Vintage Dinosaur Art: The Ages of the Earth

Vintage Dinosaur Art

Here’s a rather unusual book, so much so that, ever since I aquired it, I’ve been referring to it as “the weird book”. My translated copy is called “De Ontwikkeling der Aarde” (“the development of Earth”) but I believe its original English title to be The Ages of the Earth. It’s a book about geology, one in a 1960’s book series on science, authored by one Michael Dempsey (not the actor, I assume) and one David Larkin. It hails from 1966, a time when the Beatles were still touring, when our crown princess Beatrix married an affable German guy, and when dinosaurs were still thought of as stupid, stupid failures of evolution. The past is another planet.

Looking at this well-worn dust jacket, seeing that bulky and tiny-headed stegosaur being pestered by a horse-faced giant sloth, I knew that this was a special book. “Special” isn’t the same as “good”, of course.

Focused mostly on geology and fossils, dinosaurs andotherprehistoricanimals play only a smallish part in this book, but what few relevant illustrations it has are so delightfully odd that I can’t resist showing them to you. Several artists worked on this book, sadly, all uncredited. Shame! Sometimes, the artists were clever enough to put their signature on their more substantial illustrations. I gather much of the artwork comes from Denys Ovenden and Derek Stowe.

Here’s the full version of that cover picture as it appears in the book proper, an odd wraparound containing a seemingly random trio of animals separated by hundreds of millions of years and wildly diverging family trees. Why put Megatherium, Stegosaurus and Eryops (plus an Eryops skeleton that fell off my scan) all on one page? The text in this chapter doesn’t really talk about animals, but about the role fossils play in establishing the ages of the rock formations. Any three extinct animals would have done, I suppose. Odd thing: Megatherium is identified as both a sloth and an armadillo. It wouldn’t surprise me if that was a goof on the translator’s part.

Here’s one of the nicer dinosaur spreads that the book has. This is a Jurassic scene by Denys Ovenden, who dabbeled in palaeoart more often. It’s certainly pretty and nicely done, with the ferns and other foliage wonderfully observed. There’s a lone stegosaur, and Knightly brontosaurs mucking about in the swamp. So far, so sixties. I particularly love the one who waded out of the water with its lower body still coloured of algae, a really cool touch! This is what makes this version of swamp-brontosaurus, though completely and utterly fictional (I can’t stress that enough), seem convincing: this is what a big, slow animal that lives its live in the swampy waters would look like: covered in mud and plants, one with the landscape. It’s an idyllic scene, a defanged version of the Morrison. Even that half-submerged sauropod skeleton there is remarkably squeaky-clean: not a scratch on it! We’d definitely gnarl that up today.

Anyway, you’ll note I haven’t said anything about the striding bipedal dinosaur in the foreground. That’s because I have no idea what it is. Given that it’s a Morrison scene, we could be looking at Camptosaurus or even Allosaurus, though it doesn’t look much like either. The text certainly isn’t telling us. Leave your comment below, I guess?

The Cretaceous dinosaur spread shows clearly who the Zdeněk was who inspired the artist the most. I’m pretty sure this is another one by Ovenden, though I have no confirmation. The pterodactyl, the Trachodon and especially the Styracosaurus are lifted wholesale from Burian, although, to his credit, the artist at least put them in different poses. The Styracosaurus are misidentified as Triceratops, because who cares about dinosaurs? Nevermind the actual disgruntled Triceratops in the background, who can only look on helplessly as his spiked brethren steal his thunder.

The Tyrannosaurus is very weird and interesting. While its body plan is very Burian, its face is quite different. It’s very much the face of a lizard, with a straight row of small, unform teeth and the eyes placed towards the front of the skull, looking sideways. It’s got lizard ears in the back of the skull, because when you’re an indestructible multi-tonne apex predator what you really want is to hear what is behind you. It’s not at all the work of someone who’s ever actually seen a tyrannosaur skull. At the same time, its skin looks almost amphibian-like in its smoothness. What an unusual Rexy.

This one’s great! Archaeopteryx was, of course, tragically incapable of ever folding its wings, or indeed of taking any pose other than this one. I’ll award this one points for having a pretty interesting colour scheme and pretty good claws – much better than Burian’s Archaeopteryx, to be honest. The book informs us that birds were closely related to pterosaurs, utter balderdash but still, I often find, widely believed by the common folk today!

