I’ve found another very old dinosaur book! This one was released in 1946, and it’s a short but sweet one. The author and illustrator is one Hilary Stebbing, a stalwart of children’s literature of the mid-20th century. It’s rare to find dinosaur art from the 1940’s, a quiet time for palaeontology for obvious reasons, so kudos to Stebbing for getting this book out!
I always like to give some biographical information or historical context when reviewing a book like this, but when it comes to Hilary Stebbing I’m afraid I’m drawing a blank. All I know is that she lived from 1915 to 1998, might have been British and illustrated a lot of these picture books in the Puffin series, released around wartime. Her family runs an instagram account dedicated to her work, which can be found here.
I rather like the design of the cover, with names of animals and time periods surrounding the central image. Stegosaurus, incidentally, doesn’t get an appearance in the book proper, so this is all the Stego we’re getting. As Marc noted, it does indeed look rather like the old Invicta Stegosaurus toy. Of course, the book precedes the toy by a few decades, so I wonder if it’s a coincidence? I love the drawing, by the way; it’s obviously Knight-inspired but more smooth and slick than the gnarly, knobbly lizard from the old master. Stebbing’s scalation is a lot more subtle and easy on the eyes.
The first dino to appear in the book prober is good old Spiky McStabbythumbs. As you can see, Stebbing erroneously places it in the Jurassic, a mistake she makes more often. It’s a fairly typical early Iguanodon while not really looking all that much like any other artist’s Iguanodon in particular (it actually seems more modern than, say, the near-vertical beasts of Burian and Parker) but, again, it has a toy-like quality to it. This illustration is not at all dissimilar to some plastic toys I used to own, down to the shape of the tail. It’s a pretty lovable Iguanodon all the same, with a look of resigned exasperation on its face. Oh well, time to eat some more plants and stab some more theropods, I guess.
Usually it’s Stegosaurus that is on the recieving end of early-20th-century-brain-size-obsessed-anthropocentrism (now THERE’s a trope if ever there was one). Now poor old Triceratops draws the short straw – though its smug mug seems to suggest it’s more with it than it’s given credit for. Leave it to pre-renaissance palaeontologists to look at the animal with the largest and most spectacular skull in the world and take away that gosh, its brain is so small. The size of a kitten’s, in fact – that’s an odd comparison, isn’t it? (I’ve never seen a kitten’s brain in person so I’ve no idea how big that would be.) The illustration isn’t one of Stebbing’s best, showing a mostly shapeless beast whose right horn seems to grow directly out of its frill.
This, though. I love everything about this! It’s a two-page spread that didn’t quite fit on my scanner but you get the general idea. The outline of the sauropod, the wonderfully clean shading, the friendly eye. And the simple but beautifully realized environment; the reeds, the trees, the pebbles, the fish. Stebbing is at her best in the full colour spreads, when she can really make the animal pop. When it looks this nice, I don’t even mind the scientific inaccuracies anymore. Sure, the Diplodocus is wading, but did you notice the bulk of its weight is still held well above the water? Was any serious researcher ever really committed to the idea that sauropods were aquatic?
“Archaeornis” here is pretty interesting. I wonder what series of events led to Stebbing misnaming Archaeopteryx like that? Was it a common mistake at the time? It’s easy to imagine a parallel universe where “Archaeornis” indeed became this animal’s name, but if I Google “Archaeornis”, I only find a Final Fantasy enemy. I guess it’s a riddle for the ages. As for the illustration: If I had to guess, I’d say Stebbing based herself on some old Knight sketches. Of course, it’s in classic wing-spreading Archaeopteryx mode, with even four claws on one hand, wild! I do love the elegant fern background, and the awesome schematic comparison between pterosaur, bat and bird wings. I would like to see more of that in modern dinosaur books!
The Pteranodon ain’t half bad for its time, actually. It’s got a toothless beak with that slight upcurve and it’s skinny without being skeletal – none of this is a given for old pterosaur art. Stebbing did her homework for this one. Again; I love the background. So deceptively simple, yet extremely effective and evocative. Bit of a shame Stebbing wasn’t to know how fuzzy pterosaurs really were, because, as it turns out, she’s really good at drawing fuzzy things (read on).
Dinosaurs are not the main focus of this book; rather, it’s about extinct animals as a whole. Stebbing even chose to not make a full-on Tyrannosaurus reconstruction, something that would be unthinkable now (though she does draw a rather nice T. rex skeleton). The sea reptiles are even featured before the dinosaurs are. They are servicable illustrations, the ichtyosaur being particularly cute, with all those wee pups swimming around.
I love, love Stebbing’s take on the big floofers of the Pleistocene. They are just incredibly pleasing to look at, so fluffy and round. Megatherium‘s face looks like that of an aardvark, or mabe a classic depiction of a Chinese fox spirit. The mammoth is especially delightful, its shape and fur texture reminding me of an especially chubby gorilla.
I guess I wouldn’t call Hilary Stebbing’s work a towering achievement of technical palaeoart, but as stylized, almost comic illustrations for children I found these pictures to be quite nice. Extinct Animals is a rare, fun time capsule into a time and place when such pictures were not common.
Let’s end on something pure and wonderful. This glyptodont. That will be all.
Next up from me: How about some Wayne Barlowe?