Vintage Dinosaur Art: The Prehistoric World of the Dinosaur

Vintage Dinosaur Art

Or Norman: Into the Normanverse

What book casts a longer shadow than David Norman’s 1985 The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Dinosaurs? Which dinosaur reconstructions are more iconic, more widely seen and more frequently copied than John Sibbick’s? What book has been referenced more frequently on these pages than the one we still affectionately call the Normanpedia? Will this whole review consist of rhetorical questions?

Today, I want to talk about a book by David Norman that came out a mere three years later. It’s called The Prehistoric World of the Dinosaur. The title already sounds a bit redundant: doesn’t the dinosaur already imply prehistory? I do like the monolithic theatricality of using The Dinosaur in singular form, though. Like the Normanpedia, it is a big, weighty overview of all things dinosaur, featuring lots of photographs, skeletals and life reconstructions. While covering a lot of the same ground, this one is updated, bigger and even grander in scope. A sequel, if you will (the book is, once again, huge and my scanner doesn’t like it much). But John Sibbick, so instrumental to the Normanpedia’s success, isn’t on board this time. Who could possibly replace him?

This book is going to be though to talk about, as I really don’t want to be negative about someone’s artistic work. Philip Hood is, in fact, an excellent artist whose modern work can be found here. He’s also done work for Dougal Dixon’s speculative zoology projects, so that’s a feather in his cap. Support him if you can. As you can see if you’ve clicked that link, his portfolio doesn’t feature any of his dinosaurs. That might not be a coincidence.

Of course, Phil Hood is no John Sibbick. Who is? Even then, it’s remarkable just how much of a step down the life reconstructions in this book are, compared to those in the Normanpedia. Sibbick’s dinosaurs, as we’ve said many times, were not up to the minute accurate, but Hood’s are, not to put too fine a point on it, just dodgy. Not bad, as such. Hood brings a lot of artistic skill to the table. They just don’t live up to the science that Norman so minutely describes. They seem to belong in a different book, not something as ambitious as this. But they manage at least to be dodgy in an interesting way.

Let’s start with this Brachiosaurus, the first live reconstruction in the book. It’s a very strange amalgamation of tropes that were extremely outdated by 1988. The head is instantly recognizable to me as taken straight from the cover of Caselli’s Evolution and Ecology of Dinosaurs. The body appears to be taken from a rhino rather than the usual Sibbickian elephant, so that’s something. The tail is extremely thick and flops on the ground behind it. The feet all have five claws on them, though they fell off my scan. Even the one thing everyone knows about Brachiosaurus, that its front legs are longer than its hind legs, is not represented here. But it’s not in a swamp, so it’s scientificamally acumarate! A few pages later, we get to set our eyes upon a perfectly up-to-date, sleek Brachiosaurus/Giraffatitan skeletal by Greg Paul, for it is he. Too bad nobody showed that to Phil Hood. That’s my ongoing frustration with this book in a nutshell.

I’ve been racking my brain over this Iguanodon. I’m really sure I’ve seen one in this pose before, but where? Dinosaurs mag, maybe? This Iguanodon is clearly a holdover from the Dollo generation, but so, all things considered, was Sibbick’s. The dragging tail and more upright posture still makes it more retro. The hands, legs and skin all look not very reptilian and instead very humanoid. Phil Hood makes his dinosaurs flabby and meaty, giving them a sense of realness and tangibility in spite of their strangeness.

Here, we begin to see that Hood was, um, taking inspiration, from Normanpedia. The Dilo is differently coloured and bulkier than Sibbick’s, but it’s in almost the exact same pose. What baffles me is not that he’s ripping off Normanpedia, which is quite simply what everyone at the time was doing. What’s baffling is that it’s being done in a book by Norman himself. Is it still plagiarism if you plagiarize yourself? Anyway, I kind of like this one for its hilariously grumpy face. Again: this would be a great dinosaur reconstruction for a contemporaneous children’s book.

Background volcano, take a shot. There was also one in the Sibbick version!

Here’s something interesting. These are two fairly obscure Chinese dinosaurs: Tuojiangosaurus and Yangchuanosaurus. Or are they? That theropod is quite obviously the Allosaurus from Normanpedia, but blue. Its overlong arms make it quite freaky. I don’t have much to say about the stegosaur.

Round boi

More interesting, obscure Chinese dinosaurs that I can’t trace back to any pre-existing artwork this time. Gasosaurus (misspelled as Gazosaurus) has an interesting, unusually blocky heard with a very strong jawline. It’s in one of those generic 80s theropod poses; the legs are not bad. The sauropod is Mamenchisaurus, and this is where things get dodgy again. The body, like the apatosaur’s above, has that strange back ridge that I associate with Bernard Robinson. But what’s going on with that neck? It seems to have at least two weird kinks in it. You might wanna get that looked at, Mamenchisaurus. Both dinosaurs are dragging their tails like chumps.

