Title page of 1958’s The Wonderful Egg by Dahlov Ipcar

Vintage Dinosaur Art: The Wonderful Egg

Vintage Dinosaur Art

The festive season is upon us, LITC has moved (by the grace of Mr Orr) to a shiny new home, and I’ve got a few nights all to myself with only a bottle of Bell’s for company. What better time, then, to look at a truly wonderful little example of Vintage Dinosaur Art that’s so old, my dad was born in the same year that it was produced. (And he’s old.) It also involves eggs, which will soon be a Christmas thing once Mondelez successfully merge Yuletide and Easter into a single months-long consumerist binge. Are you sitting comfortably? Then let us begin 1958’s The Wonderful Egg. (This is another one that was sent to me by Charles Leon, by the way; thank you Charles!)

The Wonderful Egg is the creation of Dahlov Ipcar, and is dedicated to “Bobby, who wanted dinosaur pictures”. Unusually for a Vintage Dinosaur Artist, Ipcar has her own Wikipedia page; sadly, it emerges that she died earlier this year, although she did manage to attain a highly respectable 99 years of age. (She probably didn’t drink as much cheap whiskey as I do.) She is apparently well known in her native US, but I had never heard of her before Charles sent me these scans, so her highly colourful, lively and charmingly stylised depictions of animal life came as something of a pleasant surprise. The endpapers (above) give us an idea of what to expect, with a cheerful-looking pterosaur swooping in on a clutch of eggs of all shapes and colours. I love the combination of relatively realistic foliage on the left with more geometric, bold and flat leaves on the right.

Those readers who’ve stuck with us through the years (are you mad?) might have noticed that I didn’t open with the books’ cover, as I usually do. That’s because the above low-resolution image is, unfortunately, all I have available. Still, it looks nice enough – never have I seen a more cheerful Parasaurolophus.

The Wonderful Egg is presented as a hunt through a Mesozoic jungle, with the narrator attempting to identify the titular egg. While the book mostly focuses on single inhabitants of this primordial setting, at least one spread, near the start, does feature an assemblage of different prehistoric beasties. This is perhaps my favourite spread of the book. For obvious reasons, Ipcar’s work stands miles apart from the usual, run-of-the-mill, Zallinger/Burian/Parker copies. Naturally, one can detect those artists’ influences here and there, but the beautifully strange stylisation of the artwork, with its endearingly naive appearance, instantly sets it apart (and makes it all the more engaging). There’s a fittingly ‘primitive’, alien feel to the disproportionate plants and flatly coloured landscapes, which appear to melt away in places. I love the text, too. “Stupendously, tremendously, enormously BIG.”

Just look at the cute little salamander face on this delightful, gazumping fellow (and please excuse where I’ve hastily stitched two scanned pages together). He’s notably much happier-looking than the majority of 1950s brontosaurs, and somehow appears more energetic, too, in spite of his static pose. I think it’s in the curvature of the tail, which isn’t simply dragging lifelessly along the ground.

In fact, it’s difficult to find a single animal in this book that doesn’t look singularly cheerful and utterly charming, in stark contrast with much contemporary art, in which dinosaurs tended to still be inevitably portrayed as dead-eyed, grey-skinned, and slow-moving (if they even moved at all). Even in monochrome, Ipcar’s ambling Triceratops, head held proudly aloft, instantly raises a smile. It should be noted too that, while these depictions are obviously stylised, they are often still very good illustrations of dinosaurs for their day, with this being a particular highlight. Notice in particular that the head has clearly been drawn with reference to real skulls (or at least, reconstructed, mounted ones).

The Stegosaurus is similarly excellent, and with its head raised proudly in the air, reminds me very much of the model from the Milwaukee Public Museum, as mentioned in a previous post of mine. In fact, this is incredibly forward-thinking for 1958; the limbs are erect and the tail (on the other page) isn’t even dragging on the ground! This dynamic, vibrantly-coloured creature makes its contemporaries look positively walnut-brained. It’s so good that one doesn’t even notice the deliberately coarse shading and blending of colours, which could be mistaken for being childlike if they weren’t so precise and masterful.

The notoriously lithe, long-legged and birdlike ornithomimosaurs have always had more luck than heavy-set Stegosaurus in being depicted as lively, interesting creatures. Still, Ipcar’s depiction of Ornithomimus appears fascinatingly prescient in one respect, even if it was accidental; the orange feet, fingers and face make it look like this animal has a feathery pelt! Unfortunately, it does appear to conform with the historic tendency for these creatures to be depicted with embarrassingly diminished arms, hands or both. In this case, the three-fingered hands are well enough, but the arms have been strangely reduced to tyrannosaur-like nubs. It’ll never cease being odd that a group of dinosaurs so famous for having robust, long arms and hands (I mean, one of them was named based on just a pair of hugely robust arms and hands) used to be depicted this way, but there you go. That aside, this piece is just as lovely as the others. The plants are conspicuously strange and the pink sky is gorgeous.

There are non-dinosaurs in this book too, of course. Was it an Elasmosaurus egg? Well, probably not, since Elasmosaurus likely gave birth to live young. (Of course, plesiosaurs were depicted crawling onto land to lay their eggs like turtles until relatively recently.) For my money, this is one of the weaker pieces in the book. It’s a serviceable illustration of the animal by contemporary standards, but not much more. Of course, this reflects the tendency of artists who are perfectly au fait with dinosaurs to freak out when asked to draw marine reptiles, which itself probably reflects the relative paucity of scientists researching these animals. As A. Smith might tell you (and if you know who I’m talking about, point made).

