Vintage Dinosaur Art: Das Grosse Buch der Saurier

Vintage Dinosaur Art

Funny story, this one. As a science educator, I visit primary schools all over the country, and I often can’t resist scanning their school libraries for dinosaur books. Most of the time, I run into these awful late-2000’s stock-CGI schlockfests, but last week, I hit paydirt. A beautifully illustrated German-made children’s book from the late 80s, well-worn by the tough love of so many children’s hands. As one of the teachers saw me gushing, she actually offered to give the book to me… which I politely declined. I don’t have the heart to take books away from children. But I made sure to immediately go online to order a copy of my own.

Written by one Peter Klepsch, the book is translated from German, and as the title of my translation is simply “Dinosauriërs” I will use the much more evocative original title. The notes give the publication date as MCMLXXXIX, good luck with that one. The illustrations are by Thomas Thiemeyer, a well-known name in fantasy and sci-fi art (and recently, detective stories) who dabbled in palaeoart on occasion.

Let’s start on some pure fun. The book takes its merry time getting to the real good stuff (i.e. depicting dinosaurs in their own environment), first setting up the history of palaeontology and the evolution of life on Earth. Here, the artist, with his fantasy background, allows himself a flight of fancy as he introduces some kaiju-sized brachiosaurs into a city to cause mayhem. I love how these grotesquely oversized dinosaurs just smash up a concrete bridge like it’s nothing. I really hope this is a true-to-life depction of a city in Germany somewhere, though on second thought the palm trees make that seem unlikely.

The Allosaurus is fairly typical for its day. Instead of the narrow head with the striking postorbital horns, the animal has a broad and rounded reptile skull with few defining characteristics. The claws are outspread, rather like a human trying to mimic having claws. There’s a carcass there, perhaps in a nod to Knight and so many of his followers, who made Allosaurus hunch over one. The skin textures, however, are pure Sibbick, with large, clearly defined scalation, mammalian knees and concentric rings on the tail. What I like about this spread is the gorgeous, grand and open environment, with rhamphorhynchoids in the sky and all these hard-to-define reptiles walking around. Appartently, they are meant to be Ornitholestes – a very unthodox depiction, none of them is even grabbing a bird! The running one by Allosaurus‘ feet reminds me of something, but I can’t quite place it.

Look at this one. I mean, look at it! Everyone who ever attempts to depict a theropod head-on deserves major props, because whatever you do, it will look completely ridiculous. Everything is silly about this Ceratosaurus, from its evil grin, its sneaky posture, its drooping arms and the fact that it seems to be hiding behind a very narrow tree. Haha! They’ll never see me like this! Stegosaurus is similarly full of cartoony character. Oddly, it has the very-rare-by-1989 parallel arrangement of plates. It seems to be onto its master-of-surprise attacker and looks none to pleased. I always like it when artists depict the moment right before stuff goes down. Up-to-the-minute accurate this is not, but it has tons of personality.

Here’s some more of the small theropods that are featured surprisingly often in this book. They are unnamed but implied to be modeled after German celebrity Compsognathus, but they are very peculiar looking indeed. Something about the short necks, the stout monitor lizard faces and the noodle arms. The one in the foreground is almost penguin-like in its stance. Klepsch makes much of the high intelligence of small coelurosaurs, and even suggests there is a correlation between manual dexterity and braininess. Towards the end of the book, he makes the relationship between these dinosaurs and Archaeopteryx pretty explicit, much to his credit, but these guys cold have stood to have been researched a little bit better. I’m not even going to nitpick the feet. Yet.

If you like your marine reptiles, this book will delight you with this surprise appearance of a marine crocodile! Heck, if it wasn’t for a blink-and-you-miss-it cameo in a certain Nigel Marven special, I probably wouldn’t know thalattosuchia were even a thing, and wouldn’t my life be poorer for it? This one is identified as a “steneosaur” – Steneosaurus is an old-fashioned wastebasket taxon that isn’t used much anymore. The background ichthyosaur directly above the salty sea croc looks cool from this perspective.

If I had to characterize Thomas Thiemeyer’s work for this book, apart from its plesantly autumnal atmosphere, it’s that he often gives his herbivores prominent mouthcheeks and a bit of a scowl. These two Triceratops strangely don’t look very much alike, with the one in the foreground having a more sleek face and an entirely differently-shaped frill compared the the one in the back. I wonder if he used different examples for both? The one in the back looks a bit like the 3D model that accompanies the NHM Triceratops mount, while the one in the front seems to have a more Sibbickian vibe.

