Monday, August 3, 2015

Vintage Dinosaur Art: Dinosaurs and Other Prehistoric Animals

Given that the last book I reviewed was so very bland and predictable (complete with the obligatory post-Normanpedia Sibbickisms), I was very happy to come upon this wonderful, ageing collection of barely held-together cloth boards on eBay. This international edition of Dinosaurs and Other Prehistoric Animals dates from 1972, but in its original form it would appear to go all the way back to 1959. What with its glorious collection of Zallingerian swamp beasts and Knightian lizard-headed tyrannosaurs (all painted by R F Peterson), it's an absolute treat for fans of truly vintage dinosauriana...even if some of the artwork isn't terribly accomplished.



The cover artwork, featuring a truly sinister-looking, beady-eyed allosaur, is probably as good as it gets. It's a marvellous composition, showing off the animal's flowing, reptilian form and evil-looking teeth and claws. There's even room to squeeze in a serpentine retro-sauropod (retropod?) and a couple of temporally displaced Pteranodon on the right, the better to flesh out this alien, prehistoric world. As a piece of palaeoart, of course, it's sub-par - the basic shape of the animal is there, but all the finer details are incorrect and occasionally just plain weird - what's going on with the flattened tail is anyone's guess. However, as a book cover, it's pretty effective. It gets your attention without shoving a slavering maw in your face.


Following an introductory chapter detailing the origins of palaeontology, the book is quick to rush through the boring old Palaeozoic. As well it should be. There are a few pages dedicated to lesser creatures like temnospondyls and Dimetrodon (gotta have Dimetrodon!) before we finally reach the origins of the dinosaurs. Whereas modern books would feature the likes of Eoraptor, Herrerasaurus and so on, here poor old Saltoposuchus has to go it alone. Of course, these days Saltoposuchus is regarded as a basal crocodylomorph, and therefore not close to a potential 'dinosaur ancestor' at all, but those were simpler times, see. In any case, as with so many reconstructions of this animal from this period and into the 1970s, the rule that all bipeds must totter around in as upright a position as possible results in a very awkward looking creature indeed. I love his sad face. "Come back, come back!"


Dispensing with the usual pleasant plateosaurs, the book immediately brings on the Properpods, starting with an enormously fat and Zallingerian Brontosaurus. A great many of the dinosaurs in this book appear to inhabit the same flat landscape filled with nondescript foliage, although at least that's preferable to an endless desert, I guess. As is typical of the period, the sauropods not only look very corpulent in the illustrations, they are mercilessly mocked in the text, too. The author - Darlene Geis - also wrote The How and Why Wonder Book of Dinosaurs, and employs many of the the same gags here. Geis describes ol' Bronto's comparatively tiny (and, in this case, misshapen) head as the final "ridiculous touch" to top off its preposterous "blimp-like" body.


Poor Brachiosaurus, meanwhile, is described (naturally) as some sort of evolutionary misfire, a creature too large to walk around on land for any extended period of time, but also very poorly built for swimming - and therefore prone to just standing around in the water looking glum. "This must have been a dull way to live - even for a dinosaur!" guffaws Geis, exactly as in The How and Why Wonder Book. "In Brachiosaurus, you can see how wasteful and useless great size can be." Just like the wasteful and useless whales, those silly artiodactyl spin-offs of the sea. Such a waste of oil better employed in street lighting.

Ironically, Peterson's artwork prominently features a brachiosaur with four feet planted firmly on the ground, where of course it looks far more at home. It's interesting to note the creature's separated toes - I can't help but wonder if this illustration inspired the old Blackgang Chine model (RIP). Such flaws aside, it is definitely one of Peterson's best, and effective in the same way as the cover - it shows off its subject very well, and in this case emphasises the verticality of the beast. Could've done with some taller plants for scale, mind.


