Vintage Dinosaur Art: Digging for Dinosaurs

Vintage Dinosaur Art

Welcome back, at long last, to the wonderful world of vintage dinosaur books authored by Professor William Elgin Swinton, typically credited as simply W. E. Swinton. A Scottish palaeontologist who had a berth at the London NHM before moving to Canada, Swinton is probably best known among palaeoart aficionados for writing an official NHM book on dinosaurs, featuring Neave Parker artwork, that was reprinted again and again – long after the science in it had been rendered completely obsolete. I reviewed it around seven and a half years ago (yikes), although that review isn’t very good, so perhaps you should just check out my review of his Dinosaurs of Canada instead. In any case, and as his Wikipedia page notes, Swinton’s ideas on dinosaur palaeobiology were doggedly old-fashioned, and the illustrations in his books inevitably reflected this, regardless of the artist. In this case, Barry Driscoll is on hand to provide the expected Parker-like illustrations, although there’s at least one nice surprise along the way.

Digging for Dinosaurs cover

Digging for Dinosaurs was first published in 1962 by The Bodley Head, which is now a cog in the Penguin Random House megapublisher machine. The edition seen here arrived in 1966. I rather like the cover, featuring as it does a very retro – but superbly detailed – illustration of Stegosaurus, wonderfully lit and understated. It’s an excellent choice – an animal that instantly evokes the Age of Dinosaurs, cropped down to form an effective composition, and posed beautifully. Its fat arse and tail do spill over on to the back cover, but I prefer viewing the front cover alone. We don’t get enough of this sort of thing, these days, although Mark Witton’s got a couple of lovely covers in this vein under his belt.

World of dinosaurs

Equally lovely is this spread depicting The World of the Dinosaurs. It’s excellent at drawing the viewer into the scene through the use of varying topography, foliage, and animals depicted as mere components of a larger ecosystem. It also really rewards closer inspection. For example, the very Neave Parker-like Iguanodon-thing stands out a mile, but I hadn’t even spotted the small group of dinosaurs in the middle of the scene until I started writing this paragraph. The plants look great, and best of all, the whole thing just appears so believable. It’s really rather impressive.


Sadly, after featuring such a gorgeous spread, the book reverts to the standard ‘animal profiles’ format for the majority of its length. It also features a sadly predictable number of outright copies, such as this Parker-style

Iguanodon (although at least the animal’s given slightly bigger hands). This is the reason no one is allowed to draw Iguanodon with a dewlap ever again. Ever.

Back in the day, Iguanodon and Megalosaurus always travelled together. It didn’t matter that they lived tens of millions of years apart – it was post-Crystal Palace tradition, and in the UK, tradition trumps almost everything else. That’s why carpets in the bathroom lasted for far, far too long after people realised that it didn’t make any sense. As such, Megalosaurus faces Iguanodon, although to be fair, the two are not implied to have lived at the same time here. (In fact, timeframes aren’t really mentioned much at all.) This hunchbacked freak has, once again, obviously been influenced by Parker’s famous portrayal. One notable difference between Driscoll’s illustration and Parker’s, however, is that Driscoll has extended the animal’s right leg much further forward, to the point where I’m pretty sure at least the knee would be dislocated. It’s doing the splits! Why is it doing the splits? Well, you can’t deny that it makes it look more athletic. Maybe the next movie in that franchise will feature a TyrannosaurusVelociraptor-Kelly Malcolm hybrid that can brutally kill with gymnastics.

Also: it “was a fierce cannibal”. Yes, I know. Hey, there’s a chance that it was a cannibal, but why Swinton uses ‘cannibal’ as a synonym for ‘predator’ here, I don’t know. He keeps it up through the whole book.


Continuing the theme of Very British Dinosaurs (and skipping a boring copied Stegosaurus), here we have Polacanthus, again looking very much like a Neave Parker illustration. It’s also rather fat. I’m very fond of the shading here (and in many of the other illustrations), but you have to wonder why this thing has been made quite so portly. Like an obese crocodile going through a goth phase. And speaking of fat things…


…here’s Apatosaurus. Note that that’s APATOSAURUS, not Brontosaurus. While Brontosaurus is a valid taxon once more in space-year 2019 – a time in which nothing seems to make any sense, although that’s not especially related to any papers pertaining to the phylogeny of diplodocid sauropods – it’s admirable to see a 1960s book refer to this generic name, rather than any (at the time) junior synonyms. Kudos, Prof W E. Naturally, as this book was written in the ’60s by Prof Swinton, Apatosaurus is described as being Too Big To…I mean, mostly aquatic in habits. (Sorry, Niels.) Of course, this hugely bloated creature would have to come on to land from time to time…

Cannibal attack

…and various CANNIBALS would be waiting for it there. Those of you who follow our page over on the Fezbooks will recognise this one, as I used it to promote this post. The first time I saw this, I immediately thought of the Crystal Palace models, and I wasn’t alone – both Andrew Stück and Bill Lovell mentioned them in their Facebook comments. It’s all a matter of perspective, though – the hugely wide-hipped tyrannosaur (in true Parker/Burian fashion) looks almost like a bottom-heavy quadruped from this angle, while the sauropod’s neck is not only foreshortened but partially obscured by the theropod’s gular pouch. Take these elements into account, and the piece starts to make more sense, although it’s still really quite funny. I mean – it’s an anachronistic tyrannosaur (check the fingers, and the Burian-riffing head) with its legs splayed implausibly far apart for some reason, biting into the neck of a Helpless Bronto. Sorry, Apato. What’s not to love? (I’d say something about ‘thicc’, but I’m 31 years old. I’m too aged for that shit.)


