to be...Tsintaosaurus?! Could it be that (in spite of the text) this is another rare example of a flat-nosed Tsintaosaurus? Admittedly, it's just as probable that the foreground animal is intended to represent Tsintaosaurus (in spite of better matching Saurolophus), while the beast in the back is the 'lower crested' Saurolophus. But it would be cool to find another depiction of that seldom illustrated idea. Either way, this is one of the best illustrations in the book, featuring as it does imaginatively coloured animals and considered background detail (fallen branches! Footprints! A forest!).
As Dino Doomsday draws closer, the book wheels out the saurian big guns - namely, ceratopsian noble knight Sir Triceratopalot, and his dastardly foe of gnashing teeth and atrophied forelimbs, Sexy Rexy. The highly Sibbickian Triceratops in this scene aren't terrible, although there are a few perspective fudges afoot, particularly when it comes to the animals' faces and limbs. Rexy's unexpected lippiness is quite pleasing, but he does also possess a disconcerting '90s-style knobbly fizzog, which reminds me of nothing so much as a collectible model made by American toy manufacturer Safari back in the day. His head's also a little out of proportion with his body, which is unfortunate. Everyone likes to be reminded of how big Tyrannosaurus' head was - that's why it's always being thrust at you from book covers, typically with blood and/or slobber spraying everywhere.
Incidentally, this illustration is another example of the '90s trope involving ceratopsian parents encircling their young in order to protect them from predators, seemingly inspired by what people would do with covered wagons in the Old West [EDIT: And also some large herbivorous mammals, as pointed out by commenters. Not sure why westerns came to mind for me - I think they mentioned it in Dinosaurs! once. Or I just had one of Those Moments. It's been a long day]. It's a peculiar meme to appear so often, and I'd be interested to know the origin of it.
And finally...it's the end of the Cretaceous, which means flowering plants, modern-looking birds (is that a swallow?), and mammals...mammals everywhere. Scampering along the ground, peering over tree branches, and generally making a furry, smelly nuisance of themselves. Of course, we're also treated to the return of Triceratops and Rexy, who has turned a delightfully stripy green for this piece. It's difficult for illustrators to make a pleasing composition out of an image that is required to cram in as many different taxa as possible, but this artist has had a pretty decent stab at it. While Rexy is distractingly weird-looking, with his unduly long arms and bulbous derpy head that was seemingly made in a separate mould, the other creatures aren't so bad. I guess.
That's the thing about this book - the illustrations are altogether just so forgettable, for all the artists' best efforts. That's where you come in! Because I have a copy of Ladybird's Prehistoric Animals and Fossils going spare, it's surely Competition Time. I want you to draw me a group of Triceratops adults encircling their young, while tyrannosaur bandits circle around the perimeter. Please feel free to draw clothes and silly facial expressions on your saurians. Link to your entry in the comments, and this fairly mediocre prize could be yours!
*Thanks are due again to Niroot for pointing this out.