Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Vintage Dinosaur Art: Dinosaurs (Herbert S Zim)

Yet another book scanned and sent over to me by Charles Leon (thank you!), Dinosaurs (by Herbert S Zim) dates from 1954, making it the oldest book featured in quite some time. It's essentially a product of the era, with grey, tail-dragging, fern-munching beasties hanging around swamps and hoping that it doesn't start getting too cold. Of course, there's always nifty stuff to be found if you look hard enough...

When reading books of this vintage, one expects the occasional blatantly Knight or Burian-based illustration, with of course not so much as a tip of the hat given to the original artist. However, that's not the case here. An acknowledgement from illustrator James Gordon Irving notes that he
"...wishes to express his gratitude to the American Museum of Natural History for making available its series of dinosaur models by W.P.A. workers and others. Many of the illustrations have been based on them."
I heartily encourage this attitude among modern day illustrators, although it would mean that huge numbers of Dorling Kindersley books would be filled with credits to Jurassic Park, Papo toys, and mangled stock 3D models of lizards.

Zim starts with what the reader will be familiar with. If you've picked up a dinosaur book, you've probably seen a mounted skeleton in a museum, and even if not, you'll certainly be aware that they inevitably the main attraction at natural history museums worldwide (not whales. Nope. Never). Hence this fetching and remarkably detailed illustration of a Brontosaurus skeleton, complete with retro fantasy skull. I do like that it's posed bending its neck down to human eye level, almost as if to match the inspecting gaze of the museum visitor.

Zim goes on to outline dinosaurs' place in the Tree of Life, and how reptiles became so superbly adapted to life on dry land. The above illustration depicting a nesting Styracosaurus with newly-hatched juveniles is quite unique for the time, and remains rather unusual; it's not a dinosaur that's often seen doing anything besides confronting tyrannosaurs or just standing around looking all resplendent and smug. I also like that the babies do not resemble miniature versions of the adult, although they do end up resembling tiny Protoceratops, purely by accident I'm sure.

Of course, the Tree of Life was imagined rather differently in the 1950s. These days, the case for birds being dinosaurs is so overwhelming, the people who continue to ignore it end up looking more than a little silly, or like they haven't read any scientific papers since the '60s (and some of them haven't, and it doesn't stop them giving lectures). Things were quite different back in the '50s, as we know - back then, the same stock of thecodonts were thought to have given rise to crocs, pterosaurs, birds, Saurischia, and Ornithischia, and no group was more closely related to each other than any other one. No way. No how.

But never mind all that - on to the good stuff! This beautifully shaded illustration of Brachiosaurus is ntoable for a number of reasons; primarily, because of how dignified it is for a '50s illustration of this animal. Not only is it standing quite happily on dry land, but it appears very muscular and surprisingly lithe. What's more, each hand, although inaccurate in shape, sports just the single claw. The suitably regal expression on the individual in the foreground reminds me very much of the Invicta Brachiosaurus toy from the 1970s - perhaps they shared a common source of inspiration.

As with the brachiosaurs, these stegosaurs aren't half bad by the standards of 1954 - again, the decent use of lighting and perspective points to the involvement of 3D models. The gently sloping, subtly realistic landscape and vegetation beyond 'you know, cycads' are also to be commended. We can argue later over whether that's intended to be grass.

Perhaps the most successful spread from a compositional standpoint features a group of Ornitholestes making a swift getaway from a prowling gang of allosaurs. Thankfully, the allosaurs are of the leaner, more Knightian variety, as opposed to being Zallinger-inspired fatties; as such, they take on an appropriately sinister air even without doing much, simply by virtue of their fearsome appearance. Many aspects of their anatomy, such as the horns (even if not quite right) and enlarged thumb claws, show an attention to detail that most illustrators didn't bother with at the time. Peculiarities include the four-toes-forward feet of both theropods, and the almost identical skipping pose of each Ornitholestes - it seems Knight's influence was important again here. "Almost birdlike," indeed...

Naturally, Brachiosaurus isn't the only beefy boy to put in appearance, with Brontosaurus and Diplodocus also making a contractually-obliged appearance. This illustration excellently emphasises the incredible, elongated forms of these animals over two pages, the languid curl of the Diplodocus' tail enabling easy comparisons with the length of its body. Of course, Brontosaurus is basically portrayed as 'fat Diplodocus' rather than the bizarre, chunky-necked beast it really was, but that's normal innit. I do like the swamp of conveniently even depth in the background, allowing each animal to stand on the bottom and stick its head out like a periscope.

On to the Cretaceous, and the illustration for Protoceratops feels very perfunctory. "Here is Protoceratops. Here is a nest. You know how it goes." The babies in the below illustration look almost like they're bursting through paper or out of a cake. Triceratops, meanwhile, looks rather odd, and I couldn't quite put my finger on it at first; sure, it's rather rotund even for the time, but that doesn't account for it looks. Then it hit me - it's the lack of pointy jugals. Which, funnily enough, are present and correct on the Protoceratops opposite. Beautiful shading, all the same. I'm always fascinated by the tendency in older artworks to portray Triceratops' frill as being covered by an extremely smooth, continuous sheet of (presumably) keratin. Draw it like that these days and you'd get all kinds of funny comments on deviantArt, probably involving All Yesterdays and how scientists can never make up their minds, therefore evolution is an evil lie put about evil atheist scientists of evil. And raptors didn't have feathers.

And finally...Rexy of course! I've noted before how Rexy seems to often end up looking quite goofy in books that feature otherwise rather dignified-looking dinosaurs. That's certainly true of this ill-proportioned three-fingered beast. I do enjoy how aghast it looks, sticking its little hands up and retracting its head. Perhaps it can't abide by those little ankylosaurs (filthy creatures), even if, typical mid-century discrepancies aside (stumpy tail!), they're actually pretty well drawn.

But Herbert Zim's Dinosaurs doesn't end there - come back next time for much more quirky stuff, including a drawing of a dapper four foot man wielding a cigar! Oh yes.


  1. Eh, that Styracosaurus picture isn't so unusual. Ceratopsians were the de facto "good mother lizards" before Maiasaura showed up, even if you ignore every Protoceratops paintings. Seriously, take a quick look back if you have the time. I'd wager that at least 80% of all pictures of dinosaur babies before 1970 depicted ceratopsians (again, even if we don't include Protoceratops), and not only that, but Triceratops specifically. In fact, that's the one odd thing about the picture, in that it shows a Styracosaurus rather than its more famous cousin.

  2. Is it just me, or do the hatchling Protoceratops look like the ones from Purnell's Book of Dinosaurs and Prehistoric Animals?

  3. Oh,goody! AS a kid my favourite dino book was the How and Why Wonder book- until this one came along. The beasties are so beautifully and believably drawn. Ornitholestes is striking. It is drawn as a fast scurrying creature. This struck me at the time as there were so few illustrations that showed this, even though children's books described Ornitholestes as a light, fast moving animal. Irving draws his sauropods as land animals, even though the text describes them as swamp dwellers.As a child the Triceratops seemed anatomically strange, and today I would have to agree with my junior self. Well done again! May we dare to see Part 2, where you treat us to the ornithopods?


Trolls get baleted.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.