Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Vintage Dinosaur Art: Presenting Tyrannosaurus rex

While best known for her spectacular work with Dale Russell on An Odyssey in Time, the late, great Eleanor 'Ely' Kish remained active in palaeoart throughout the '80s and into the '90s, although many of the books she illustrated are now quite obscure. This would be one of those. In fact, this was one of those cases where I saw an intriguing-looking book appear on eBay for the first time, only to obtain it and realise that I had it as a kid. Given that, it unsurprisingly concerns everyone's favourite hungry hungry horror. May I present Presenting Tyrannosaurus rex.

Presenting T. rex was part of a series of wee dinosaur books, published in '93, that were bundled with model skeletons. As I recall, the T. rex skeleton was a very decent affair, albeit in a rather unlikely tripod pose for stability's sake. Unfortunately, this is the only book in the series that I've ever seen; I'd love to see more, especially if they were all illustrated by Kish. (That's a billboard-sized hint should you happen to own any, by the way.)

Given that we're going to be spending so much time with the most overexposed Mesozoic animal ever to resemble a huge angry maw with overgrown chicken legs, it's nice of the book to include a few other (lesser) dinosaurs to provide some context, or whatever it is they're doing here. (Other dinosaurs, pfft.) Unfortunately, some of these - including the Spinosaurus and Protoceratops - are quite transparent Sibbick copies, while the Euoplocephalus is a mash-up of different Sibbick ankylosaurs. It seems a bit odd for Kish to be copying other artists, but maybe time was short on this one...

So here's Sexy Rexy, illustrated participating in a Cretaceous hoedown (as you can see, both dancers are smiling joyously). Kish historians (Kishtorians? Nah, that just makes it sound like I'm drunk, which I'm definitely not) will note that the animals, while lean to a Paulian extent, are not the terribly emaciated 'zombiesaurs' of Kish's Odyssey-era work. Essentially, they meet '90s standards of mildly exaggerated athleticism. Having said that, and for all that they're rather on the skinny side, there's a convincing sense of reptilian enormity here, enhanced all the more by the excellent use of perspective, placing us more-or-less at ground level as these two titans dance the do-se-do.

Life wasn't one big dance party for T. rex, however, as it had to contend with a host of large and quite often very smelly neighbours. Here, a nice day at the beach hunting Ornithomimus is interrupted by a cheerful-looking alligator purporting to be Deinosuchus (although Rexy's sure he just has delusions of grandeur). Meanwhile, very Sibbickian head-nubbined Quetzalcoatlus fly overhead. For a very competently written and illustrated '93 book, there's an odd tendency for Rexy to adopt his very best Godzilla pose in this book, although it's probably just a result of the cramped format. Also: Nanotyrannus. Ha ha ha. HA HA HA.

Elsewhere, Rexy must contend with lumbering grey-o-pods and far more dapper hadrosaurs. Green striped with black - lovely. It's disappearing into the fold (which probably explains its lack of a label), but the Triceratops with semi-sprawling forelimbs recalls a much earlier Kish piece. Rexy's remains well drawn (particularly given the tricky perspective), but the head is a little off; the jaw adductor muscles are too far aft of the orbit, and it overall resembles that of a much more basal theropod. It's especially disconcerting as nothing else quite like it appears elsewhere in the book. [EDIT: As pointed out by Vladmimir Nikolov on Facebook, the T. rex is a dead ringer for an Albertosaurus by Bakker, so that'll explain that, while Pablo Lara has noted in the comments that the Alamosaurus is a Sibbick clone. Seriously, what gives?]

But never mind, for here is Tyrannosaurus chowing down on a live crocodile, which really should've been paying more attention. Slightly unlikely pose aside, this is, as Thomas Diehl noted over on the Fezbooks, "quite a nice change from the usual T. rex prey animals". Indeedy, Diehl. The idea of a T. rex/crocodilian face-off (no, confrontations between Albertosaurus/Gorgosaurus and MegaGator do not count) is so very awesomebro I'm not sure why it hasn't been illustrated more often. For whatever reason (probably the colouration), this one rather reminds me of the superb 'Young T. rex' toy in the original Jurassic Park action figure line. The trees are lovely, but I bet you didn't even notice the subtle realism of the slightly uneven, birdlike foot. It's something that not many people get right - for my money, a good recent example would be R J Palmer's work for Saurian.

