Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Vintage Dinosaur Art: Big Animals of Long Ago - The Dinosaurs

Remember being a child in the 1970s? I don't (on account of not yet existing), but having reviewed so many remarkably similar kids' dinosaur books of the era, I feel like I've been there. Tail dragging yet sprightly tyrannosaurs, chunky title fonts, sauropods taking to the land, vibrant yellow-green colour palettes, the oil crisis, flares, the birth of punk; yes, they were probably the days. Let us now introduce Big Animals of Long Ago - The Dinosaurs, yet another identikit children's dino book from 1979. But for one very important twist. (This is another one sent to me by Charles Leon, by the way - cheers fella!)

Written by Ruth Wheeler and illustrated by Harry Baerg, Big Animals makes its level of ambition very clear by its cover, which is a competently executed but rather bland Neave Parker knock-off. Note the standby ferns and horsetails, but otherwise remarkably little in the way of vegetation; the generic beasties in the background are pretty dull, too, although one does sport a peculiar head crest, resembling some sort of corythosaur-cum-retro-sauropod. Three-fingered Rexy (look carefully) is suitably sneering and dismissive.

Shortly after the book's opening, we are introduced to the motley crew of prehistoric beasts. I love the quietly smiling styracosaur-thing, happily walking by as the world's tiniest brachiosaur emerges from the water. The odd beast in the foreground is probably one of those new ornithischian theropods I've been hearing so much about.

Perhaps the most accomplished illustration in the book features none other than Our Bronto - accurate it ain't, but the shading, while simple, is executed effectively to indicate muscular bulk. It appears powerful and hefty, but not overweight.  The classic camarasaur-like head might be wrong, but at least it's drawn with a nicely squared-off snout and retracted nostrils (as was typical at the time). The sweep of the tail is quite graceful - the neck, not so much.

The book pays little heed to chronology (for reasons that will become apparent later), skipping from Jurassic sauropods to Cretaceous ornithopods, and then back again. These are fairly typical pre-Renaissance hadrosaurs (with webbed hands and all), but the more '70s 'Gangly Dork Hadrosaur' (a la McLoughlin) does also make a notable appearance on the right. That one Corythosaurus is all legs, all the time, baby.

A wild Neave Parker Iguanodon appeared! What will you do?


It's nice enough for what it is; I always find those humanoid arms endearing.

Iguanodon gives way to Brachiosaurus, and it's enough to make one wish that Baerg had copied an established palaeoartist a little more closely in this case. The Burianesque feet and fat, lengthy tail are all well and good, but that head is plain weird. It appears to sport a bifurcated crest, like a dilophosaur. It's almost as if Baerg was given a copy of Burian's famous brachiosaur piece that was missing the top of the image, and had to draw the animal's head based on vague descriptions of its appearance.

Given that we've had Brontosaurus and Brachiosaurus already, the inclusion of Diplodocus is only right and proper. This is perhaps one of the most unusual illustrations of this animal that I've seen, simply based on the pose alone. The text obscures a chunk of land that would presumably answer the many, many questions I have about how the perspective works here. I suppose the neck and tail are both in front of the body, with the tail projecting towards us from the base, else there's a vertical drop on the left hand edge. Having said all that, the shading on the body is, again, actually rather nice - one can see the influence of the skinny-o-saurs movement that was gaining momentum in the late '70s, although this remains a healthy-looking creature. At least in terms of fleshiness.

But I've been hiding something from you, dear reader. For this isn't quite a normal kids' dinosaur book.

Turkeys and giraffes, together at last! Oh yes, I'm afraid this is one of those creationist books, although as Ken Ham wasn't yet on the indoctrination scene, it isn't too screamingly in-your-face about it. That doesn't mean there isn't a fair amount of absolute nonsense. The above scene, I imagine, is intended to depict some sort of fantastical paradise in which drooling, toothy wolves leave those tasty deer well alone, because there isn't any Sin around just yet. Unfortunately, it's conspicuously missing a pair of naked people. What Eden is complete without a naked lady with long hair artfully arranged to cover her breasts? And also a man, hidden in the undergrowth except for his manly torso.

In addition to lacking humans, the first Eden scene lacks any saurians. Which is odd, given that that is the focus of the book. For some reason, dinosaurs only arrive when Sin comes. Because someone did a bad thing, Eden's turned all monochrome, and hideous giant diapsid reptiles have invaded in all their ferocious, primordial horror. It'll also now be necessary to have a Pope at some point. At least there's a lot more vegetation here than in the other scenes; if it weren't for the anachronistic species mash-up, it'd be by far the most convincing-looking illustration of the lot. Oh, and Chazza K is presumably hidden behind one of the trees on the right while those hadrosaurs pose for him.

And finally...how did the dinosaurs die? Was it a giant asteroid? Volcanoes? A disease? I read a book by this guy named Bakker, and he said dinosaurs died of disease. But according to Willer, it's none of the above. Rather, there was a great Flood, and they were subsequently all drowned and covered in mud, which hardened to rock in the intervening...number of years. But where did all the water go? Now you're asking too many questions.

Coming next time: something more orthodox, I imagine!


  1. The fact that the dinosaurs and modern mammals don't overlap almost indicates that the pictures were drawn separately without the intention of their appearance in the same book, maybe even without the illustrator's knowledge, and they were then compiled into one book to tell a different narrative. In addition, the Brontosaurus in the flood scene looks to be added on in crayon, which hardly goes against the possibility that these were not originally intended for the same book!

    1. Difficult to say; Baerg does appear to have illustrated a number of books with Bibical themes. His mammal art would appear to be much better than his dinosaur art (unsurprisingly, based on the evidence here).

  2. I find it far more conspicios there are no mammals in the dinosaur scenes. I mean, having a sauropod and some elephants in one picture is not to out-of-place even in books that know actual science when it comes to size comparisons.
    My guess is, this book is strategically arranged to drop the bible-bomb way after luring readers in with the dinosaurs

    1. I should point out that it isn't - hence my 'I've been hiding something from you' remark. It actually begins with the Eden scenes, moves on to profiling the dinosaurs, then describes the Flood killing them all.

    2. Note the pagination of those group/landscape scenes.

  3. There's something oddly charming about the text here. Despite the clipped sentences, it has a real flow. It's almost poetic.

  4. What a surprising book! The idea that theropods were created as a punishment for sin is a new one for me! The artist evidently had some talent, so it's a shame he felt compelled to rip off other artists' work. The Trachodon is Burian, the Corythosaurs are Parker's (I think the main figure is Neave's Edmontosaurus with a crest added) and behind it in the background appears to be Knight's Trachodon.That weird Styracosaur-thingy is a Parker as well, as is the beasty in front of it. I should know what it is - can't remember - perhaps Elaphrosaurus?

    And lots of lovely waterlugged saurolumps. Wonderful!

    1. Apparently it is Parker's attempt to restore Sinocoelurus, a Jurassic theropod from China, known only by four partial teeth. Glut's New Dinosaur Dictionary reproduces a scene and identifies all the dinosaurs. http://dinopedia.wikia.com/wiki/File:Dinosaur_Neave_Parker_Marsh.jpg

  5. I grew up with about half a dozen creationist picture books similar to this, and I've also noticed an odd trend to avoid "mixing the food on the plate", so to speak. There's often obligatory Eden and Flood scenes which freely mix prehistoric and modern animals, but apart from those, there tends to be very little mixture otherwise. They will often even have animals of the correct era squaring off against each other, like Apatosaurus vs. Allosaurus, or T. rex vs. Triceratops. You'd think they'd lay on the propaganda a little thicker than that.


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