Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Vintage Dinosaur Art: Animals of Long Ago

It seems that in the 1950s and 60s, there was a real explosion in the popularity of dinosaur books for kids. Perhaps it had something to do with broader pop culture trends of the period, such as the sci-fi B-movie boom. Although the Dino Renaissance had yet to take hold, there was a noticeable shift in tone - where dinosaurs were previously seen as evolutionarily unimportant, authors suddenly took great relish in detailing the huge size of their jaws, their flesh-tearing ferociousness, the sheer terror they must have induced in their prey. Animals of Long Ago, published in 1965, is a seminal example of a book from the period; the illustrations are somewhat half-hearted, er, homages, but the text is often rip-roaringly good. Many thanks to Charles Leon for sending me this one!

The cover makes clear this book's intentions from the off. The typeface for the title is simply fantastic, exactly like an old monster movie poster. The flesh-rending beast below is suitably hump-backed, sinister and strange looking, all reptilian gnarliness and overly-exposed teeth. Of course, its anatomy is complete nonsense, but unlike today's CG-rendered uglysaurs, there is a strange, painterly beauty to it. Or maybe I've been to too many tourist attractions with bad fibreglass models. Point is, illustrator Hamilton Greene could paint, even if he knew bugger all about dinosaur anatomy.

Greene pulls off a very nice Primordial Sunset, too, although his corythosaurs are a little inconsistent. The individual in the foreground looks quite bulky and even fairly 'modern' by 1965 standards, as if it's a quadrupedal animal rearing up. However, those in the background follow the 'gangly dork hadrosaur' trope a little more closely. Actually, there's something quite sinister about the foreground hadrosaur. It's probably the glowing eye, like it's activated the invulnerability cheat in Doom.

Now here's a more familiar sight - Allosaurus stooped over and picking at bones, AMNH-style. This illustration interestingly combines a more slimline, Knightian allosaur with a Zallinger colour scheme (the latter's allosaurs being notably pot-bellied). "Allosaurus could kill any animal of his time," we are told (yes, the dinosaurs are inevitably all male) - what's more,
"His head alone is two and one half feet long. His teeth, with jagged edges, curve inwards towards his throat. His lower jaw is hinged in such a way that he can open his mouth extremely wide to attack other animals or to swallow huge chinks of flesh."
Alas, though, for "Allosaurus has a short career," lasting only until the beginning of the Cretaceous period. Sorry, Allosaurus.

Equally familiar-looking in a Burianesque sort of way are these sauropods, who are at least afforded the dignity of being depicted as terrestrial (no snorkelling here). Of course, they still inhabit a swampy landscape flatter than Lincolnshire, but probably slightly less depressing. Notably, Apatosaurus is described as having a "rather thick" neck, but not really illustrated as such; however, all of the sauropods are illustrated with nostrils at the ends of their snouts. I get the feeling that vintage artists used to do this simply because that's where nostrils are 'supposed' to go; it's just ironic that this placement turned out to be closer to the mark than many Dino Renaissance-era attempts.

I love the remark about T. rex missing out on Jurassic sauropod meat. It reminds me of Rule 1 for science journalists when reporting on palaeontology - always, somehow, crowbar in a reference to T. rex. Or Raquel Welch's fur bikini.

In spite of never getting to munch on Giraffatitan's innards, I'm sure Rexy was more than happy chowing down on THE DUCKBILLS. This illustration is strikingly similar to the sauropod scene, in that it depicts a bunch of rather static, grey-green-brown lizardy thingies hanging around in a swamp, looking a bit depressed. I mean, Edmontosaurus (or is it Anatosaurus? Or is it Edmontosaurus?) looks like it's just seen the famous photograph of Nigel Farage and Donald Trump together in front of the hideous gold doors. Poor old hadrosaurs.

At least no one's making a big fuss about the hadrosaurs' lack of brains, which is what inevitably said about poor old Stegosaurus. The illustration of Steggy is a straightforward Burian copy, but Greene's ankylosaurs are somewhat more interesting. They're typical of the period (very short-legged and short-tailed), but the illustration appears to be unusually original and interesting, particularly in terms of perspective. These beasts actually seem to make some kind of anatomical sense, which is a rare thing for retro anyklosaurs, which normally end up looking like squashed pineapples swatting ineffectually at tyrannosaurs.

