Here’s another book found through sheer serendipity while browsing charity shops with a friend – Prehistoric World, written by Richard Moody and published by Hamlyn in 1980. That means it was published a few years after another Moody-authored book that I reviewed in 2019 – A natural history of Dinosaurs – and it recycles a fair few illustrations from said earlier tome. No matter – there’s plenty of unique material here to make it worthy blog fodder, not least because it covers not only the Mesozoic, but the entire “3400 million years before modern man,” to quote the subtitle. (You’ll have to forgive the use of ‘man’ to mean ‘human’. Thems were different times.)
The cover illustration doesn’t feature dinosaurs at all, but rather a strikingly alien Carboniferous (or possibly Devonian, or some amalgamation of both) landscape. It’s an excellent and, given the commercial appeal of dinosaurs, rather brave choice. It immediately tells the reader to expect far, far more than the Mesozoic saurians they’re used to – that deep time is far deeper, and its vistas stranger, than they might have imagined. It’s also a beautiful, highly atmospheric and commendably detailed illustration by Michael Youens.
Of course, I’m just going to talk about dinosaurs, at least in this post. It’s what we do.
As such, we’re going to skip many, many pages (seriously – a fat wad of the book is given over to Palaeozoic life, as it really ought to be) and get straight to the Jurassic good stuff. At least, for now. Here we see a variety of familiar faces with a distinct Knight/Burian vibe, and a Camptosaurus that is most certainly a mislabeled Dryosaurus (I rather think that’s Camptosaurus skulking next to Apatosaurus in the background). The Ceratosaurus strongly resembles a model by Arthur Hayward, as featured in 1975’s Prehistoric Animals. Brachiosaurus is shown standing in a swamp, but it’s just wadin’, as per the text. All perfectly serviceable work by Jim Channell at Linden Artists, even if the foliage is looking a little sparse. Nice shading.
Now this is more like it – proper retro-dinosaur action. In contrast with The Prehistoric World (the Italian one), predator-on-prey scenes in Prehistoric World (the Moody one) feel rather static and lifeless. One could reflect on how that plays into the stereotypes of passionate Italians and staid, umbrella-carrying, grey-skies Britishers, but I’m naturally far above such things. In any case, Thomas Crosby-Smith’s depiction of a brontosaur being rather lazily picked on by a pair of allosaurs could have been produced decades prior, were it not for the fact that the sauropod is conspicuously muscular and, you know, on land. The scale does also seem to be rather off, or else those plants have enormous leaves. At least the shading is lovely, and I do really like the almost crocodilian scales on the allosaurs. It’s also pleasing that the dinosaurs have such big nostrils, especially the sauropod, given its huge nasal cavity.
I know it’s peculiar to compliment the nostrils in retro palaeoart, but that’s just what I’m like. You all know me by now, surely.
Now, this is more more like it – a beautifully painted panorama featuring a whole ecosystem’s worth of Wealden flora and fauna. This is by John Barber, and Barber’s expertise as a wildlife artist is immediately apparent – although dated by modern standards, the animals have a pleasingly fluid, naturalistic quality about them, and seem to integrate perfectly with their surroundings. Even the Polacanthus, which might justifiably be depicted as stiff and slow-moving, seems alive and active. The Iguanodon, with their tripodal rearing postures, are the odd ones out here, but even then, these are Iguanodon with appropriately robust forelimbs and skulls that appear to be based on the real thing – by no means a given at the time. Even the foliage is gorgeous, with meticulously detailed fronds in the foreground giving way to more impressionistic (take a shot) trees further back. I really like it.
Barber provided a small number of further panoramas for this book, which I’ll definitely feature in future posts. He died earlier this year (assuming that this obituary is for the same man, which it would appear to be), which is a great shame. I look forward to happening upon more of his work.
Moving further into the Cretaceous, here we have “an American landscape” as illustrated by Corinne Burrows. No, these dinosaurs weren’t all contemporaneous, but I’m sure this is meant to just illustrate the type of fauna and flora that proliferated throughout the Late Cretaceous. Probably. Much as it would be cool if T. rex were to be found to live alongside a smaller, more fleet-footed tyrannosaur, there currently is no evidence of such a thing.
Anyway, highlights here include the actually rather decent sitting Tyrannosaurus and stunningly realised foliage that belies a masterful use of white space on the page. The almost ghostly birds flying overhead are a lovely touch. Less lovely are the proper retro Torosaurus, with its frill glued to its shoulders, Triceratops with hugely exaggerated nose horn, and supremely awkward and seemingly forelimb-free Saurolophus. I can also confirm that the ornithomimosaurs have teeth. That foliage is fantastic, though.
But where are the ankylosaurs? Here are the ankylosaurs. This is another piece by Thomas Crosby-Smith, and it appears to depict an old-school Ankylosaurus, even if the text deems it to be Euoplocephalus; it’s notably lacking any spikiness. While the ankylosaur conforms very much with retro palaeoart tropes, with its short limbs, neck and tail, the tyrannosaur pinning it down is a little unusual. It sports a peculiar skin texture on its back that’s almost reminiscent of a coat of hair or feathers, except that’s completely implausible for this time. I rather think that it resembles Godzilla’s wrinkled, scarred-up skin. Wouldn’t be the first time that Godzilla – itself inspired by retro palaeoart – helped inspire palaeoart in turn.
Still, Crosby-Smith’s tyrannosaur is by no means the worst in this book. That award would have to go to this one by Sukhwinder Panesar. Actually, it would mostly be very typical for the time, were it not for that head – a vaguely formed, lumpen mess of a thing, with weirdly huge, elliptical eyes and an ear seemingly placed well within the folds of the neck.
Nice stippling, though. Who doesn’t love a bit of stippling?
And finally…here are two pieces by Mary Lacey, whose work also featured in A natural history of Dinosaurs. Perhaps Lacey’s most memorable piece from said book was the hilariously dramatic shrieking Parasaurolophus. That illustration features again here, but opposite it is this charming pair of edmontosaurs, here labelled Anatosaurus. The one in the centre does look rather like it’s adopting a neutral pose for the benefit of the artist, but I do really like the other individual, with its accusing stare and hint of intraspecific interaction. And, once more, the stylised rendition of the background foliage is something that one simply wouldn’t see in a modern dinosaur book.
Those nostrils are in a proper weird place, though – at the back edge of the nares, rather than at the front. It doesn’t make any sense, but then, given how retro these things are, I probably shouldn’t let it bother me all that much. If only I hadn’t suddenly developed a nostril fixation.
Lacey also contributes (among other things) this very Knightian illustration of a group of Triceratops. I do appreciate all the different poses, and there’s a definite energy to this piece that sets it apart from many others in this book. It’s quite pleasing. That’s about all I have to say. Leave me alone, I’m tired.
Next time: NON-DINOSAURS! Happy seasonal festivities, everyone.