Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Vintage Dinosaur Art: Private Lives of Animals: Prehistoric Animals - Part 1

It Came From the 1970s! Originally published in Italy in 1971, Prehistoric Animals is part of the Privates Lives of Animals series, which otherwise featured entirely extant wildlife. When I posted a little something from this book on Facebook, it quickly became apparent that a number of people, including palaeontologists and artists, remember this book very fondly from their childhoods. It isn't surprising - the art in this book combines a surprisingly high level of technical proficiency with flagrant Knight/Zallinger/Burian copying and a healthy dollop of pulp. Why, they even managed to get Burian himself involved. Many thanks to Benjamin Hillier for sending me this one - it's a corker! (Just see how many 'homages' you can spot to classic palaeoart pieces on the cover alone.)

While no author is credited in this 1975 English edition (Frederick Warne & Co is the publisher), the list of illustrators is alarmingly long, comprising the following (deep breaths now):
Andrew W Allen, Olimpia Buonanno, Sergio Budicin, Zdenek Burian (for it is he), Tino Chito, James H Cracknell, Edward S Dacker, Giorgio Degaspari, Bruno Faganello, Ezio Giglioli, M Fausta Vaglieri, Guido Zucca
...with Carlo Acciarino as compiler (artwork) and Lorenzo Orlandi as 'researcher'. He didn't stretch himself too much, as we shall see. Sadly, individual illustrations aren't credited, although a very small number are helpfully signed. Given the large number of artists involved, one would expect a certain amount of variation in the quality of the artwork, and this is indeed the case. None of it's terrible (for the time) but the perfunctory contributions of some contrast vividly with the exciting, painterly, often quite visceral contributions of others.

Take this Bronto spread, for example. It's highly reminiscent of work by Knight and Burian, and it's...fine. It's pleasing in a Ladybird sort of way. One could say much the same about the illustration in the top right, a blatant Knight copy. The most remarkable illustration on this spread is, surprisingly, not given central prominence.

Now, if you ever loved dinosaurs as a kid, you'll recall that by far the most breathtaking illustrations in your various dino-books featured clashes between the great reptilian gladiators of prehistory. Tyrannosaurus v Triceratops. Allosaurus v Stegosaurus. Deinonychus v Iguanodon, which appeared quite a lot, even if it didn't really make sense. Everyone loves an epic reptile battle, and this book surely delivers. Here, a brontosaur engages two ceratosaurs in mortal combat. The text implies that boor old Bronto will flail uselessly before collapsing into a bloody heap, but the creature in the artwork is clearly having none of it, crushing one of its attackers underfoot while turning to face the other with a suitably stern look on its vanishingly tiny face. What a fantastically energetic and evocative piece - gotta love it.

By way of contrast, here is a piece completely lacking in dynamism - Stegosaurus rendered almost as a rockface. Thanks to canny use of perspective, gazing upon this colossal lizardy lummox is like looking up the sides of Cheddar Gorge, an impression aided by the clever inclusion of vegetation twisting around the animal's spiked tail. Even if it's horribly dated, it's beautifully painted and very captivating.

Of course, it's not long before Stego, too, ends up in trouble with a large Jurassic predator. The typical scenario, as illustrated in countless dinosaur books, envisages Allosaurus either circling warily around its armoured quarry, or else busy getting a face full of thagomizer. Here, however, Allosaurus has actually managed to flop Stegosaurus down onto its side, tearing into its flesh while pinning it down using one of its plates. The gnarled, sinewy look of the Allosaurus is just fantastic, as is the largely impressionistic backdrop (the better to bring the action to the fore), although it's probably best you don't think too hard about the anatomy.

On to the Cretaceous now, and as I've often said on this blog, I have a lot of sympathy for artists who, working in the pre-internet age, often had to work hard to find anything close to a decent three-dimensional reference when restoring prehistoric animals. Burian famously did the best he could, but a lot of his reconstructions still ended up being quite ill-proportioned. I will therefore refrain from being too critical about this very Knight-inspired Triceratops, even though its head appears to have been steamrollered.

Some things in life, like death, taxes, and Brexit, just seem to be inevitable, even if they are a bit depressing. So it is with depictions of Triceratops confronting T. rex, an ostensibly exciting 'clash of the titans' scenario that is rarely executed well. The sky here is lovely, but this piece contrasts unfavourably with the earlier 'Bronto v ceratosaurs' and 'Stego v Allosaurus' illustrations. Triceratops' efforts just look a little half-hearted. Got to love the unusual 'primitive tank' comparison, though.