The observant among you (including the palaeontologists, I hope, or else I'll be disappointed) will have noted that Kish seems to be painting Tyrannosaurus with two different colour schemes throughout the book. Here, both are quite cleverly brought into the same scene, suggesting perhaps a gender difference. The style is very typical of a decent palaeoartist in the early '90s, although the attempt at a juvenile tyrannosaur (before such things were well known) is noteworthy. The legginess is prescient, but the snub-nosed faced contradicts what we now know. A bit like that Young T. rex toy.

All dinosaurs must die, and so here we see a trio of tyrannosaurs witnessing the end of their world, or else just a Dutch town on New Year's Eve. The quite stylised, almost cartoony feel of this spread could easily have felt incongruous, but I feel it slots in the book quite nicely; besides, wanton scenes of terrifying dino-geddon would have terrified the kiddies. It's quite a sad scene, really, as the reader is forced to contemplate how they're never, ever, going to see one of these monstrosities appear from behind a clump of trees in front of them as they go out for a nice Sunday walk. Sniff.

And finally...it might be dead and gone, but Tyrannosaurus will be alive forever in our imaginations. A lovely sentiment, and a fitting illustration from Kish, as our highly carnivorous hero strides off into...if not the sunset, then at least the distance. Goodbye, Tyrannosaurus.

P.S. Goodbye Mr B, too. Let the children boogie.


  1. Great, the Alamosaurus is very similar to the reconstruction by John sibbick for the National Geographic´s poster "North america in the age of dinosaurs".


    1. I did think that it looked rather Sibbickian, too, but couldn't place it. Thanks.

  2. 'So here's Sexy Rexy, illustrated participating in a Cretaceous hoedown ...'

    I couldn't resist.

    1. I wish it was one of your lovely drawings :( .

  3. I think I still have that book. Def have the model skeleton that came with it still.

  4. Ah, I remember those skeleton kits. The pieces came in a large plastic egg along with the booklet. Although I didn't have the T. rex one, IIRC I had Triceratops, Velociraptor, Stegosaurus, Hypacrosaurus, Leptoceratops and maybe Stegoceras? That was ages ago, and after moving so many times who knows where they are now..

  5. Huh. My only knowledge of Kish is her patented Zombiesaurus look. It's a shame we don't often see more later pieces from her; my opinion of her work might be higher. (Don't get me wrong, I agree with everybody else who praises her backgrounds and sheer artistic ability. It's just that she's never quite stuck the landing in most paintings I've seen.)

  6. "[EDIT: As pointed out by Vladmimir Nikolov on Facebook, the T. rex is a dead ringer for an Albertosaurus by Bakker, so that'll explain that, while Pablo Lara has noted in the comments that the Alamosaurus is a Sibbick clone. Seriously, what gives?]"

    Edmontosaurus too: https://scontent.cdninstagram.com/hphotos-xaf1/t51.2885-15/s640x640/sh0.08/e35/11375304_830101627107549_312489154_n.jpg

    "The idea of a T. rex/crocodilian face-off...is so very awesomebro I'm not sure why it hasn't been illustrated more often."

    For what it's worth, there's Holtz's "Dinosaurs" ( http://vignette2.wikia.nocookie.net/dinosaurs/images/b/bc/Nanotyrannus_Luis_V_Rey.jpg/revision/latest?cb=20150420162513 ) & the crappy PP series ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IPNciZkVtLg ).

  7. I remember having this one and the Triceratops counterpart, part of a series. Each booklet came in a plastic egg along with a dinosaur skeleton. In the intervening 17 years,I've lost everything but half of the egg, unfortunately


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