Time for a quick one! Here’s a little oddity I found somewhere online. As far as I understand, this was a free givaway at Sinclair petrol stations all the way back in 1934, making this one of the oldest books I’ll probably ever review for LITC. Popular books with original palaeoart are exceedingly rare from this time. The first dinosaur boom, cranked up by the Victorians and recklessly kicked into high gear during the Bone Wars, was sputtering out of gas. The Sinclair oil company has a dinosaur for its logo, and while I don’t much hold with the association between dinosaurs and petrol, finding some obscure old palaeoart can be like finding an unknown oil well; especially if it’s from a time when lush, traditional oil paintings were the norm. Let the black gold flow!
Today’s artist is one James E. Allen (1894 – 1964, Edd to his friends), who specialized in painting scenes of the American industial working life. Pretty far removed from palaeoart, then. Allen, however, was nothing if not dedicated and took some lessons from the AMNH’s Barnum Brown to make sure he got his science right. Of course, specialized palaeoart in the 1930s pretty much began and ended with Charles R. Knight (at least, on this side of the Iron Curtain), and his influences are pretty obvious, too.
Shout out to James Hess, whoever you are. Your book found a good home.
The book is very thin – it was a freebie – and Allen’s work is limited to a mere six paintings including the front cover, so it’s a case of quality over quantity. The front cover is probably immediately the best piece. That Allosaurus is nice and dynamic – as close to Knight’s Laelaps as it is to his crouching Allosaurus – and it has an interesting white head. Slim build, tail well off the ground and an interestingly demonic red eye. For the thirties, this is about as good as it gets.
The rest is all right. Stegosaurus is having a bad day. I love the colours in the background and the broad, painterly strokes in the environment. They really don’t make palaeoart like this anymore. The slightly wonky sauropod is letting the side down a bit, but Allen makes up for that in the next one.
The remaining pieces inside the book are a bit more static and stately. As the mascot of Sinclair, Brontosaurus of course gets a starring role, and it’s the classic ANMH-style Bronto: apatosaur body, camarasaur head, mammal legs. As such, though, it’s pretty good. It’s on land, Allen gives it a sense of scale and he even shows off some of its skull anatomy. What I love most about this one is the pose and the perspective. It’s really a majestic looking beast.
Here’s a good old classic Stegosaurus. It’s quite redundant at this point to say that Allen pretty much copies the animals wholesale from Knight, but at least he references Knight’s better works. He also gives his own spin on things by letting this scene take place on a starry night. The light colours of the scene otherwise make the composition feel dreamlike, bathed in moonlight. At no point is the book proper as dynamic as the front cover, though there’s a nice wiggly looking lizard thing in the foreground there.
Protoceratops puts in a welcome appearance as well. It’s interesting how little Protoceratops changed between this and, say, the Sibbicksaurs of the 1980s. Protoceratops was the poster child for dinosaur nesting behaviour before Maiasaura took over that role in the nineties. No eggs on the painting proper though. There is a baby, obscured by shadows. Knight’s Protoceratops scene, which the adult is based on, features eggs but no babies. This baby must be a wholesale invention by Allen. The fact that he’s hidden it in the dark might indicate that he’s not quite as confident about this one as he is about his other dinosaurs.
I’m rather fond of this blue Corythosaurus composition. I’ve taked a lot in the past about how silly the idea was in hindsight that hadrosaurs, with their buffalo necks and small hoof-hands, were swimmers. This one looks really wet, not just with its dripping hooves but with its frog-like, mucosal skin texture and a tail looking like a giant worm. What an odd creature. Allen has a real knack for water, and I love the rocks in the background.
The great classic, the Hell Creek confrontation between Triceratops and Tyrannosaurus, is where the Knight influences are at their most obvious, down to the environment. This Rexy is a lot more lean and muscular than Knight ever made it, however. Its eerie green eye and drooling mouth give this one a menacing quality absent from Knight’s work around this time. In a way, there’s something modern about Allen’s big theropods, and it’s a shame we only get the two in this book. Triceratops looks a bit doofy, but I like that Allen gave it a pink head.
James E. Allen would also paint a handful of dinosaur stamps for Sinclair a bit later, but after that he never dabbled in palaeoart again. Instead, he became celebrated as an artist of impressive industrial scenes. Would he have been one of the greats of palaeoart, had he pursued this direction any further? I doubt it. For that, his dinosaurs are simply too derivative of Knight. Even with Barnum Brown’s guidance, Allen never strays too far beyond his examples. Nevertheless, it’s beautiful art, great to have, especially since we have little else left over from this period that isn’t from Knight himself. It certainly helps that James E. Allen is just a very talented traditional painter who makes his dinosaurs pop. Not bad for a freebie from a petrol station.