Monday, October 5, 2015

Vintage Dinosaur Art: Purnell's Find Out About Prehistoric Animals

Not for the first time, here's a fantastic 1970s book on prehistoric animals from Purnell, purveyors of fine model photography and anachronistic pop-up battles. Find Out About Prehistoric Animals is considerably more hefty than any Purnell to previously feature on this blog, and it's gloriously packed full of wonderfully retro illustrations from a number of artists. While individual pieces aren't credited, we are at least informed that the artists included Eric Jewell Associates, Illustra, John Barber, Angus McBride, Sean Rudman, Dan Escott, Colin Rattray, Vanessa Luff, Gerry Embleton, Phil Green, George Underwood and - oh yes - John Sibbick. Nine years before even the Normanpedia. Blimey.

Could Sibbick have been behind the main cover image? Maybe - the skin textures are certainly quite Sibbickian, but this bizarre, super-'70s Corythosaurus is far from the Sibb we're familiar with. The poor web-fingered freak appears to be stuck in a very painful squat, while its speckled belly resembles an enormous egg. It looks like it should be wearing an oversized white apron (with the legend 'KISS THE KREST') and carrying a spatula.

While there isn't half as much saurian diversity as the previous weeks' '80s fare, we are still treated to some large, often quite imaginative reconstructions of the Usual Suspects. These Diplodocus are beautifully painted,  with lovely dappled skin patterns, and the composition is certainly unusual. Interaction with conspecifics - you wouldn't have seen that in a '60s book. Of course, the animals do appear disoncertingly eel-like (eely? Eelish?), and why does only one of them have a seam-like frill adorning its neck? Sexual dimorphism?

These brontosaurs are altogether more well they should be. This is undoubtedly one of Sibbick's; not only is the technique a dead giveaway, but Sibbick would go on to produce a strikingly similar brontosaur piece for WHEN DINOSAURS RULED THE EARTH. While WDRTE's blunt-headed, enormously fat creatures were quite inexplicable in the 1980s, at least the blimp-o-saurs make rather more sense here (given what his contemporaries were producing). Note the hand of the background individual, which sports no fewer than five little claws on its fat stumpy fingers. Of course, none of this is to say that it isn't as astonishingly, intricately detailed and shaded as one would expect from Sibbick - just as in the Normanpedia, he's a dab hand at making what would otherwise be hilariously obsolete-looking creations appear far, far too convincing.

While Sibbick's brontosaurs need to cut down on their pork life, mate, and get some exercise, this artist's brachiosaurs have managed to remain quite svelte - it's a wonder what a diet of low-lying fern cover will do for one's figure. The background individual appears quite conventional, albeit very muscular. The foreground animal, however, has a number of odd touches, not least the remarkably thin neck, smooshed-looking head and neck seam (what is it with those?). The arms remind me of Blackgang Chine's old model, which has now gone to the Great Skip in the Sky (or more likely, at the bottom of the sea). Noteworthy: all of the sauropods here are out on dry land. This was a key evolution of 1970s palaeoart; books that feature swamp-bound sauropods are a sure indicator that the author, artists, or both really didn't know what they were doing.

Of course, you were all wondering what that caption was about in the top right. Well, here's your answer. Apropos of nothing, brachiosaurs at play! Take that, All Yesterdays! Who's to say that pea-brained twenty tonne lummox-o-pods were bereft of a touch of mischief, or even sportsmanship? A brachiosaur would be ideally suited to the fine game of rugger. Werner at the back is currently playing for the Welsh side. Of course, such horseplay comes with more than a little rib-crushing danger, but it's nothing that your average pro rugby player isn't used to.

The same artist (or so it seems; again, individual pieces aren't credited) provides an illustration of a marauding horde of Iguanodon, off on their way to carelessly fall into a crevasse in Belgium and die (too much Gulden Draak?). While some of the background animals strike amusing poses, at least they've managed to unflex their elbows - the two in the foreground are afflicted by an unfortunate case of Chronic Palaeoart Trope. As was seemingly quite often the case in '70s illustrations of Iguanodon, they also have very thick vertical creases running down their stout necks, although they are not exaggerated as much here as elsewhere. If anything, the muscularity of these creatures is to be commended given the time. Furthermore the shading is, again, quite lovely. I'm even quite fond of the gnarled-looking noggin of the beast on the left. Who's to say that Iguanodon was a noble-looking reptilo-horse? Maybe it really was a bit offensive to look at.