And speaking of which, Rexy himself does of course put in an appearance. This image is quite wonderfully tropetastic; there's everything from the tripodal Rexy with three fingers and a reversed hallux, to a nondescript desert landscape 'cos plants are hard, to the obligatory smoke-spewing volcano in the background. Just fantastic. Naturally, Rexy also has more teeth than the Osmond family. Those Struthiomimus had better run.
"Tyrannosaurus is the most terrible animal that ever lived...With great strides, he hurls through the jungle, following a smaller creature. His tail whips from side to side through the undergrowth as he corners his victim. His great jaws open wide and rows of terrible teeth slash down...Tyrannosaurus is both beautiful and terrible. The world has not seen another creature like him. No wonder his full name is Tyrannosaurus rex - King of the Tyrant Dinosaurs."
I think I'm welling up.

Naturally, wherever Rexy goes, an epic showdown is sure to follow. Here, the Trump-handed giant coelurosaur confronts no fewer than three adult Triceratops at once, which is probably less than wise. Outdated as they are, the two Triceratops on the right are actually quite handsome in a Knightian sort of way; the lighting and skin textures are actually rather convincing, and attention has been paid to the animals' actual skulls in particular. The fellow in the middle is a bit of a perspective fudge victim, but it's far from the most egregious example I've ever seen. Rexy looks quite smiley.

And finally...bonus marine creatures! The retro, crested Tylosaurus makes me happier than three free rounds in the pub - I can't get enough of those guys. The Elasmosaurus has a fairly, er, unique interpretation of the animal's limb anatomy, and the resulting crumpled Autumn leaf flippers are hilarious. Also, Pteranodon. And a fish, which Wikipedia thinks is Xiphactinus audax, but there seems to be some doubt there. Feel free to chip in with a comment if you know more about fish than I  do.

Coming next time: quite possibly, a guest post!


  1. "...unlike today's CG-rendered uglysaurs, there is a strange, painterly beauty to it... Point is, illustrator Hamilton Greene could paint, even if he knew bugger all about dinosaur anatomy.

    Outdated as they are, the two Triceratops on the right are actually quite handsome in a Knightian sort of way; the lighting and skin textures are actually rather convincing..."

    This is what makes a lot of (well, some) retro dino art enjoyable to see. They may be outdated, creaky, or just a rugby ball with legs, but boy howdy some of those oldschool illustrators could light 'em up.

    "...'cos plants are hard..."

    'Course, some things never change.

  2. The foreground Ankylosaur is a direct drawing based off the Sinclair world fair Dinosaur statue

    I always knew this particular sculpture from a copy at the Calgary Zoo from my childhood, but the majority of the zoo's Dinos were just copies of the Sinclair fair statues.

    1. I should've guessed. Thanks for clearing that up.

  3. Oh joy! Thank you one again Marc, for finding these wonderful books. I have all these illustrations in another book ad wondered where they came from.Love the tubby ankylosaur.Portheus seems to find its way in these old books, doesn't it? He's in the How and Why Wonder Book too.

    1. I can't take credit for this one - it was sent to me by Charles Leon (see opening paragraph). But I'm glad you enjoyed it.

  4. Except for the cover image and the first "hadrosaurs in the sunset" image, all of these paintings (and many others) also appeared in a book titled "Dinosaurs: A Golden EXPLORING EARTH Book." That other book had a cover by Rod Ruth, viewable here:

    1. Yes, I have that book, from 1973. They're combined with some beautiful Zallinger pieces and other other artists.

  5. Tyrannosaurus rex - King of the Tyrant Dinosaurs

    I think I'd been suspicious of that translation long before I learnt anything of Latin or Greek. It's prima facie implausible that "tyrannosaurus" means something that includes "dinosaur" when they're both clearly compounds ending in the same saur(us) element.

  6. The allosaurus illustration's caption, "Allosaurus,Jurassic Times," put me in mind of a reporter's introduction.

    1. Yes, like "Allosaurus, 23, from the Jurassic, wants to be a geologist and thinks Britain should opt out of the EU in a few million years."


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