Vintage Dinosaur Art: The Sinclair Dinosaur Book

Vintage Dinosaur Art

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.

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  • Reply
    Zain Ahmed
    February 25, 2022 at 3:39 pm

    When I first saw the title, my mind immediately thought of the Jim Henson sitcom, though that may be because it borrowed from the Sinclair dinosaur too.

    “and while I don’t much hold with the association between dinosaurs and petrol”
    Well if I remember correctly, Sinclair did averts in which it claimed its oil was made from dinosaurs giving rise to that incorrect myth you see a lot of times.

    I do like how the corythosaurus has a texture that looks like it feels like a plastic toy from wrinkles/skin folds alone.

    Did you not notice the small dinosaur by the rex and trike, or did you decide its not worth mentioning?

    Speaking of Sinclair, if you ever get your hands on a book about Sinclair Dinoland from the world’s fair, that would be cool.

    • Reply
      Niels Hazeborg
      February 25, 2022 at 4:06 pm

      As for the “dinosaurs are petrol” thing: The book doesn’t perpetuate that particular myth, so that’s a point in its favour. I wonder if the ads were still doing it around this time. The text in the book is actually quite thorough and well informed for the time.

      The little dinosaur in the Hell Creek scene. It’s there. *vague shrug* I guess I could have said some words. I tend not to talk exhaustively about every single detail that catches my eye, some things can be left alone.

  • Reply
    Timur Sivgin
    February 25, 2022 at 6:39 pm

    The T. rex is strong proof that at least some of the paintings here were based off the life-sized animatronics that Sinclair featured at the 1933 Century of Progress World‘s Fair in Chicago

  • Reply
    Benjamin Chandler
    February 26, 2022 at 2:18 am

    I always liked these images. I think I’m more attracted to more painterly paleoart rather than polished photo-real stuff. Allen’s rex would find itself reborn dozens of times in 20th century dinosaur art, especially in comics, though none of the copycats were as skillfully rendered as the original.

  • Reply
    March 2, 2022 at 4:02 pm

    The Brontosaurus is beautiful and ahead of its time.

  • Reply
    March 3, 2022 at 2:38 am

    Actually, Donald Glut (Jurassic Classics) showed that the Tyrannosaur was derived from Knight’s confrontation painting. As Benjamin Chandler states, it went on to be a secondary influence in many illustrations, especially comics, for decades afterwards.

    Carroll Lane Fenton used several of these Allen paintings in Life Long Ago: The Story of Fossils (1937) and several other books, and they showed up in some Sinclair publicity ads for the 1964-65 NY World’s Fair.

  • Reply
    Mike Taylor
    March 7, 2022 at 11:45 am

    Woah! That Tyrannosaurus has rockin’ hindlmbs, waaay better than anything Knight did. So alive, so dynamic, so ahead of their time.

  • Reply
    Eli Burry-Schnepp
    September 2, 2022 at 11:41 am

    That Allosaurus does NOT look like it’s from the 30s, that’s seriously impressive.

  • Reply
    Greg A Holmes
    September 30, 2022 at 4:55 pm

    It always strikes me that the stegosaurus in the cover painting looks more annoyed than alarmed, like it’s just another Jurassic Monday. I own that one, the stegosaurus, the protoceratops and a James Allen brontosaurus sculpture. Lynn McRae did a nice summary of Allen’s dinosaur art here:

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