Rexy gets a whole page to itself, of course. It looks cool and menacing enough and Thiemeyer sells its size well. It might be a little on the thin side, and I don’t know what is going on with its right foot. In fact, if you look at the Allosaurus and Ceratosaurus above, it seems like Thiemeyer doesn’t quite know what to make of theropod legs. It’s not quite as blatant as in, say, the work of Elizabeth Sawyer, but Thiemeyer obviously makes his theropod legs look far too humanoid. For the right leg, he seems to have attempted some sort of correct, birdlike theropod foot, but he can’t fully get it to make sense. The other leg is strategically hidden behind a tree. Nevertheless, this image is printed impressively big and I think it does right by the tyrant, by the standards of this book – nevermind that it’s basically in the same pose as the theropod on the cover.

No way. This is Deinocheirus? Way back from when those crazy arms were first unearthed from Mongolia, the smart money was always on Deinocheirus being some kind of giant ornithomimosaur, which indeed it turned out to be (if a fabulously odd one). However, Klepsch and Thiemeyer have chosen to go a different route. Imagined instead as a terrifying, gangly, hunching carnosaur straight out of the dodgier installments of Jurassic World, their version of Deinocheirus ultimately didn’t age that much worse than any contemporaneous ones, but it is magnificent in its creep factor. What I will reprimand, however, is the opposing thumb on the Prenocephale‘s hand. That’s just wrong.

Oh yes, they were still making these pin-headed Quetzalcoatlus reconstructions, after a quick and dirty speculative sketch from Giovanni Caselli, as recently as 1989. This is certainly one of the nicer versions of that particular meme, hardly demonic-looking at all. I love how the ceratopsids on the ground give the image a real sense of height. The visual of big dinosaurs trekking to an empty wasteland brings back memories of The Land Before Time, which was popular around this time and probably shaped a lot of kid’s view on what dinosaurs got up to all the time. Migrating in search of greener pastures, thats what we all thought dinosaurs were always doing in the late 80s. When not trying to eat each other, of course.

This trio of hadrosaurs cracks me up for some reason. They all look hilariously grumpy, but all in their own way: it seems like Thiemeyer has gone out of his way to make these three look really different, rather than giving all of them the same duckbill face. Corythosaurus, a darkly smoldering look in its eyes, is especially interesting, with its downwards pointing heardened beak. A bit closer to what a hadrosaur snout would have looked like in life, it turns out.

The inspirations for Thiemeyer’s images came from all over, it seems. Better than just having one source and sticking to that, I guess. There’s obvious influences from Sibbick, Caselli and the models in the NHM, and here’s a hadrosaur with a lithe, delicate frame, recalling Ely Kish. It’s an exceptionally cute scene with baby Maiasaura, one cheeky one nibbling on a branch while mom tries to get it to join the others. Again, lots of character on display, setting it apart from mere epigonism.

I thought I’d end on an awesome one, the most famous of all German dinosaurs. This is definitely my favourite in the book, an extremely cool and majestic Archaeopteryx soaring into the future. The wings are rather well-observed, not quite completely accurate but definitely miles better than your average urvogel, especially from around this day. To his credit, Klepsch correctly identifies Archaeopteryx as a small theropod dinosaur and insists that there can be very little doubt that birds descend from dinosaurs – the then-recent findings of wishbones on theropods are his decisive argument. It was quite rare for a children’s book around that time to get into such palaeontological detail, and the fact that Klepsch comes down on the right side of history certainly works to the book’s favour.

And that’s our Great Book of Saurians. What a find! Not all of it holds up to this day, but some of it certainly does, and it feels like a book on the vanguard of the deluge of dino-renaissance themed books in the early nineties. Its high quality printing and skilled illustrations give it a certain class. Even if it’s old, I was right not to take this from the school library; this is a book kids can still enjoy. I’ll suffer a hundred books with a Getty Images T. rex on the cover if it gives me something like this evey now and again.

9 thoughts on “Vintage Dinosaur Art: Das Grosse Buch der Saurier

  1. I first saw that first photo on Twitter, making it a joke about kaiju, though I can’t remember which.

    “The running one by Allosaurus‘ feet reminds me of something, but I can’t quite place it.”
    I think it maybe that ornithosuchus model at the Elgin Museum you have previously discussed.

    Also worth mentioning is that Thomas also did Dinosaurs of Tendaguru, a very unique book about the tanzanian fossil site that actually remembers africans, specifically swahili, were in the country when the german expeditions happened.

    Its worth a read and a review.

  2. I had this book when I was young. It was one of these dinosaur books I loved most! I’m from Münster in Germany. The title “Dinosauriërs” is dutch 😉. In german the orig. title is “Das große Buch der Saurier” (The big book of (dino)saurs). Even today I love the picture showing a group of Quetzalcoatlus flying over a herd of Triceratops! Great!
    Thank’s for this nice side. I love to see all this great old dinosaurbooks!

  3. I own the second edition of this book since I was a child. In that edition there are a few more interesting illustrations, like an extremely lanky Spinosaurus that seems to have been repurposed from the Deinicheirus in the previous edition. At the end there is also an odd section where Klepsch suggests that ratites directly descend from ground-living dinosaurs like ornithomimids without first evolving flight. If you want I can send you scans of that.

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