Not so long ago, I looked at a book sold under a supermarket brand (in the UK at least), and now here’s one that was published under the banner of the British department store chain, Marks and Spencer. Or at least, under their St Michael sub-brand, which I remember from my childhood, but doesn’t seem to be used by them anymore. In any case, it’s another book that’s considerably better than it has any right to be, and not least because it features an awful lot of impressive work by stalwart illustrator and LITC favourite, Bernard Robinson. Few artists’ work is more evocative of popular dinosaur books in the 1970s than Robinson, and around these parts, we do love a bit of Bernard.
Titled simply Dinosaurs (even though a few otherprehistoricanimals do feature), Marks & Sparks’ own coffee table book on the Mesozoic was published in 1978. It’s quite a sizeable thing, too, and is a poor fit for my rubbish scanner. Sorry about that. I decided to stick black dividing lines in rather than eliminate the part I couldn’t scan altogether, as the images looked a lot weirder when mashed together. Unfortunately, my copy didn’t come with a dust jacket, although a crappy stock photo on AbeBooks appears to show a Robinson tyrannosaur. I can show you the title page spread, another superbly evocative Robinson piece dominated by an ungainly-looking Stegosaurus drawn from quite an interesting perspective. At first glance, it’s conspicuously retro – the very hump-backed stegosaur looking like it might have come out of a Burian or Neave Parker piece. Ah, but not so fast – it does have its tail lifted off the ground, as does everything else in the scene, in fact, including the large theropod in the background. While some of Robinson’s work in this book is undeniably pre-Dino Renaissance in flavour, in the vein of the famous Ladybird book, there are signs here and there that a new, more dynamic view of dinosaurs is taking hold. And that’s only to be expected, given that that’s exactly what author David Lambert is keen to impart in the text.
Apart from that, the scenery’s not bad either. It’s also always worth highlighting Robinson’s unusually good Archaeopteryx, which because they aren’t named and don’t belong in this scene, we’ll just pretend are supposed to be an unspecified Jurassic bird. Yes.
Stegosaurus reappears later in the book, in another spread by Robinson, as does not-Archaeopteryx and seemingly the same large theropod (presumably Allosaurus). Robinson was especially good at scalation, and the pebbly hide of this Stegosaurus is an exemplary demonstration of that. The small details, such as the nodules leading down from the top of the animal’s head, and the reptilian skin folds in its neck, are really admirable. What’s more, he manages to paint excellent feathered dinosaurs, too, steering well clear of the ‘wings, but with hands’ look that afflicted so many artists’ work. It’s enough to make me wish that he had been around a bit later, and had had the chance to paint a greater variety of feathered and scaly dinosaurs alongside each other.
Robinson’s landscapes, too, are highly naturalistic – with realistically varying terrain and a decent variety of flora and fauna. I’m starting to feel like I really haven’t given him his due before.
That said, there are certain subjects that I don’t feel Robinson tackled particularly well, especially sauropods. Granted, his sauropods are very much of their time, and plenty of other artists were producing similar work (such as Sibbick in the ’80s), but they seldom manage to be any more than that. Although always land-borne, they are inevitably lumpen, lardy, lethargic-looking things with extremely creased, elephantine skin for some reason (except that one time a Bakker Barosaurus invaded one of his paintings). I find it particularly odd that Robinson gave his sauropods hides like aged leather, given that he was so good at painting scaly skin. It was a popular trope, I guess.
The apatosaurs in the above scene are typical of Robinsonian sauropods, although, again, there are some nice touches. I like the little dewlap-things they have, and the use of small pterosaurs to establish scale. And – look – their nostrils are in the right place. So that’s something. Overall, though, this hasn’t aged well – a bit like…
…this piece, featuring Tyrannosaurus. I’d love to know when this piece was produced, as I suspect that it’s one of the older examples of Robinson’s work to feature here. I first saw this piece – or at least, the middle section of it, with the tyrannosaur standing over a Parasaurolophus carcass (anachronism!) – in the first issue of Dinosaurs! magazine in the early ’90s. (I did review that once, but it was one of the first things I did for this blog, and is bad. Very bad.) Back then, it seemed utterly incongruous, completely at odds with what I was seeing in other dinosaur books. It’s the weedy musculature, I think – the animal isn’t a truly old-school tail dragger, but its limbs look very feeble, in a way that would make sense if the idea was to restore the creature as a giant lizard. Except, it doesn’t have a lizard-like posture. It doesn’t gel.
