Vintage Dinosaur Art: Dinosaurs, Giants of the Past

Vintage Dinosaur Art

Back in the more innocent days of 2013, I wrote a couple of VDA posts on Album of Dinosaurs, a book with artwork that was excellent for its time (1972). Digging through the many, many scanned titles that Charles Leon has sent me (thanks Charles! Hope you’re well!), I came upon this one and was immediately struck by how the style of the artwork seemed so similar to that seen in the Album. Well, there’s a perfectly good reason for that; Rod Ruth illustrated both books. Unfortunately, while the art in Dinosaurs, Giants of the Past is perfectly serviceable for a book from 1973 (this edition: 1977), it falls far short of matching the standard set by Ruth in the Album.

The cover tells you about all you need to know. It’s, you know, not bad for the early 1970s. Triceratops‘ frill is certainly an odd shape, and curiously scalloped, and it looks like there’s a Banzai garden growing in the foreground, but it’s all standard fare. Happily, Ruth’s stylistic use of bold, solid yellow and red backgrounds is very much in evidence of this book. (It rather reminds me of some film merchandise from my childhood, although of course that was 20 years later.) If nothing else, this is an excellently composed cover. You can’t go far wrong with placing Triceratops front and slightly off-centre, thrusting its horns out at the reader. The animal looks intimidating, almost challenging. No wonder Rexy’s trying to slink away in the background.

As is typical of the genre, the book is a potted run through the Age of Dinosaurs, focusing on specific genera along the way. The opening spread sets the scene. No, the red sky isn’t strictly realistic, but nor is meant to be, you dolt – it’s all in the name of evoking a suitably strange, primordial atmosphere. The denizens of this alien world appeared suitably grizzled thanks to Ruth’s knack for painting gnarly, wrinkled skin. The text, by the way, was written by Eileen Daly, who seems quite keen on mentioning how every dinosaur was slow, dim-witted, and generally unfit for purpose. Yes, the tone is defiantly pre-Dino Renaissance, which might go some way to explain why Ruth’s work here is lacking in the excitement and dynamism evident in the Album; it’s just fitting the text.

One of the first dinosaurs to be profiled is Diplodocus, and oh boy, there’s that weird neck seam again. (Where did that originate?) It’s depicted looking over its shoulder, a popular pose in books as it helps fit the entire animal on to the page, but one that should never, ever be used for a toy, because you’re just limiting the kids’ fun, damn it. In any case, aside from being rather purple, this is a fairly generic depiction; at least Ruth’s anatomical knowledge is in evidence in that the thing actually has very obvious shoulders, hips and jointed limbs. (If only they all did…)

Of far more interest is this Brachiosaurus, where Ruth’s talents at creating leathery, gnarly skin textures are again utilised very effectively. It’s also a rather more exciting illustration in that the water being kicked up by the animal implies some sort of energetic movement. Naturally, the animal is taking to the water to escape the lurking allosaur over to the left. For as Daly explains,

“The biggest land animal ever was Brachiosaurus. It was as heavy as a thousand men and looked mean and fearsome. But Brachiosaurus was clumsy and slow and could easily be caught by its enemies…When an enemy came, Brachiosaurus could walk into a deep lake almost to the top of its head. There, it could breathe through nose openings in a little dome at the very top of its head…”

Now, I haven’t seen a mounted Brachiosaurus skeleton in person, but I have stood next to both the Giraffatitan mount in Berlin and various Allosaurus mounts, and let’s just say that the latter shrinks into insignificance next to the former. Hell, Giraffatitan makes even Diplodocus look small. The idea that an adult brachiosaur faced with an allosaur would shriek and dash for the water, like an elephant encountering a mouse in a cartoon, is hilarious. But, of course, ’twas a common view at the time. Why else were its nostrils on top of its head?

This illustration also displays Ruth’s odd tendency to draw Brachiosaurus like a diplodocid with slightly longer forelimbs, as also seen in the Album. It can probably be put down to the poor reference material available at the time, but it’s an odd sight for the modern reader nonetheless.

Rexy looks perhaps most strikingly like his Album counterpart. Naturally, the mighty King of the Dinosaurs is framed against a striking, blood-red sky, the better to emphasise the terrifying nature of this hugely muscular, voracious, carnivorous maw mounted on chicken legs. Unfortunately, while the head on the left looks suitably fearsome (oddly uniform teeth aside), the fellow on the right doesn’t really appear to want to put any effort into all this predation business. Standing rooted to the spot, the sleepy-looking, rather unbalanced and red-eyed creature can only manage to lean over in the general direction of its quarry, a much more energetic-looking Pachycephalosaurus. Is it stoned? Has it had “a few pints too many”, as Natee suggested over on the Fezbooks? Whatever the case, I don’t think the pachycephalosaur has a great deal to worry about. Except, possibly, whatever foul-smelling stuff the big beast might regurgitate the next time it tries to focus on a moving object.

Enough of that. Let’s get to some more tiny-brained herbivores. On the left, we have Keep On Steggin’, and I must say that its warty, knobbly skin is quite excellently painted. On the right, we have Styracosaurus‘ head, which features a particularly lovely eye. A well-executed eye can make all the difference to the believability of your palaeoart piece, don’t you know. Given how frequently Styracosaurus has been depicted as a highly mobile and lively creature in palaeoart (often spearing some other dinosaur in the unmentionables), the description here of it as being “clumsy and slow [with] a very small brain” is rather jarring. Come on now, give Styracosaurus some credit – look at how pretty it is!

At least Triceratops is given some interesting stuff to do; “scientists think that Triceratops was one of the few dinosaurs that roamed the plains in large herds,” we are told. That peculiarly-shaped frill is back, along with a very fat, dragging tail, but what I find most curious are the rather bovine, curling horns on the individual on the left. Still, this is a lovely illustration regardless; the forested, mountainous landscape in the background is quite beautiful. Ruth’s technical skill is well demonstrated here. Just look at the shading on the Triceratops‘ head, or the ripples in the water. Great stuff.

So far, we’ve mostly been treated to the Usual Suspects; the same old dinosaur genera that popped up in every book prior to the 1970s. Aha, but what’s this? Well, whatever this thing is, Oviraptor it ain’t. I can only imagine that Ruth was given a very vague description along the lines of ‘small theropod, eats eggs,’ and had to produce something based on that. Still, the result is one of the more unusual restorations of Oviraptor to ever appear in print, lacking any features to mark it out as an oviraptorosaur. And even if Ruth didn’t have any references to speak of, one has to wonder where the five-fingered hands came from.

And finally…all the dinosaurs died, and their big ol’ bones ended up mounted in museums. If you’d like to attempt a life restoration of the animal depicted above, I’d be quite prepared to send out a wee prize for the best effort (maybe a small piece of Dinosaurs in the Wild merch, as I’m going next week). It’s quite fantastically odd. Got to love the audience, though. Why has that woman dressed her child  exactly like herself? The implications are troubling.

4 thoughts on “Vintage Dinosaur Art: Dinosaurs, Giants of the Past

  1. More than half of the present US covered by deep lakes? Between that and the epeirc seas of the Cretaceous, how did you guys fit in any dry land for T. rex to look derpy on at all?

    Actually, the daughter’s coat appears to be of a quite different cut than the mother’s more figure-hugging one.

  2. “It’s depicted looking over its shoulder, a popular pose in books as it helps fit the entire animal on to the page, but one that should never, ever be used for a toy, because you’re just limiting the kids’ fun, damn it.”

    Well that’s my mildly frustrating memory of fruitlessly twisting a tiny green brontosaurus neck revived.

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