Back to the dinosaurs, then, and here is Rexy. Gizza smile, love. I’m not too fond of this one either, except for one detail – the birdlike scutes on the feet, which the real animal may well have had (based on their presence in Concavenator), but which only really appeared in artwork with the coming of the Dino Renaissance. And at least the ear is in the right bloody place, more-or-less. Apart from that, the eyes-on-stalks, retroverted toes and awkward, hunched posture are just typical of 1950s art. Still, it’s quite pretty stylistically, and at least it’s not at all bad for 1958. Got to love a zipper-mouthed tyrannosaur.

So whose egg was it? Ipcar explains.

“But no, it wasn’t a dinosaur egg at all.

It was a wonderful new kind of egg.

And when it hatched, it hatched into a baby bird, the first baby bird in the whole world. And the baby bird grew up to be a beautiful bird with feathers. The first beautiful bird that ever sang a song high in the tree tops of the new green world of long, long ago.”

BUT BIRDS ARE DINOSAURS! Yeah, but it was 1958. And besides, this is wonderful, beautiful stuff. One could argue that the illustration isn’t distinctively Archaeopteryx, and certainly the animal depicted appears to lack teeth. On the other hand, the teeth of Archaeopteryx were tiny, and even if the mouth does have something of a beak-like appearance, I’ll happily accept that when the rest of the animal appears so cohesive. It’s a feathered dinosaur – not an awkward, lizardlike abomination with haphazardly glued-on feathers and digits protruding from unlikely places. For the time, it’s admirable, and the colours are wonderful. Notably, the feet and mouth are pink. Perhaps Ipcar did intend to depict Ornithomimus with a fuzzy covering…?

And finally…did you ever think you’d ever see these two getting on so well? Merry Christmas, fijne feestdagen and see you all in 2018.

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  • Reply
    Natee Puttapipat
    December 23, 2017 at 6:35 am

    This book is loveliness itself. I want it.

  • Reply
    Johan Egerkrans
    December 23, 2017 at 11:12 am

    I, of course, absolutely adores all this – the prissy ornithomimuses being my favourite of the lot.

    The new blog looks great by the way! Nice job!

  • Reply
    A. Smith
    December 23, 2017 at 6:26 pm

    That’s me that is. ;p

    Charming book!

  • Reply
    Dan Gale
    December 26, 2017 at 12:36 am

    May I ask, will this site ever be reviewing old dinosaur movies? One Million (Years) BC (1940/1966), The Valley of Gwangi (1969), Dinosaurus (1960) etc? I’d argue these often had just as many pre-renaissance tropes as any book art.

    • Reply
      Marc Vincent
      December 26, 2017 at 9:43 am

      Could be an idea. I have the feeling that there have been at least one or two posts about old movies before, but I can’t remember exactly. We have reviewed new movies before.

  • Reply
    Andrew Stuck
    December 27, 2017 at 1:26 am

    Yet more proof one does not need to sacrifice science for art! (…allowing for ’50s-era science, that is.) Another fine example of how to do stylized dinosaurs properly.

    That Triceratops is doofy and adorable. More like this please!
    That Archaeopteryx is beautiful, too, any small inaccuracies aside.

  • Reply
    December 30, 2017 at 10:17 pm

    I agree that the Archaeopteryx is so refreshingly birdy looking.
    Could do without the beak, but still, refreshing.

  • Reply
    January 3, 2018 at 7:01 pm

    These are so wonderful! I had never heard of Dahlov Ipcar: this prompted me to look her up.

    ! ! !

    What a wonderful artist and, by all accounts, truly delightful person. It’s no surprise that when she turned her considerable talent to illustrating dinosaurs, the end result is a spectacularly charming as this.

  • Reply
    Justin Chodzko
    January 4, 2018 at 2:17 pm

    This book was reissued by Flying Eye Books a few years ago: http://flyingeyebooks.com/shop/the-wonderful-egg/

  • Reply
    Benjamin Chandler
    January 5, 2018 at 3:41 pm

    This was in my elementary school’s library and I checked it out often. I loved that thorny Agathaumas in the opening splash pages.

    I’m sure the book’s no longer there. They seemed to have purged all the books from before 1990 a few years back. (My mother still works there and I recently crept through the stacks to see if any of the charming 20th century paleo books were there, but alas…)

  • Reply
    J.D. Lees
    April 17, 2020 at 9:54 pm

    This was the first dinosaur book I ever saw, in my Grade 1 classroom library almost 60 years ago. It started me on a life-time love affair with dinos, which I had never even heard of before this book. decades later, when I had children of my own, I acquired a nice copy through amazon and read it to my kids before bedtime. This was about 20 years ago. Then I looked up Dahlov Ipcar on the net and found her website. I sent a note, telling her I loved her book and how much pleasure had sprung from its introduction into my life. I got a nice reply from her son Robert, whom I realized was the “Bobby” referred to in the book’s dedication. He said he would pass on the message to his mother. It sounds like she lived a long and happy life. A very talented lady!

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