I think we have to talk about Tenontosaurus. Deinonychus here just looks like Bakker’s, boring, but how did we get to a place where Tenontosaurus came to look like this? What bizarre game of Chinese whispers were palaeoartists playing that started with a smallish, long-tailed iguanodont and ended up with this long-necked, short-limbed awkward quadruped with this baffling head? The head here at least looks somewhat like an iguanodont head (moreso than the actual Iguanodon above) with its beaky snout, but it looks so strange on this decidiedly un-iguanodontian body. Only Tenontosaurus ever looks like this in palaeoart, and only when it’s attacked by raptors (which is always). At least they’ve still got the long tails. Hood was not working from fossils or skeletals, that much is clear, but from previous artworks which were, in turn, based on other previous artworks. That is nothing new, palaeoartists do that all the time. I just wonder why it was good enough for David Norman.

One thing that is notable about this book is that it features one of the first ever, maybe the first ever, depictions of the freshly described Carnotaurus. As you probably know, Carnotaurus is known from a single, extremely well-preserved specimen that has a slew of interesting features, unique, instantly recognizable anatomy and, famously, preserved skin impressions. Almost none of it carries over to this reconstruction. How was Hood briefed on this one? Okay, there’s this new meat eating dinosaur, and it’s got bull horns, long legs and dinky arms. Go!

We’ve seen Hood copying Sibbick, we’ve seen him copy Caselli, and here, he copies both at the same time. The towering Pachycephalosaurus in the background (we were still wildly overestimating its size at the time) is modified from the Normanpedia, while the head-bashing Stegoceras are traced and recoloured from one of the most dynamic pieces in Evolution and Ecology of Dinosaurs. It injects some movement into an otherwise rather static book.

Oh man, look at this. The Tyrannosaurus featured in here is based on Neave Parker, of all people. Except with Sibbick skin, so it’s an unholy hybrid. But Hood has lifted its tail off the ground this time (it didn’t quite all fit on the scan) so it’s perfectly modernized for the 1980s! Even by this book’s standards, this is blatant. I do like the cheerful smile on Triceratops. They seem well chuffed to see their old pal Sexy Rexy.

Slightly more menacing is Tarbosaurus here. I definitely see some traces of Burian’s late-career classic heroic Tarbosaurus, but how gnarly is that head? Hood has taken Burian’s eccentric rough skin textures on the neck, head and snout and turned it all up to eleven. The ankylosaur is obviously traced over from Sibbick. Two giants of palaeoart of two different generations duking it out. Burian vs. Sibbick, round one! Fight! It’s almost like mashup fanfiction. This image is notable for being the only one in the book, apart from the cover, to feature a full colour landscape, though not a particularly elaborate one. Background volcano, take a shot!

The Styracosaurus also seems to be based on Burian. Burian’s Styracosaurus was copied a whole bunch, despite not looking much like the real thing. That is easily explainable: Burian had no access to the actual fossils. Hood does not have that excuse. A high quality photograph of an actual Styracosaurus skull is right there; the reconstruction looks nothing like it.

And that’s the surprisingly dodgy sequel to Normanpedia. Again, no disrespect is meant towards Phil Hood. If anything, it is David Norman who needed to do better. Norman should have given Hood much more precise instructions. It is the scientist who needs to make sure the life reconstructions of dinosaurs reflect the science that’s in the book. This book is full of photographs, cladograms and skeletals, all very high quality; clearly, palaeoart played second fiddle to Norman. But what is the use of pouring so much effort into writing a book about current dinosaur science to a wide audience without also putting an equal amount of effort into getting the art right? More often than not, the Greg Paul skeletal is right there, and the life reconstruction looks nothing like it. Time and time again do scientists underestimate the importance of palaeoart. Dinosaurs do not exist outside of palaeoart. Without art, they are just pictures of bones, just words and tables on the page. But it is not the words on the page or the pictures of the bones that ultimately define how the reader imagines the dinosaur. It is the art. That’s what you remember, that’s what you take away. Science is all well and good, but only art makes dinosaurs into real animals. Support original palaeoart.

Whew. Glad I’ve got that out of my system. I think it’s time for me to leave the 80s and 90s behind for a while and go back to more distant times. Indeed, I think it’s time to pay another visit to the old Soviet Union…

13 thoughts on “Vintage Dinosaur Art: The Prehistoric World of the Dinosaur

    1. Wait, if Hood also illustrated Man after Man there’s a distinct possibility that he was the person responsible for the Wayne Barlowe-plagiarized images in that book.

