Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Vintage Dinosaur Art: Life Through The Ages

It's difficult to imagine now, but there was a time when the cover star of a book on prehistoric animals wouldn't inevitably have been a (Mesozoic) dinosaur. In our post-post-Dino Renaissance world, we're used to fast-moving, feathered theropods, ankylosaurs with legs and necks worth a damn, sauropods not just wandering around on terra firma but brontosmashing each other in the process, and Bob Bakker's face replacing that of Santa Claus so slowly, no one even noticed. Back in the day, however, dinosaurs were seen as mere failures of evolution, twiddling their stupid fat reptilian thumbs until they were all wiped out and the superior mammals could saunter in and take over. Picture yourself now in 1961, thumbing your own way through Life Through The Ages.


It might not feature a (Mesozoic) dinosaur, but the cover is certainly arresting. Front-and-centre is a freakishly large bird with a giant beak, lashing out at a big cat-like animal in an exciting battle scene. Yeah, there's some weird stuff going on (cat thumbs?), but it's an effective composition, nicely stylised, and it makes you interested in reading the book to find out what on Earth's going on here. The cover art is credited to Howard Price (and authorship goes to Bertha Morris Parker, which is a great name) but, sadly, the illustrator behind the artwork inside the book remains a mystery. Boo.


The book is a fairly straightforward 'journey through time' affair, although for some reason the very first plate features a jolly-looking plesiosaur. Hello there, plesiosaur! Curiously, the caption for this image reads "A Plesiosaur (1/40) - Model Courtesy of Milwaukee Public Museum", in spite of the fact that this appears to be a painting rather than a photograph of a model. Of course, this could well be down to the poor reproduction quality of the images, or else it may well be a painting based on a model. In any case, the animal's rubber toy face is immensely cute.


Otherwise, the first tetrapod to appear is Eryops, looking rather pleased with itself by the side of a swamp (the lack of vegetation is probably just down to needing to fit the text in). It's not a bad illustration - the tail may be unduly short, but the bumpy skin is there, as is a hint of the many spiky teeth that lined its jaws.


It's not long before everyone's favourite diapsid reptile clade shows up, but - perhaps reflecting the general consensus of the time that they weren't terribly important or interesting - they're humiliatingly relegated to a series of small illustrations, a reel of the Usual Suspects. Allosaurus, Brontosaurus, Stegosaurus, Tyrannosaurus, Triceratops, "Trachodon"; I believe we're done here. The reconstructions are very much of their time, featuring rather dull, static, and very brown animals (with the exception of "Trachodon", decked out in stunning swampy green).


In spite of the illustrations' small size, it's possible to see where some of them were copied from. In particular, the Stegosaurus is quite Burianesque, while the Tyrannosaurus is a dead ringer for Charles Knight's. Of more interest is the text, which makes much of the dinosaurs' tiny brains. To wit:
"There was not much room in [Brontosaurus'] head for brains. It had less than a pound of brains in 35 tons of body! Brontosaurus must have been a very clumsy, stupid animal."
"Stegosaurus, like Brontosaurus, had a huge body and a small brain. Its brain was not much larger than your fist."
"Inside all this [head] armour Triceratops had a brain the size of a kitten's and not nearly so good."
Take that, dinosaurs! No wonder you all died out and the world was inherited by mammals and generally compact, feathered archosaurs of uncertain affinities.


Given their tragic lack of brains, dinosaurs can't be allowed to hog the Mesozoic limelight, and so here's Pteranodon, looking peculiarly googly-eyed and seemingly lacking pteroid bones. But somehow they just look so cute! I'm sensing a pattern developing. Hey, at least they aren't terrifyingly skinny, or hanging like bats from cliff faces. For 1961, they're not too shabby.


The final Mesozoic animal to appear in Life Through The Ages is a dinosaur, although it wouldn't have been widely acknowledged as one at the time (and so isn't here). Why, if it isn't everyone's favourite loon-like toothed diving bird Hesperornis, here given a quite delightful treatment with unusually duck-like plumage and a clutch of young 'uns. This is probably the best illustration in the book for my money - depicting an animal that would be tempting to monsterise as a "BIRD WITH TEETH!" in an entirely naturalistic and understated fashion. It's really quite beautiful. Pretty, even. Also, how often do we get to see Hesperornis babies? I wanna see more!


