Vintage Dinosaur Art: Prehistoric Zoo

Vintage Dinosaur Art

So here’s a book that was sent to me by fellow Brit Mark Hollowell (thanks!) – some time ago, actually. I had meant to review it sooner – I’d scanned all the images and uploaded them and everything – but then a lot of Stuff happened. I mean, Doom Eternal came out, and once you’ve got a certain way through that, there’s simply nothing else you want to do with your time. But I digress. Here, at last, is Prehistoric Zoo, published in 1961 by George G Harrap and Co. and written by Carroll Lane Fenton and Mildred Adams Fenton. Which Fenton did what isn’t clear, but the illustrator does deserve some commendation, as the art in this book is quite lovely. And, in spite of containing lots and lots of smelly Cenozoic mammals, it opens with a dinosaur.

Lambeosaurus - Prehistoric Zoo

The animal isn’t named, but it’s clearly Lambeosaurus – just look at that hatchet head. I love the monochrome style of the art here, with ever-so-careful shading indicating areas of muscle, skin folds and pockmarks with fine precision. They might not be doing anything particularly interesting, but the animals in this piece in particular really look like living beings. Look, the ear’s in the right place and everything!

Archaeopteryx - Prehistoric Zoo

Archaeopteryx and other birds are, naturally, separated by a decent number of pages from their dinosaur brethren. Dubious wing-fingers aside, this is another fantastically detailed piece with a few nice touches (the black bars on the wings, for example), even if the pose is very stereotypical. Those plants are looking good, too.

I should say something about the text.

The text is aimed very much at children, with each sentence being short and on a new line.

This aids reading comprehension for those with trouble concentrating on words.

That it’s how my boss tends to write her emails to me is surely a coincidence.

On Archaeopteryx, the Fentons have the following to say:

“Did you ever hear a person say that something is “scarce as hens’ teeth”?

This means that the thing does not exist, for hens and other living birds are toothless.

But our prehistoric zoo contains a bird that had teeth and scales on its jaws.”

Yes, the conceit here is that we’re exploring a fantastic zoo filled with prehistoric beasts. A Prehistoric Park, if you will. And no Nigels in sight.

Hesperornis - Prehistoric Zoo

Archaeopteryx is followed by “western divers,” i.e. Hesperornis, although they aren’t named for some reason. (In this book, some animals receive their proper scientific name and some are only given nicknames, and there’s no clear indication why.) I just love the stylisation of this piece, which has the effect of making it look much older than it really is, and gives it an almost naive quality. The Fentons compare Hesperornis with penguins, which does make a change from loons. The opposite page even has a small illustration of what appears to be a Humboldt penguin for comparison, because there is absolutely NO ESCAPE from those buggers.

Brachiosaurus - Prehistoric Zoo

Other than Lambeosaurus, the bulk of the non-avian dinosaurs in this book appear after the birds and mammals, perhaps because they are ‘inferior’. That said, Brachiosaurus looks quite magnificent in its appearance here, especially for a book of this vintage. Not only is it on land (just about), but it’s actually quite muscular and powerful-looking to boot. The sheer number of creases and folds on its hide give it an impossibly ancient, weathered appearance, like some kind of elemental god. Incidentally, this gives you some idea of what my hands currently look like after ten thousand washes in the space of a month.

Allosaurus & Ceratosaurus - Prehistoric Zoo

Where Brachiosaurus roams, Allosaurus and Ceratosaurus are never too far behind, skulking and scowling and looking all mean. Happily, both animals have the correct number of horns on their heads – quite remarkable at a time when Allosaurus‘ head tended to be smoothed over for what I suppose were aesthetic reasons. In addition, and in spite of their upright stance, both creatures have hindlimbs of quite considerable meatiness. Nice. I’d guess that Ceratosaurus is based on that famous Marsh skeletal, while Allosaurus‘ shortened snout resembles the famous mounted (reconstructed) specimen in the AMNH.

Stegosaurus - Prehistoric Zoo

Stegosaurus was stupid. This we know, and yet the Fentons really want to ram this home. Stupid, stupid Stegosaurus, with a brain so tiny it was dwarfed by the nerve bundle in its hip region. How stupid. At least the illustration, for all that it’s typical of the era, does give it some nice knobbly bobbly skin and a seemingly keratin-covered head that would look mean if it weren’t so diminutive. Stupid Stegosaurus.

Triceratops and Edmontosaurus - Prehistoric Zoo

Being as old as it is, this book is firmly of the ‘Dinosauria ain’t a real clade’ school. No, Saurischia and Ornithischia were “two quite different groups” that didn’t share a common ancestor at all. The Triceratops here is clearly based on Knight’s, and that edmontosaur is a little familiar-looking too, but both are still beautifully detailed with their own unique embellishments. The skin on the hadrosaur even resembles the real thing, albeit out of scale with the rest of the animal, of course (otherwise you wouldn’t see it).

Tyrannosaurus - Prehistoric Zoo

And so to Rexy, the ultimate predatory (non-avian) theropod in a very literal sense. Rexy’s appearance is plainly based on an old Knight piece that gave him a curiously lizardy head, only with the offending noggin swapped out for a more accurate version. Notably, it has weedier-looking legs than Allosaurus and Ceratosaurus, in spite of possessing hips so massive they’d make social distancing really difficult. He gets a bit of a dull background, too, although the skull (seemingly AMNH 5027) is a nice touch. The Fentons describe Rexy as eating “any reptile he could kill”, which was all of them, obviously. Obviously.

Phytosaur - Prehistoric Zoo

And finally, here’s a phytosaur, just because I really like this illustration. Just look at that all that lovely foliage and gorgeous, fine scalation – tasty. While described as “false alligators” here, everyone knows that alligators are, in fact, phalse phytosaurs. After all, they did come first.

There’s a lot more to this book, of course. There are pterosaurs, and marine reptiles, and lots and lots of mammals. I may well have to revisit it at some point. If you’re keen on the idea, and have also spotted all the blatant Knight or Zallinger copies that I missed, please let me know! Otherwise, it might have to be the Great Plagiarism Atlas next time…

7 thoughts on “Vintage Dinosaur Art: Prehistoric Zoo

  1. Did any proponent of the idea that Saurischia and Ornithischia aren’t closely related ever suggest any other closest relatives to either?

    1. I don’t think so, the hypothesis was pretty much dead in the water by the time rigorous phylogenies and cladistics became commonplace.

  2. This is the first time I’ve seen dinosaurs classified as “beaked” vs. “beakless”.

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