Vintage Dinosaur Art: Creatures of the Past – Part 1

Vintage Dinosaur Art

Here’s an unoffical followup to this post. As I explained there, my work as a science educator takes me to a large number of primary schools across the country, and whenever I can I sneak around the school library to see if I can find some palaeo-related content that I didn’t know yet. This one time, I found one of Jean M. Auel’s Clan of the Cave Bear books, most definitely not for children! I wonder how that got there?

Today’s subject is more child-friendly fare. Published by Deltas, Dutch stalwart of nonfiction for children, in 1986, Leven in de Prehistorie was written by John Stidworthy and illustrated by (a shamefully uncredited) Chris Forsey. Creatures of the Past is its original title. No sooner did I upload the scanned images to the blog, did Marc notify me that they looked very similar indeed to those from a book he reviewed a while back, a 1991 book called The Day of the Dinosaurs. The same, in fact. This must be an older incarnation of the same book, although I couldn’t say if the text is also the same between the two volumes.

It isn’t surprising that Chris Forsey’s illustrations hail from the mid-eighties rather than the early nineties, as the images within are tropey and often extremely retro. Forsey borrows liberally from whatever relevant palaeoart is available, regardless of their relative up-to-dateness. This movie poster of a cover is a fabulously action-packed collage of characters from the Burian catalogue, including the cartoonish prehistoric human who is about to stab you. The Tyrannosaurus especially is wonderfully bizarre, a shapeless blob with baffling anatomy and a fantasy lizard head that calls into mind only the most ponderous incarnations of Godzilla. That Uintatherium is featured among these great staples of palaeontological stock creatures speaks to its relative prominence back in the day and its relative obscurity now. The background volcano is a given, but take a shot anyway.

Dinosaurs are emphatically not the main focus of the book. It’s divided into four chapters: Palaeozoic, Mesozoic, Cenozoic and, sigh, the Dawn of Man. The book certainly isn’t shy about throwing around words like “apeman”, either, befitting its vintage. There seems to be very little overlap between dinosaur fans and early human fans, and I’m not about to prove that theory wrong; as far as I’m concerned, natural history jumped the Otodus around the time Australopithecus split from the ape tree.

Where was I? Yes, the Triassic. The animals presented on this spread offer nothing unexpected, but another incarnation of the tropes you know. The only Triassic dinosaurs are Coelophysis, devouring its own young, and Plateosaurus, on all fours. Lystrosaurus is in front, aetosaurs bring up the rear, and the whole landscape is rather barren, because nothing interesting happens in the Triassic. None of these animals lived together, but that’s not the point. Forsey adds a rainstorm and a rainbow just to amuse himself.

I swear I’ve seen that Camptosarus before. It reminds me both of the one by Valerie Bennett for the Dinosaurs! CD-rom and Neil Lloyd’s Camptosaurus for Dinosaurs! Magazine, both of which are newer than this, but I can’t quite place where it comes from originally. The little guys standing by his feet are Compsognathus, apparently? They look like miniature hadrosaurs, if anything. The Archaeopteryx suffers from Wings-With-Hands syndrome, a problem much more prevalent in palaeoart from the 80s and 90s than it ever was in classic depictions. The awesome sauropods are given a supporting role.

One thing Chris Forsey does really well is give these larger spreads a good sense of atmosphere, with that dramatic setting sun. His specialty is clearly in landscapes, and that, at least, pays off.

Apart from the chapter-beginning spreads I’ve showed you, there’s a lot of half-tone pencil illustrations like this. I can’t tell if this is also Forsey – it might well be someone else – but Deltas, like so many publishers, had a fast and loose policy on artist recognition at the time. Many jobbing artists making second-rate dinosaur stuff at the time were wildlife specialists. Chris Forsey, on the other hand, is more of a landscape artist. All this to say: the anatomy of the creatures doesn’t always make sense. Stegosaurus here is obviously based on the Normanpedia one, but meatier and a bit wonky. The way the left frontlimb connects to the body doesn’t at all look natural.