At the end of the Mesozoic, the dinosaurs are dispatched to the Great Swamp in the Sky and, as the book puts it, The Mammals Come into Their Own. "They are the lords of the earth now...Of course, you are a mammal yourself," we are told. Ah, hubris. Of course, the mammals started out small; as the above illustration depicts, Early Mammals resembled mangy, lanky fossas. But they soon diversified.


'Sabre-toothed tigers' put in an appearance, of course, depicted resplendent atop a rocky outcrop, as they tend to be (when not simply illustrated plunging their absurd canines into some unfortunate ground sloth or other). The animals as painted would appear to be Smilodon. Although Parker is quite approving of their impressive weapons, she also dismisses them as being "one of nature's mistakes, for the sabre-tooth disappeared from the earth thousands of years ago," only to be replaced by felids more suited to internet memes.


Speaking of ground sloths...here's one now. Again, no specific sloth is mentioned in the text, but the image caption reveals the creature to be Megatherium. There's no break here from the stereotypical image of Megatherium utilising its enormous size to reach up into the treetops while standing bipedally - an image probably cemented by certain early skeletal mounts. Indeed, a quick Google image search reveals a plethora of bipedal Megatherium reaching into trees, with a few notable exceptions and some, er, oddities. At its feet stands Doedicurus, incorrectly identified as Glyptodon in the image caption. This is a shame, as Doedicurus was obviously much cooler than Glyptodon on account of the spiky tail club. It's also a noted survivor of the Great Blackgang Chine Fibreglass Beastie Apocalypse of 2014. Overall, it's another pleasingly painterly scene of prehistoric goings on.


And finally...it's the back cover, which doesn't quite form a continuous scene with the front. My attention here is mainly drawn to the strange rhinoceros-like beast in the centre, whose name I'm sure I used to know, but escapes me now (commenters to the rescue! Please [EDIT: Tristan Rapp to the rescue! They're Uintatherium). There's also a wolf thing and what appear to be tarsiers. Meanwhile, we're teased with various other titles of books from the same informative series. I'm particularly interested in The Insect Parade, as long as there are fleas. Clown fleas, high-wire fleas, fleas on parade...

Whether you grasped that reference or not, may I take this opportunity to wish you all a very Merry Christmas, or if you'd rather not, have a very jolly time doing whatever you're doing during December. (I'm an atheist myself, but also a sucker for sparkling wine, flashing lights and camp.) Thanks for sticking with your pals at Love in the Time of Chasmosaurs, and here's hoping 2016 is as joyful as a nest full of Hesperornis chicks.

31 comments:

  1. Why those strange rhino-like animals on the back would appear to be Uintatheriums as far as I can tell:
    http://www.wildworldvisuals.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/Uintatherium-browsing-an-Eocene-forest.jpg

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    1. That'll be it. The name escaped me.

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    2. Also known as Deinoceros. Eobasileus is sometimes referred as a synonym, but current thinking appears that they are different enough to be considered separate genera. (BTW: properly, it's one "Uintatherium", 2 or more "Uintatheria"- but we just avoid the whole arguement by using "uintathere, uintatheres".

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    3. Properly it's Uintatherium for any number. You don't pluralize formal taxonomic names.

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    4. Oh, I realize that the FORMAL names aren't pluralized: you don't refer to "Tyrannosauri" or "Smilodons populators" or such. It's when the scientific name becomes the popular name that it becomes pertinent. We formally say "Tylosaurus proriger", no matter how many specimens you have, but when referring to the animals themselves, you have one "megatherium", two "megatheria". At least that's how I was taught in my taxonomy classes back in the Renaissance by Dr. Linne. (I joke, it wasn't THAT long ago, but it sure seems as if it was! Actually, it was back in the '70s, just as the Dinosaur Renaissance was taking hold. Some of my profs were still skeptical of plate tectonics.)

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  2. I've always loved that Allosaurus. It and its five compatriots, were also printed in a Golden Book Encyclopedia I wrote about ages ago: http://chasmosaurs.blogspot.com/2010/02/vintage-dinosaur-art-golden-age.html

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    1. The very same! Incidentally, this book would appear to have been printed in the US before this 'UK edition' came to be.

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    2. I never did track down any notion of who did them, sadly.

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    3. I knew I recognised them from some old book or other!