Thanks to said childhood memory, I find it hard to look past the outdated science and see the artistic merit in this illustration. But there’s plenty evident. It helps to see the whole scene, as it adds elements like the encroaching tyrannosaur on the right hand side, cleverly illustrated from what would be the perspective of a human observer. The backdrop is also rather nicely done, and features some curiously vulture-like birds in the top left.
This brings us to one of Robinson’s most famous pieces, featuring a charging Triceratops stabbing a Tyrannosaurus where it really hurts. The ceratopsian’s body actually continues on to the right hand page, revealing that it has three of its feet in the air, and its tail is well clear of the ground. An old-school lizardy tail dragger it ain’t. I’m inclined to think that Robinson produced this piece closer to the publication date of this book – mostly due to the sheer energy of it, and also because Rexy appears more muscular than before. Maybe not as much as in most modern reconstructions, but his appearance intuitively makes more sense. Why he’s raising his leg up like that, though, I don’t know. It’s like he’s asking to be stabbed in the nether regions.
Joking aside, there are some interesting curios here. Robinson illustrates Triceratops‘ horns with a keratin sheath that is superbly done, so why doesn’t it have a horny beak? In fact, he never seems to give dinosaurs beaks (check out the Stegosaurus and Parasaurolophus again). He also switches to giving Tyrannosaurus a more crocodilian-like face here, with no lips, and combines this with highly birdlike tarsal scutes. I wonder if this reflects a move from imagining dinosaurs as giant lizards, to reconstructing them more with their close extant relatives in mind.
One more Robinson…and here, those Pesky Mammals are eating dinosaurs’ eggs while they’re distracted. This is used to illustrate the idea that egg-eating mammals killed off the dinosaurs, although Lambert is quick to point out the obvious flaws in this theory. Really, it ties into a false idea of evolution as a ‘march of progress’ with mammals being superior to reptiles, which are superior to amphibians, and so on. As far as the illustration itself goes, I’d bet on this being another older Robinson piece. Tellingly, the tyrannosaur in this scene sports the ‘black and orange’ (or, you know, orangey-brown) colour scheme of the twig-limbed Rexy from earlier, and the alleged Alamosaurus is a classic old-school Robinsonian sauropod. The mammals, at least, look great. The thieving furry little gits.
It’s important to note that this book isn’t all Bernard Robinson, all the time. The work of other artists features too, although they aren’t individually credited; rather, “The Tudor Art Agency, Linden Artists, The Garden Studio, [and] Temple Art Agency” are listed. Boo. If you happen to have any idea (or even know) who illustrated the non-Robinson illustrations – more of which next time – please let me know. The above Styracosaurus features alongside Robinson’s ‘furry gits’ piece in the chapter on the dinosaurs’ extinction, and is intended to show the desolate Long Winter that drove them to their doom. In some respects, it’s rather pretty – I like the foliage and patterning on the Styracosaurus. On the other hand, Styracosaurus shouldn’t be anywhere near an end-Maastrichtian scene and it appears to be lacking a frill here, with its famous spikes instead extending finger-like to its eyes. Again, it was a bit of a trope for a while.
And finally…another spread from one of the anonymous artists. Here, a very Neave Parker-esque Iguanodon has an nasty run-in with Megalosaurus. Or “Megalosaurus“, we should say. Lambert notes that the Iguanodon “can only save itself from Megalosaurus‘ fangs and claws by jabbing its spiky thumb into the carnosaur’s eyes.” How about jabbing it somewhere else? Like, anywhere else that it can reach? That’s got to be better than nothing, surely. One must admire the artistic technique here, even if there are a few oddities like that megalosaur’s tail, and what exactly is happening with it. That Hypsilophodon over on the left looks familiar, too – I’m sure it’s based on an old museum model, but I can’t find it just now. Again, please do help me out if you can!
Coming up next time: more non-Robinsons.