While creations like the Brontosaurus and Brachiosaurus are familiar-looking products of their time, the book's trip into the Late Jurassic does take a few truly bizarre turns. This Stegosaurus is probably one of the worst I've ever seen. We all expect low-slung hump-backs, but this birdy-beaked, egg-shaped freak is something else. It's as if Peterson once picked up a copy of Life before Man, a funhouse mirror, and several suspicious-looking fungi from a dark corner of a nearby field, and proceeded to sit down and finally get that damn dinosaur book done. I just wish he'd also drawn a skeletal version - can you imagine what that spine looks like?


Nothing could possibly out-weird Stego, but Peterson's terrifying Camptosaurus certainly comes close. The body is fairly conventional, of course, but there's no escaping that head, what with its demented swirling eyeball and scissor-like jaws. It's like something from a baffling experimental animation carefully hand-drawn by an obsessive lunatic locked in the basement of a derelict block of flats in the DDR. To stare into its soulless, squidlike gaze is merely to court a pulverising terror from which there can be no escape.


Thankfully, Camptosaurus soon gives way to its more derived Late Cretaceous relatives, the hadrosaurs. This "Trachodon" is mercifully generic, and the background and sky are really quite pretty. Unlike a great many artists of the time, Peterson refrains from giving his hadrosaurs webbed fingers - something that the previous owner of my copy of this book thought to rectify. (Thanks to Niroot for spotting that one.) The better of these illustrations - like this one - actually make good use of the simplified background detail in order to emphasise their subjects, and are painterly in a way that we seldom see today.


Where "Trachodon" goes, Triceratops will surely follow. Although old grumpychops looks less than happy to be there, there is something serene and calming about the almost impressionistic approach to background detailing - and one can't say that about a great deal of palaeoart. (Must be something about all those weird-looking giant reptiles that people insist on parading all over the place.) The animal's tail is oddly long (the better to drag like a lizard's, perhaps), but this is still a fair reconstruction for the time, vastly superior to the same artist's Stegosaurus. It's always wonderful to see a lone megaherbivore resplendent in its natural environment - must be why I have that a print of that piece by Niroot up on me wall. The two make for an interesting comparison, being essentially the same concept illustrated decades apart.


The peace can't last, of course, because Rexy is soon on the rampage. Much as I appreciate the hatching technique, this is still a rather rubbish fight, as the strangely humanoid-legged toothy one is half-heartedly jabbed in the ribs by its squat, lumpen quarry. He should've looked where he was going.


Rexy also has a plate all to himself (but of course), in which the Charles Knight influence becomes even more apparent; this is virtually a copy of one of Knight's first ever paintings of the animal. Why, it even has that adorably misplaced eyeball for an extra-lizardy look. Why Peterson opted to copy this one rather than a later, more accurate Knight work is a little puzzling, but at least we get proper digitigrade feet, some lovely high contrast shading and an evocative atmosphere, this time.


And finally...to make up for that rubbish Rexy v Triceratopalot fight, here's a classic clash of the Knightian titans. It's a shame that almost everything you see here is now utterly improbable (what, no snake-like plesiosaur necks?), although you can probably expect to see a battle like this in Jurassic World 2. On the other hand, they might shoehorn in an unlikely romance between the two instead. Because there has to be a romance - the focus groups said so. In any case, while this isn't the best version of this scene that I've seen (the best take place amid violent tempests), it has some nice touches. Those piercing orange eyes, for example, and Tylosaurus' mighty green pimpliness. Those were the days...

19 comments:

  1. Had a good laugh reading this - gotta love the retropods. I actually quite like the artwork though!

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  2. That Camptosaurus: "Do you even lift, bro? I benched three dryosaurs this morning brah."

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  3. Oh, that Allosaur looks so coy! . . . . The final couple probably have their own boy's love fan-fiction website . . . . well, I'd read it!

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  4. That Camptosaurus: "Do you even lift, bro? I benched three dryosaurs this morning brah."