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  3. Yay! A Vintage dino post before Christmas.Agree, love the cover. The weird bird looks like Diatryma. Or Phorusrhacos? Who knows? It's cool. That's all that matters. I love how Hesperornis is portrayed as a tender mother, not as some misshapen awkward horror bird from hell which is how it was often depicted.It's a shame the dinosaur paintings are very ordinary. Possibly the artist, whoever he or she was, was more comfortable with mammal anatomy. Didn't the paintings get made into a set of cards sometime?

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    1. Probably Diatryma. Phorusrhacos was always shown to be more slender with a more raptor-like beak, rather than this heavy crushing chopper. (BTW, I know that I've seen a Diatryma with similar coloring to this cover in another source.)

      Notice that the Hesperornis picture could easily have been a loon from a book on birds.

      Some of the dinosaur pictures were used in sticker albums for years after.

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  4. The mesozoic illustrations are interesting, the pterosaurs in particular. The artists made them look like actual animals and not shrieking reptilian monstrosities. I love that.

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  5. Couldn't the cover creature be the marsupial lion Thylacoleo, which had sorta-thumbs? They lived alongside giant birds like Genyornis, and in an illustration from the 60s I wouldn't be surprised to see it drawn more cat-like than it really was.

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    1. Interesting idea and being an Aussie I'd love it to be true.But at the time Genyornis was believed to be related to the emus and portrayed accordingly,

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    2. The Australian animals weren't likely to be used in a US or UK popular juvenile book in that time period, anyway.

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  6. I have an older version of this book in paperback and with a completely different cover also titled LIFE THROUGH THE AGES and published by Row, Peterson & Company as a third edition in 1952. It was initially published a decade earlier... in 1942. Frederick E. Seyfarth painted these images before that date (I assume). A companion book called ANIMALS OF YESTERDAY (which you will also enjoy for its retro charm) was published in 1941 and revised four times (mine being the '53 edition).

    Sooo... the Brits finally got this Yankee export after Kennedy entered the White House... and after 20 years? Talk about sending you all of our leftovers for dino books! All joking aside, I loved these images. The ANIMALS OF YESTERDAY uses models of the Milwaukee Public Museum for their paintings as well. The Allosaurus "the leaping lizard" is one creepy character, being a loose mock-up of the earlier Sexy Rexy "types", which... in turn... were patterned after the famous Sinclair statues of Chicago's '33 World Fair. Lots of scales and beady eyes.

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    1. Sorry David Orr... I didn't read ALL of the comments carefully ahead of time. Yeah... it seems that the Golden Book Encyclopedias of the '50s made ample use of these images as well. During the Eisenhower Era, they seemed to be everywhere.

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  7. Hold the phone -- I HAVE SEEN THOSE PTEROSAURS (Pteranodons) BEFORE! Same style, similar poses, perhaps the very same illustration, reused. I am 99.9999999999% certain it was by the same artist, unless one artist was very faithful at copying the other.

    And where did I see this image before? When I was a little kid (early 1960s) I had a children's book about animals, in an extra-large format, glossy hardback cover, with wondrous illustrations throughout --watercolors very like some of the interior illustrations above. My animal book included a couple pages devoted to dinosaurs and another two-age spread occupied by Archaeopteryx (a rather Burianesque life reconstruction) as well as a fossil Archaeopteryx plus these very same pteranodons. The illustrations throughout the book.

    Alas, I cannot remember the title of this animal book of mine. However, I still own it! Except I don't exactly know where it is. I may have to search for it this weekend. And if I find it, I just may be able to reveal who was the illustrator of at least some of the interior art featured above. Fingers crossed!

    I will add that I suspect the same artist did both the pteranodons and the Heperornis family below them, but a different artist did both the dinosaurs and the prehistoric mammals.

    Hopefully I will learn more in a few days.

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  8. Oops. I missed something in JLewis' comment. Yes, I think Frederick E. Seyfarth did the interior dinosaur illustrations, and probably the mammals, and the Eryops as well. But I suspect a different artist did the hesperornids and the pterosaurs.

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    1. You may be right. However both my copies of LIFE THROUGH THE AGES and ANIMALS OF YESTERDAY (including the hesperornids and the pterosaurs) state "illustrations by Frederick E. Seyfarth" and nobody else. You think he might have had an underpaid apprentice? Anything is possible.

      ACTUALLY... it is quite possible that the 1952-53 editions have additional paintings that were not done for the 1941-42 books and may differ just a little bit. Now my curiosity is up.