  1. Regarding the Styracosaurus illustration you write, “A high quality photograph of an actual Styracosaurus skull is right there; the reconstruction looks nothing like it.” Chances are pretty good that the artist never saw that photo of the skull or any of the other photos or skeletals from the completed book. Gathering reference materials was often entirely up to the artist. But both the author and the editor have a stake in the book’s success, so they both should have had a more hands-on concern about what was happening with the illustrations.

    1. I’m still wrapping my head around how publishing works, and how it used to work in those days. Talking to people like Luis Rey and Steve White has been insightful in that regard. I absolutely agree that the author and editor should have taken more responsiblity here.
      I also appreciate and understand that good reference material was harder to find in the pre-intenet age, and it must have been easier to just open your copy of Normanpedia or Life Before Man and work from that, but it was most certainly out there if you were willing to look. As a matter of interest: what references were you using at the time, if I might ask?

    1. Unless one was working directly with a paleontologist, good reference material was difficult to come by. For me, the Denver Museum of Natural History (as it was called back then) was 70 miles away, so I didn’t visit very often. I had access to the Colorado State University Library but they lacked a vertebrate paleo program. The University bookstore often had popular paleo books on their mark-down tables, so I bought books when and where I could. I wasn’t a member of SVP until the early ’90s. I was working on Digging Dinosaurs by Horner & Gorman during ’87 and/or ’88 and the publisher was good enough to send me an article or two copied from the SVP Journal and also put me in touch with Jack Horner, but that kind of help didn’t come with every job.

      Here is a list of books I own that I likely consulted (desperately) back then. Most are popular or even kids’ books, but many had pix of museum skeletal mounts. Note that Greg Paul’s Predatory Dinosaurs of the World didn’t hit the shelves until 1988 — I used the heck out of vol II of Dinosaurs Past and Present until I got a copy of PDotW.

      PRE-1988 PALEO BOOKS
      ———————————-
      Prehistoric Monsters — Brasch 1985
      Life Before Man – Spinar/Burian 1972
      Ranger Rick’s Dinosaur Book – National Wildlife Federation 1984
      The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaur – Wallace 1987
      Dinosaurs From China – Zhiming & Milner 1987-1988
      Dinosaurs Past and Present, vols I and II – Nat. His. Mus. Of LA County 1987
      The Dinosaurs – Service/Stout 1981
      The Rise of Life – Reader/Gurche 1986
      Bones for Barnum Brown – Bird 1985
      The World Before Man – Lambert & Currant 1986
      Carnegie’s Dinosaurs – McGinnis 1982
      The Dinosaur Dictionary – Glut 1972
      The New Dinosaur Dictionary – Glut 1982
      Dinosaurs, Mammoths, and Cavemen – Czerkas & Glut/Knight 1982
      Dinosaurs – Their Discovery and Their World – Colbert 1961
      Dinosaurs – An Illustrated History – Colbert 1983
      Pterosaurs, the Flying Reptiles – Sattler/Santoro 1985
      Dinosaurs of North America – Sattler/Rao 1981
      The Evidence of Evolution – Hotton 1968
      When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth – Norman/Sibbick 1985
      The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Dinosaurs – Norman/Sibbick 1985
      Archosauria – A New Look at the Old Dinosaur – McLoughlin 1979
      Synapsida – A New Look into the Origin of Mammals – McLoughlin 1980
      Zoobooks – Wexo/Hallett 1985
      The Dinosaur Heresies – Bakker 1986

      1988 PALEO BOOKS
      —————————
      The Prehistoric World of the Dinosaur – Norman/Hood 1988
      Dawn of the Dinosaurs – Long & Houk/Henderson 1988
      Macmillan Illustrated Encyclopedia of Dinosaurs and Prehistoric Animals 1988
      Predatory Dinosaurs of the World – Paul 1988

      1. That’s quite the reading list! Plenty in here we’ve never covered, too. And really going above and beyond “Let’s copy Sibbick and call it a day”. The interesting thing is, Normanpedia has lots of great skeletal reference material beond just the Sibbick stuff.

        1. So true. I think I bought Prehistoric World of the Dinosaur (probably from a mark-down table) because I was fascinated by — and couldn’t make sense of — the difference between it and the Normanpedia.

  2. Boy, the “Raptors jumping on Tenotosaurus” trope really was the “Ornitholestes grabbing for Archaeopteryx” of the 80s & 90s, wasn’t it?

  3. The super-gnarly tarbosaur is a trope that started life in a technical paper and was then depicted in beautiful colour by a few artists, most notably Guy Michel in 1979.

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