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  5. Ah memories. AS a child I was rather disappointed with many of the illustrations. The Stegosaurus looks like a pudding from hell, the sauropods have over-sized heads and they're not very dynamic. As you suggest, the Allosaurus on the cover is the best, though where he got the cranial scutes from is anyone's guess.

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  6. I have this book still after more than 40 years! It's a "classic".

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  7. Camptosaurus looks like an infrared night-vision photo.

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  8. Thanks for another entry in the series, Marc. Peterson seems to have a couple of different styles there with the Saltoposuchus and Camptosaurus being somewhat reminiscent of George Solonevich's work.

    While we can laugh about inaccuracies, ridiculous tropes, or outright plagiarism, there is often something to appreciate regarding the artistry - the way the sky is painted, some detailed skin texturing, colouration, or simply the balance and composition.

    However, there is little to sustain me here and I hate pretty much everything about that Brachiosaurus pic. Ok, the clouds billowing up from the horizon is quite nice but that's all. The animal has a noodly neck supporting a weirdly oversized head with what looks like a crest instead of a dome, and nostrils on the side of the jaw just in front of the eye. There's also a massive amount of fluid retention going on in its lower limbs.

    Worst of all, with the way that the vegetation has been drawn, there's no sense of scale. It makes the sauropod seem about the size of a pony. And don't get me started on all those anachronistic flowering plants.

    The Tylosaurus is quite nice.

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    1. You know, having been criticised in the past for being too harsh, I'm now worried that I'm not being harsh enough. Guess I've mellowed in my old age (27). I did describe that Stego as being one of the worst I'd seen, mind you...

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  9. Thanks for this - this might the worst printed palaeoart I've ever seen - gotta love the petal-toed, bird-billed Stegosaurus! BTW, I'd love to see an article devoted just to plesiosaur-mosasaur battles!

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  10. I do like how the artist has at least attempted to make the sauropods a little graceful. The sauropod (presumably Diplodocus) on the front cover seems to snake its tail elegantly over the marsh,through it. Both Brontosaurus and Brachosaurus appear to brush their tails lightly over the ground rather than drag them. The two Diplodocus on the inside cover looks quite slender and graceful, and the one on land is definitely snaking its tail above ground. Never mind that a Pteranodon is flying overhead and Ornitholestes looks like a cross between a toad and an ornithomimid.

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  11. Is it just me, or is that Elasmosaurus looking a bit...brainy? I mean, I know there are muscles going through those two holes at the back of the skull (not sure what they're called) but I hardly imagine the muscles would bulge out quite THAT much.

    No...I suspect that every night, that Elasmosaur floats around contemplatively with its dim-witted assistant, plotting to take over the world!

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  12. I'm surprised no 1 else has mentioned Stego's oddly-short hind legs, Campto's oddly-large arms, or this book's appearance in the American version of "King Kong vs. Godzilla" (in which it is used to explain "that Godzilla is a cross between the Allosaurus depicted on the cover and the Stegosaurus shown inside": http://www.geometry.net/basic_p/prehistoric_animals_dinosaurs.php ). Otherwise, good stuff (as usual).

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    1. The brawny Campto-arms have been mentioned above, and someone did mention the Godzilla thing on Facebook.

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    2. My bad. Didn't realize that that's what Cody was referring to. Also, didn't know about the FB comment.

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  13. Why does stegosaurus have webbed front feet?

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  14. And that is why, Mommas, you don't let your kids grow up to do drugs!

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  15. "Peterson refrains from giving his hadrosaurs webbed fingers - something that the previous owner of my copy of this book thought to rectify." Unless there's something that your scan didn't pick up, the copy that I borrowed from the Western Washington University Library (InterLibrary Loan is a WONDERFUL thing!) is identical. The webbing does have the LOOK of being penned in separately, though.

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  16. "in the DDR"- at first I thought you meant "Dance Dance Revolution", but then I remembered that Deutsche Demokratische Republik was the former East Germany's "Official" name (which made much more sense, considering the context).

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