      A little more on this artist...

      He also painted animals for other books like ANIMALS AROUND THE YEAR (1947, another paperback Row, Peterson & Co.) which were incorporated into 1952's larger THE GOLDEN TREASURY OF NATURAL HISTORY. I am guessing that one publisher took over the other and gained all of the images. All of these books credit Bertha Morris Parker as a consultant.

      I have boxes of dino books in storage stretching from the 1930s through '90s. Yet this is the first time I have been able to successfully leave a response on this wonderful site (after following it on and off for a few years). Lots of fond memories get joggled here. Also I have quite a few antiques that I just know Marc Vincent and others here would have a FIELD day with. Some books are even too bizarre for words, like James Fisher's 1954 geography book that includes dinos painted either by "Kempster" or "Evans" called THE WONDERFUL WORLD: THE ADVENTURE OF THE EARTH WE LIVE ON... boasting a Trachodon with human hands.

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    2. Hopefully, some time this weekend, I may be able to find the animal book that I am thinking of.

      The two-page spread it has on dinosaurs is also interesting in its own right. It features a rather gorgeous if definitely old-school colorful watercolor landscape densely populated with an anachronistic assembly of dinosaurs. This includes a Brontosaurus in a small but very deep pond (up to its chest), and a Tyrannosaurus with a nicely detailed if completely inaccurate lizardlike head, surveying his domain. Inserted in the corner of one page are the figures of a boy and girl, looking in astonishment at the Tyrannosaurus (who is towering over them but fortunately is completely oblivious to their presence; maybe he just ate).

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  9. "and Bob Bakker's face replacing that of Santa Claus so slowly, no one even noticed."

    Better yet, Bakker's the real-life version of Santa Christ: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qSLVgP79iaA

    "Also, how often do we get to see Hesperornis babies? I wanna see more!"

    Don't forget about Kish: http://oceansofkansas.com/Hesperornis/kish-01.jpg

    "and some, er, oddities."

    Probably made for Carnivora Forum.

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  10. You asked for Hesperornis babies? Jason Brougham delivers! (His scene is a little more... er, violent, though.) He makes no mention of this post, but the timing seems almost too good to be true.
    http://jasonbrougham.com/2015/12/19/tyrannosaurus-rex/

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  11. I got to let you guys know (I have no idea where else to do so, since you guys have no contact information) there is a song in the OST of Jurassic World entitled Love in the Time of Pterosauris. I know it is a coincidence but a pretty funny one, no?

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    1. There's an e-mail address listed at the top of the page, but to be honest, you are probably better off leaving a comment. And thanks for the info! Yes, quite an amusing coincidence, although do they actually use 'Pterosauris'?

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    2. no, that must have been a typo, sorry, it was Pterosauria

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  12. The way that those 'tarsiers' are hunched down is reminding me of some Sci-Fi story I read ages ago...

    I suspect that the 'wolf-thing' is probably meant to be Canis dirus, the Dire Wolf.

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    1. They look more like slender lorises than tarsiers to me.

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  13. I have searched for these illustrations for years. I remember them from the early 60's. I thought they were in a book on the natural history of North America. Does that ring any bells?

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  14. OK. I believe the artist behind SOME of these illustrations -- specifically, the two Pteranodons in flight, and I think the family of Hesperornids -- was Pierre Probst. He did some cartoony-type illustrations, but he also illustrated some nature books in a more realistic style.

    I found my book called "The World of Animals" published in the 1960s by the Whitman World Library. It was illustrated by Probst. It contains an illustration of a flying Pteranodon that is almost identical to one of the flying Pteranodons depicted above. The Hesperornids also appear to be in his "natural history" style.

    However, I do NOT think that Probst did any of the other illustrations shown. Those are the work of someone else, I think.

    Caveat: It is also possible that the Pteranodon's resemblance to Probst's work could be due to one illustrator "borrowing" from the other.

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    1. Oops. Somehow I missed the post by JLewis on December 17, 2015, at 6:39 PM -- I didn't even see it when I posted the next day (maybe it was in moderation). At any rate, the post by JLewis on December 17, 2015, seem to confirm that all the interior illustrations under discussion were by Frederick E. Seyfarth (specifically including the pteranodons and hesperornids). I guess the similarity in the Probst pteranodon illustration I saw is due to one artist using the other's work as a model (probably Probst relying upon Seyfarth is my guess).

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