Vintage Dinosaur Art: Prehistoric Life (Visual Books)

Over on his Theropoda blog, Andrea Cau has been watching the trailers for Jurassic World, noting that a lot of the dinosaurs actually look more retro than those in previous entries in the franchise - in fact, they resemble palaeoart of the 1940s-60s. Given the imminent release of said film, it's surely quite apt that the art in this week's post is exactly of that bent, and is looking extremely dated nowadays. Of course, the book concerned was published forty-two years ago.

Prehistoric Life (first ed. 1973, this ed. 1974) features restorations with a very 'classical' feel, in that although they are by all accounts horribly dated from a scientific perspective, the artwork is actually pretty decent on a technical level. Scaly skin textures, in particular, are very well done and somewhat reminiscent of Bernard Robinson's work. The bulk of the illustrations were handled by Peter Connolly, and it seems clear that he had some experience in depicting living animals, as is made particularly evident in his paintings of prehistoric mammals. But I'll get back to that. We're here for the dinosaurs, after all.

And's a dinosaur! Albeit one looking rather lost in a scene filled with marine reptiles. Most of the creatures here wouldn't look out of place in a Burian painting - besides the rather lizardy Camptosaurus, notable are the Knightian Tylosaurus just being cropped off to the right (set to make a comeback in Jurassic World!), the oddly short-skulled Steneosaurus based seemingly on living crocodilians and not much else [EDIT: or, I've missed the obvious mislabelling; see comments], and the armour-plated Kronosaurus also clearly based on crocodilians (which makes considerably less sense). Basing pliosauroid plesiosaurs on crocodiles was something of a trope back in the day; obviously, it was far too tempting to base them on what was perceived as a living reptilian 'analogue'. I can also confirm that, while the pterosaurs are stark raving nekkid, at least Oligokyphus has been given a short fuzzy pelt.

As if to confirm the book's retro-pop-palaeo credentials, here comes a peculiar perching Hypsilophodon, Neave Parker stylee (complete with back nodules). There's also the suggestion that it "may have been the ancestor of the first bird," in spite of the considerably older Archaeopteryx being described as "the first bird" on the opposite page. More interesting here is the depiction of a hypothetical 'Tetrapteryx', an idea proposed by William Beebe in 1915, and which did prove prescient in the end. Connolly's depiction appears more lizardy and less dinosaurian than Beebe's, particularly in the way it's awkwardly sprawling one leg out to the side while running bipedally along the ground. It actually looks a little painful.

At some point, you've just got to have a sort of 'March of the Dinosaurs' timeline, depicting a neat line of dinosaur progress...right up towards some sort of precipice, marking their extinction (in this case, just the top of the page). In this case, the rather bloated saurians look like they've just been ejected, one-by-one, from an all-you-can-eat buffet. The parade is accompanied by larger, coloured illustrations of various animals, and Connolly sticks to type here, too. The Polacanthus is wonderfully Parkeresque, and is also reminiscent of the jolly smiling fellow who miraculously survived the Great Blackgang Chine Fibreglass Dinosaur Cull of 2014. Elsewhere, we have a really very familiar looking Styracosaurus (Burian? Zallinger?), a squat porker of a Protoceratops and an equally tubby Gorgosaurus, which serves to show off the awkwardness of pairing the animal's leg arrangement with an upright, tail-dragging posture. Still, nice texturing.

Happily, when we finally reach a full-on spread of dinosaurs in their environment, the illustration presented is nothing short of a real corker. Plaudits should be awarded, I think, for the extensive flora and varied topography - too often, illustrators were happy to stick their dueling dinos in a Dutch-flat desertscape and call it quits, but not Connolly! There's a lovely painterly quality to the forest in the background, too. Of course, attention is immediately drawn to those two erstwhile sparring partners, Rexy and, er, Trikey (or should that be, 'Trikey!'). The animals are presented largely in a retro fashion, but there's decent attention to detail in Trikey's lumpy skin and Rexy's meaty meaty thighs. And there's buckets of blood, too - as well there should be. Too many books tone this stuff down - a fight to the death between two 7-tonne beasts equipped with huge, pointy weapons probably would get pretty (or, horrifyingly) messy. Not in an awesomebro way, but matter-of-factly. Go on, illustrate a tyrannosaur with a ceratopsian-inflicted, gaping, intestine-spilling wound, somebody.

Also worthy of note: the Triceratops' head is weirdly skeletal when compared with its body (exposed teeth and all). Not sure why that is.

On the other side of the spread, we have a bunch of other dinosaurs who, rather boringly, are not killing each other in inventive, humorous ways (wait, didn't David have that idea once?). There's "Trachodon", of course, shown posing for Burian, who has his easel propped up slightly out of frame. There's also a herd of Ornitholestes, simply because it wouldn't be a retro-style dinosaur book without a baffling anachronism in an otherwise coherent scene. There are also furry gits eating eggs at the foot of the page, although fortunately this is not described as a plausible factor in the dinosaurs' extinction (in case you were wondering; that trope had legs. Stubby, pink legs).

What with the grand Cretaceous finale being over, one would expect the dinosaurs' reign over the pages of this book to be over. But wait! In an amusing twist, we are asked to imagine...what If Dinosaurs Were Alive Today? A series of illustrations depict just that, starting with a brontosaur in what appears to be a Dutch canal, looking slightly disgruntled about Henk van de Sluis passing by in his pride and joy, 'Gertie'.

Moving on, we have a good-old-fashioned 'legged pineapple' style Ankylosaurus roaming around in the middle of a street full of parked cars; naturally, the humans look more amused than anything. "Its tank-like body was more than a match for any Mini," we are told, although of course this was written a long time before the monstrous UnMini Countryman was so much as a twinkle in some offensively unimaginative BMW executive's eye. Meanwhile, Ornitholestes sneaks up on a nice family just trying to enjoy a day out, as small coelurosaurs are wont to do.

Rexy has to stick his infamously stunted forelimb in somewhere, of course, so here he is enjoying a day at the beach. His pose seems to be based on the former AMNH mount, and the large thighs are notable - a departure from earlier, weedy-limbed depictions that prevailed early on, in spite of evidence to the contrary. Again, the humans appear unconcerned, not even bothering to stop sunbathing in order to run for their lives. Perhaps they'd been reading too many of those peculiar '70s dinosaur books that declared T. rex to be an evolutionary joke, to be filed alongside the likes of the giant panda and double denim.

And finally...remember those mammal illustrations I mentioned? Well, here's the best of them, and it's actually rather gorgeous. The mammoth, in particular, attains a near-Burian lifelike quality that is certainly not to be sniffed at. Perhaps the loveliest aspect of this piece is in the mountains and sky, which look positively dreamy. One could argue that it's too 'busy' to be naturalistic and attain a pleasing composition, but such a depiction of numerous different large species together is required by the remit. I think Connolly can be proud of this one, and I really hope I stumble upon more of his work in the future.

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