Now, everyone knows that Iguanodon had its famous stabby thumbs - in addition to its (no doubt) terrible complexion - with which to ward off the great predators of its day. But what of other dinosaur prey items? Happily, Purnell's is on hand to explain, and with illustrations, too! In the above piece, we see a superb example of a cryptically camouflaged Camptosaurus, hiding from a salivating glove puppet with tiny, creepy, humanoid arms. Beautifully done with the camptosaur, but that warty spindle-armed fellow is one creepy brute. He needs a monocle.

Elsewhere, we see herbivores get a little more 'proactive' in their defence, 'taking the initiative' and showing that they can 'work well independently as well as part of a team'. In the above piece, clearly heavily inspired by Burian, a sprawled, squat scolosaur defends itself from a seriously wide gauge Gorgosaurus, the victim of a lack of three-dimensional references available to the artist. Remember, kids - tyrannosaurs did not resemble a ripe squash. Although if you did enter this tyrannosaur into your local village fete, it'd win first prize every time. Take that, Scolosaurus! Your peculiar nose horn won't save you from landing the wooden spoon.

Gorgo might be a little lardy, but at least he doesn't suffer the fate of Rexy, who inevitably ends up getting a little too close to the problematic end of everyone's favourite extinct horned beast that didn't have any hair, Triceratops. While images of T. rex v Triceratops face-offs - even gory ones - are more common than rock doves in a labyrinthine multi-storey car park, it's rare that Rexy ends up with a metre-long horn stabbing him right in the neck. Ouch.

And finally...because one simply can't have enough Rexy-on-Trike action, Purnell's gives us Round 2. Here, Rexy just looks like he wasn't looking where he was going - no doubt distracted by what an unusually beautiful day it was, the poor chap has managed to stumble straight into a multi-tonne animal with a big beak and a bigger temper. This appears to be another early Sibbick (although I could be wrong), in which case the differences between this, the Normanpedia, and his '90s work are very interesting. If anything, the head on this Tyrannosaurus makes more sense than the croco-rex of the Normanpedia, but is worlds away from his '90s work. Nice neck seam, though.

Next time: Purnell's non-dinosaurs! Because I can't not include pterosaur-nabbing plesiosaurs.


  1. would love to see more pictures of tyrannosaurus fighting triceratops

  2. "And finally...because one simply have enough Rexy-on-Trike action"

    I think you forgot a word...

  3. Ah! Down memory again! Thanks, Marc! I regularly borrowed this one out from my school library. For those of us raised with our dinosaurs lizardy and waterlogged the illustration of Diplodocus (apart from being artistically delightful) is quite forward - thinking. The saurians are shown wading in a swamp (a natural enough pursuit for a gigantic beast which can't find shade - I'm sorry most artists seem to shy away from placing them in water having a good time) but they aren't munching soft water weed. They're chomping land plants. For the time this was new thinking. Peg-like teeth in sauropods were traditionally interpreted as being too blunt to reak land vegetation.

    I just love Brachiosaurus and the idea they might have played. But really?! Is there evidence of crushed ribs or broken ribs in sauropods at play? Come on now - whose doing a study of dnosaur play? There must be someone!

    1. No, there is no evidence whatsoever of brachiosaur play. But as the caption says, most animals do play. I don't find it all that far-fetched that they had some kind of play behaviour ... but probably not rough-and-tumble!

  4. Never mind the metre-long horn in the neck, there's the nose horn well and truly plunged into the chest right there! Ouuch!

  5. Great stuff here. I do think we should give some credit to Sibbick though. Sure, the brontosaurs are hugely obese, and very out of date, but the individual eating from the tree actually appears to be almost rearing up, albeit supporting its weight on a rock. Still, that is quite novel for a time when these animals were rarely even shown out of the water, much less engaging in active behavior.

    Also, playing brachiosaurs, someone needs to make an up-to-date version of that scenario, it is just too good to pass down.

  6. A monocle, you say?

  7. I can't look away from the crotch-wrinkles on that cover dino LOL

  8. Many thanks for writing this review. I didn't know that Sibbick did any pre-1985 dino art.

    1. He did, but it's quite hard to find - there's also the Dimetrodon featured here:


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