Triceratops' contemporary Trachanatedmontotitan also puts in an appearance, initially in a guise that will be very familiar to anyone who appreciates a bit of Burian (even the colour scheme is the same). It's serviceable, if not especially interesting.

Now this is more like it! The style here is wonderful, like Burian, but gnarlier (this seems quite likely to be the same artist as with the Stegosaurus fight scene). No attempt is made at strict 'realism' with the colours here - it's all about imbuing a suitably primordial atmosphere, lending an otherwise quite tranquil scene a strange, almost eerie quality. It's an approach that a lot of today's palaeoartists could learn something from.

And then you have a dirty great theropod with a conspicuously inaccurate number of fingers preparing to grab some poor Burianesque hadrosaur by the throat. Of course, there's only one sizeable Late Cretaceous theropod that deserves a page all to iself...

Struthiomimus! Again, this isn't bad for the time; the artist has taken care to avoid giving the animal disproportionate limbs, tiny Trumpian hands, or a chicken beak. They forgot to draw in the basketball it's dribbling, but other than that, it's a decent effort. Once again, though, the 'behaviour' illustrations are much more entertaining.

"Oh bother, there goes my tail again." Incidentally, you probably know "Phobosuchus" better as Deinoscuhus.

Oh boy. Here we go. Rexy had yet to go through his first 'timid scavenger' phase when this book was written, and so he's naturally described as the most terrifying juggernaut of a beast the Earth has ever seen. The "most bloodthirsty predator ever to exist," "every living being would have fled," "no creature could have offered any resistance to it except perhaps Triceratops" - you get the picture. My particular favourite line here is
"Moreover, even if the fiercest wild animals we know today - tigers and lions - were to face this monster in combat, they would look like kittens compared to it."
Yeah, take that, David Norman! The illustration here is quite typical of the time, in that the animal is depicted as a tail-dragging tripod, but at least it appears lean 'n' mean, with suitably muscular legs and an angry eyebrow and big nostrils, like it's been restyled by BMW. I'm quite sure this illustration has been copied many times, and it may itself be something of a knock-off - feel free to chip in if you can shed any more light.

Happily, an entire page is dedicated to the murderous adventures of the Tyrant King, who rampages through time and space in his rapacious quest to rend more and more dino-flesh. Particular highlights here include:
  • A very Burianesque Rexy materialising among a group of terrified hesperornithines on an otherwise barren shoreline;
  • Rexy striding confidently over to poor old retro, squatting Scolosaurus, safe in the knowledge that even its armour plating "will not protect it from being torn to pieces";
  • Rexy travelling over 85 million years back in time in order to savage Diplodocus while posing for Charles Knight.

And finally...let's take a look at the whole page, shall we? After all, that tyrannosaur tussle at the bottom there is quite delightful. Note also the inclusion of the dead Rexy in the lower right, a reminder that empires are fleeting, everything dies, and geological time will ultimately bring oblivion to all.

On that note, have a lovely week! You'll note that I haven't mentioned any otherprehistoricanimals. This book will return..


  1. Seems most of these images were also used in the Panini sticker book covered here earlier: https://chasmosaurs.blogspot.dk/2011/04/vintage-dinosaur-art-panini-dinosaur.html

    1. I had this sticker book. It was the first thing I thought of!

  2. The illustrations are pretty wonderful really.

  3. I received the Italian edition of this book in... 1988? Still in my love collection.

    1. Hello Andrea Cau, I am italian too and I'm in search for the italian edition of that book but cannot find many informations. Could you please help me? I had that book as a child and I really would love to find a copy of it :-) Please feel free to write me to my email address perseo punto mazzoni chiocchiola gmail punto com

  4. The suggestions for why the dinosaurs went extinct are pleasantly restrained: no superbugs or mammals somehow suddenly eating all the eggs.

    1. You've been rereading the Dinosaur Mailing List ~1996 too?

  5. I had forgotten all about this delightful book. I love how the gorged T-rex slept for exactly two weeks, and how Struthiomimids lost their tails like skinks.

  6. I have this book (in spanish) since my very childhood and I still f**king love it. Is a marvelous pleasure for me to see it commented here.

  7. would you do a post on vintage dinosaur model kits? The art is so delightful. Airfix, Tamiya etc.


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