Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Vintage Dinosaur Art: Purnell's Find Out About Prehistoric Animals - Part 2

Because I can't in all good conscience review a book with 'Prehistoric Animals' in the title and only cover the dinosaurs, behold various non-dinosaurs from Purnell's 1976 guide to long-dead beasties. (There's also a tiresomely long section on how MAN evolved to DOMINATE the Earth by being SUPERIOR to the other creatures by virtue of having a large brain, dextrous hands, and other noted attributes of MANLINESS. It's as 1970s as an brightly-coloured Ford Cortina, which you'd be far better off looking at. Here you go.) Where better to start than with a pterosaur being munched? Stupid pterosaurs.

As I mentioned last time, none of the illustrations in Purnell's are credited, which is always a real shame. However, it seems a fair bet that the above piece is by Sibbick - just check out that minute detailing. While the pterosaur fuzz is commendably up-to-date for 1976, the plesiosaur's head is way off; it somewhat resembles that of a generic theropod dinosaur. Of course, it could have the mop-haired, bulbous noggin of the Mayor of London stuck on there for all it matters - the sheer Sibbickness of it all makes every last skin fold completely believable. You could take a fuzzy photograph of this, send it to a cryptozoology periodical and become famous. Among a very select group of people. Now there's a thought...

Plesiosaurs may be the most famous non-dinosaurian long-necked reptiles, but Triassic weirdo Tanystropheus has surely made quite a name for itself, too. Given its preposterous proportions, I've got to commend the artist for taking on such a tricky perspective; you've also got to love those bulging red eyes. "This very peculiar animal must have led a difficult life," the accompanying text intones, but the example illustrated here looks like it's having a ball.

Back to plesiosaurs, although Kronosaurus was of the short-necked, big-headed variety. Beautiful shading, but the artist may have given the animal an unduly long neck and tail - the eyes are also misplaced, although at least the nostrils are commendably retracted [EDIT - in fact, the eyes and nostrils are in the wrong holes, as pointed out by Adam Smith in the comments! Can't believe I missed that one]. (Famously, a Kronosaurus skeleton was once reconstructed with far too many vertebrae, leading to hyperbolic size estimates in kids' books that the real animal can't quite match. It was 6 or 7 metres long, akin to Liopleurodon, which itself was once restored as a kaiju, but that's another story.) There's an enjoyable sense of motion about this piece, particularly where the animal is swinging its head around to snap at passing fish.

The same artist (seemingly) also illustrated the giant mosasaur Tylosaurus in full old Chaz Knight mode, complete with darling dorsal crest. Yes, the head is...a bit weird-looking, but, blimey, what a dramatic image. The big old lizard looks positively terrifying as it lunges after Archelon, the only extinct turtle anyone's ever heard of, here depicted seemingly as a skeleton with fins and a face. The deranged look in the mosasaur's eyes as it lunges forth is just fantastic.

While mosasaurs are almost always given a full set of luscious lizardy 'lips', there's a strange tendency in palaeoart for the infamously serpentine whale Basilosaurus to be drawn without them, even to the point of having completely exposed teeth, croc-style (as above). As I understand it, there's no evidence that Basilosaurus had a 'melon' or similar organ, but there's also no reason to suspect that it didn't have lips (readers are welcome to chime in). In any case, this is otherwise a fairly decent reconstruction with a very Burianesque feel, especially with the swirling, inky gloom surrounding the animal.

Purnell's makes plenty of room for extinct mammals of all sorts, of course, and here we have a fine example of an illustrastion of Paraceratherium, aka Indricotherium, aka Baluchitherium, etc. etc. There's a faintly terrifying sinewy muscularity about this beast, somewhat reminiscent of certain '70s illustrations of sauropods, only here it makes rather more sense. Clearly an animal suited to professional wrestling and appearing on the cover of certain...very specialist magazines. Rippling, glistening, and very well shaded, actually. Not that you'd dare insult it, anyway.

Lovely as the monochrome plates are, there comes a time when one cries out for a little colour. So here it is, in the form of the slightly strange not-rhinoceros, Arsinoitherium. Although superficially rhino-like, and normally illustrated as such (as above), it was actually more closely related to modern-day elephants; unlike rhinos, its horns had bony cores. While the above piece is probably modelled on modern-day rhinos a bit too closely, the use of perspective is marvellous, as is the quite impressionistic foliage; one feels like it's possible to reach out and touch that wrinkly grey flesh. At which point you'd probably be horribly gored. I don't like the look in its piggy eyes.

And finally...a dinosaur! Because I'm just a terrible, terrible liar. On the other hand, it is Archaeopteryx, which was always filed away under 'non dinosaur' in kids' books back in the day and the Natural History Museum's dinosaur gallery right now. Anyways, this is fairly typical of the genre, what with the individual with outstretched wings and misplaced digits, although I very fond of the rufous red colouration of the plumage, and the animals' wings are quite beautifully drawn otherwise. Not too much of a lizardy git face going on, either, which is always pleasing to see. A salute to you, uncredited illustrator, wherever you are.

Coming up next time: I'm not sure. But I'm off to Berlin next week (finally!), so perhaps I'll write something about that...


  1. Re: Kronosaurus, the nostrils are certainly retracted...into the orbital openings. Not sure how commendable that is! The eyes ended up in the temporal openings, of course.

  2. Haha, can't believe I didn't spot that! It's forehead-slappingly obvious now that you mention it. Guess I'm too accustomed to the eyes being aft the tooth row.

  3. That Arsinothere has quite the Hapsburg lip!

    Also, bonus paleo-meme: it looks to my eyes like the artist on the Archaeopteryx piece was going for the old hoatzin tie-in.

  4. The colour scheme of Archaeopteryx is reminiscent of Burian.

  5. If you ask me the Arsinoitherium looks more like Boris Johnson. Ready to boll over any ten year old Japanese kid in it’s path.

  6. The Tylosaurus/Arcehlon piece really is a piece of art. The movement and perspective are just spot on.


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