Apatosaurus is followed by another sauropod, and wouldn’t you know, it’s Cetiosaurus. Cetiosaurus doesn’t get very much attention these days, but as the first ever sauropod to be (properly) described, it used to pop up quite a bit. As its head is unknown, Driscoll chooses to have it submerged. It’s a nice touch, but the rest of the body is rather generic, resembling a 1980s hollow toy dinosaur – it doesn’t really show off the attributes of this particular animal. At least he didn’t copy Parker.


…Whereas he did when drawing this Hypsilophodon. Swinton was a firm advocate of an arboreal Hypsilophodon, a once hotly debated but now largely forgotten idea, famously illustrated by Parker. Driscoll’s version is notable only in that it turns the animal’s feet into human hands. Meanwhile, Compsognathus lurks in the background, looking very miserable and a bit blobby. “Bah,” he says, in Mr Burns’ voice.

Dead Stego

Naturally, Digging for Dinosaurs comments on the eponymous animals’ extinction. Apparently, it got really hot. Says Swinton,

“We know now that the world is always changing, the rivers dry up and new rivers begin. Lakes disappear and what was once green and fertile land becomes desert. When changes like this took place, what happened to the great dinosaurs? They were too heavy to walk far, and too stupid to know where to go to find other pools of water in which to live, so many of them died. The plant-eating dinosaurs died for want of food and water. And where they died, the cannibal dinosaurs, who lived on them, died also.”

And so we learn to beware of suspiciously neat and conveniently vague explanations for momentous things.

The illustration is pretty neat, though. Reminds me of the end of the Rite of Spring segment of Fantasia, especially as there’s apparently a stegosaur in the Late Cretaceous. Joking aside, out of context this could almost pass muster today as a worthy illustration of a stegosaur that died in a drought; the animal is well-observed and this is an impressively bleak scene. Nice work, Driscoll.

Triceratops mount

And finally…these days, we may observe dodgy models of Triceratops skeletons in museums. This illustration is fascinating for anyone familiar with the London NHM as it clearly depicts the museum’s Triceratops in its historic position in the old reptile gallery. The same 19th-century model can be seen today, but now it’s in the very 1990s Dinosaur Gallery, so you’ll have to squint a bit through the super-cool moody lighting. It’s always fascinating when old books – even those a mere 52 years old – manage to connect us so immediately to the modern day, while providing a tantalisingly incomplete glimpse into the past. And that’s what Vintage Dinosaur Art is all about.

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  • Reply
    January 15, 2019 at 4:45 pm

    Hmm, might that be the Scolosaurus in the background of the last picture in the Natural History Museum?

    • Reply
      Marc Vincent
      January 15, 2019 at 5:16 pm

      You know, I think it probably is.

  • Reply
    January 15, 2019 at 5:45 pm

    Delightful book. Nice to go down memory lane. Yes, the text does paste on the ‘too dumb, too heavy’ stuff. Doesn’t sound like the opinion of one of the world’s most eminent paleontologists. I wonder if a ghostwriter actually wrote the book, and he just supplied basic information? Thanks Marc.

  • Reply
    January 15, 2019 at 5:47 pm

    Oh and Cetiosaurus was only discovered in 1912?

  • Reply
    January 15, 2019 at 9:29 pm

    Me again! The short-necked apatosaur seems to have been something of a theme in the old days and I wonder where it came from. Im reminded of a painting by Knight that shows Brontosaurus bit short on vertebrae, as well as an illustration by Burian. Maybe the neck got gradually shortened by artists copying them?

  • Reply
    January 18, 2019 at 12:25 pm

    So…if Megalosaurus is a cannibal because it ate other dinosaurs, does Swinton think humans are cannibals because we eat other mammals?

  • Reply
    Dino Dad Reviews
    January 18, 2019 at 8:54 pm

    You commend Driscoll for skipping copying a Stegosaurus, but I’m 90% sure he started that illustration by drawing a Stegosaurus, then simply replacing the plates with Polacanthus spikes. It would certainly explain its portly physique and odd proportions.

    Speaking of Stegosaurus, he certainly must have been thinking of Fantasia when drawing that End-Cretaceous scene, as there’s apparently an eclipse going on as well, just like in Rite of Spring!

    • Reply
      Marc Vincent
      January 19, 2019 at 3:55 am

      You misunderstand – Driscoll DID draw a Stegosaurus that I’m sure is a straight copy (similar to Iguanodon), which I skipped here. It’s on the page opposite the Polacanthus. The Polacanthus itself is very Neave Parker. As for the Fantasia-esque scene…you may well be right.

  • Reply
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