Another rare dinosaur appearance is this triptych of Pteranodon, Iguanodon and Elasmosaurus, typical examples of Cretaceous life, apparently. Again, the shadow of Burian looms large, and the artist has taken less trouble to put the animals in different poses this time around. It was Burian who, through his masterwork “Life Before Man”, first brought dinosaur art to many European homes in the seventies; serious popular dinosaur books really weren’t much of a thing before that. I wonder how many people had books like this, containing Burian-inspired work, before they knew the works of Burian himself?

I don’t have much to say about the illustrations otherwise, except: is that a fifth flipper on Elasmosaurus‘ tail? Was that ever a palaeoart trope? Is there any precedent to that?

Dimetrodon is also there, and in this case, the artist could have stood to look at Burian a little better! With that flat, elongated dog snout, it doesn’t look particularly like Dimetrodon, which, again, has a highly recognizable skull, but it’s a cool monster all the same. Its eyes look almost sorrowful of the carnage it’s about to inflict on its prey. Speaking of: what is that animal it’s eating? It’s identified as Ophiacodon, a big-snouted synapsid. This artist has hilariously made it look like a muppet, with Bert’s brow – and his schnoz! It seems remarkably unbothered by the fact that it’s about to be dimetro-dinner. Anyway, this is where the book goofs up: both these critters are Early Permian, but the book insists they’re Early Triassic. 20 million years off, nbd. I fudge my age all the time.

Dunkleosteus, probably one of the most nightmarish animals the abyss of deep time has ever thrown at us, has been given a surprisingly neutral, unmonsteriffic treatment. It’s got those glassy, expressionless fish eyes that make sharks so unnerving; much sensationalist pop palaeoart gives Dunkleosteus a frown in a bid to make it scarier and comes out the other end looking a bit naff. Not this one though. I like this Dunk.

We love a good uintathere here at LITC! As I’ve observed elsewhere: uintatheres are almost universally restored as rhino-like (this one has not only rhino feet but a particularly rhino-like snout and lip), but there really isn’t much reason why this should be so; they aren’t much like rhinos at all, and more and more modern palaeoartists are wisening up to this fact. Still, few extant mammals look as prehistoric as a nice great big rhino, an animal that just seems to belong to a different age, so it’s no wonder they are so often used as models for actual prehistoric behemoths. Anyway, this is another nice one by the talented Denys Ovenden, who I just found out died only last year, aged 98! Pour one out for him!

Here’s a nice dramatic drawing by Derek Stowe of a palaeontologist discovering dino eggs. Look at the intensity on his face! He isn’t digging up some eggs, he’s making a shocking discovery that changes everything! This is the cover of a pulp novel if ever there was one – unsurprisingly, Derek Stowe (who I believe is still with us) made his career illustrating exactly those! Clearly, this is supposed to be a tribute to the dashing, recently deceased Roy Chapman Andrews, though his name isn’t mentioned and I don’t think the guy in the drawing looks much like him.

And that’s The Ages of the Earth. It’s not a dinosaur book per se, but given how rare serious popular dinosaur books were before the seventies, I take what I can get. Given that dinosaurs and extinct animals in general only play second fiddle to geology in this book, we can probably forgive the artists for not being completely scientifically accurate, even for the time. There were certainly some respectable artists involved with this book, and I salute them! What I won’t forgive, however, is how these artists aren’t credited. Now, in these times when palaeoart is coming of age as an art form, let us strive to do better. Credit the artists, please!

6 thoughts on “Vintage Dinosaur Art: The Ages of the Earth

  1. There is some evidence for a tail fluke in plesiosaurs, namely a specimen of Seeleyosaurus with a carbonized skin trace on the end of the tail that was described in 1895. Interpretations of it vary a lot though, some have interpreted it as a rhomboidal vertical fluke, a triangular vertical fluke, or most recently a rhomboidal horizontal fluke.
    https://www.deviantart.com/carnoferox/art/Seeleyosaurus-Caudal-Fluke-778851327
    https://link.springer.com/article/10.1134%2FS1062359019070100

    1. As for paleoart trends, I would add that there are a few sporadic examples of tail flukes in plesiosaurs and pliosaurs in older media. The one that pops most readily to my mind is the plesiosaurs in the Rite of Spring segment of Fantasia, but I know I’ve seen a few Burian lookalikes that feature it as well. The feature seems to disappear in all paleoart during the time of the Dinosaur Renaissance, until recent research brought it back again. Even a few Collecta plesiosaurs now have tail flukes (or at least paddles).

  2. Since the text is talking about different geologic ages/layers, I would imagine that the Eryops, Stegosaurus, and Megatherium are meant to represent fauna characteristic of each of the 3 Phanerozoic Eras (Paleozoic, Mesozoic, and Cenozoic, respectively, of course).

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