The Triceratops is even more retro, with those weird scutes that were a bit of a pre-rennaissance trope, seen in both art and toys. They do have some basis in actual ceratopsian skin fragments, though they wouldn’t look like this.The animal is posed with no neck and a hunching back, like that weird NHM mount and the sculpt that accompanies it. I do like its highly characteful expression.

Did someone say Sibbick? Take a drink, everybody. The Normanpedia Allosaurus makes a gory appearance, complete with Sibbick’s highly recognizable countershading and leathery skin. Chris Forsey’s version has a more elongated snout and a weirdly flimsy lower jaw. Forsey at least depicts it voraciously devouring something, which is more that can be said for Oritholestes, which is idly standing around. It’s usually grabbing something. Forsey doesn’t get much of a chance to show off his landscape skills in this one, though the barren land of the Morisson has at least been given some slopes and texture.

Although now long outdated, the bipedal Bernissart-style Iguanodon of Louis Dollo will always have a special place in my heart. When I was wee, Brussles was the only museum anywhere close to where I lived that had real dinosaurs Going there in my childhood felt like a pilgrimage, and is a memory I still hold dear. How times have changed! You kids today don’t know how good you have it, with dinosaur museums and attractions popping up at every turn. Old Belgian Spiky McStabbythumbs, here looking about as humanoid as ever, gets a tumbs up from me.

Sometimes, you got to let the image speak for itself. Nothing I can say can make this any more perfect.

The pencil illustrations have a real cartoonish, goofy charm. I don’t know if the artist fully intended this. Stenonychosaurus (not Troooöóôdon this time) is here to be the sinister, big eyed, big brained nocturnal villain of this 80s saturday morning cartoon. No mention of a dinosauroid anywhere, which is definitely a point in the book’s favour.

Here’s our nice, juicy Cretaceous spread with all the staples we love. The Burian-inspired Styracosaurus from the cover returns and we get cameos of Triceratops and Corythosaurus facing away from us, but of course those dang theropods be hogging the spotlights.

The fighting Deinonychus are oddballs. They are interestingly not based on the notorious Normanpedia Deinonychus, but still very much follow the Sibbick style of leathery skin and sharp countershading. The heads are very weird, with the left one looking almost toad-like, with those eyes so far on top of its head.

And then there’s T. rex. Again, it’s not a direct Sibbick copy though it does ape some of his style. Again, it’s got a bizarre head, with an upturned upper jaw, its eye very far to the top and front of its skull, and a lizard ear. I have no idea how those arms connect to the body. But it looks a bit more like a functioning animal than the blobby Rexy on the cover does, so there’s that.

Some words on the excellent landscape-painting skills of Chris Forsey. It’s very interesting how the tree in the foreground splits the image almost perfectly in half, and I absolutely love the light and shade on the mountain in the backround right. Though there isn’t an abundance of foilage, Forsey consistently avoids boring, flat landscapes on these coloured spreads and he deserves props for that.

More bizarre Cretaceous animals. There’s something unnerving about that Triceratops. I can’t see its eyes, and its horns seem to be glued on rather than part of its skull. By contrast, the ankylosaur is kind of cute. It’s one of the last instances of the retro, short-legged, plated-backed ankylosaurs of yore, and it’s been given adorable cat ears. Very lovable. The Parasaurolophus is another instance of the Gangly Dork. It’s got those flimsy arms and that absurdly long neck, and that big eye gives it a lot of personality.

And then a big rock fell and all the dinosaurs died. Again, Forsey does a wonderful job depicting the doom and gloom of the apocalypse. Gangly Dork Parasaurolophus makes another appearance, but the emphasis is on the mammals, and we can see quite clearly that Forsey has a much easier time depicting them as believable, convincing animals than he did with dinosaurs.

Sometimes, skimming school libraries, you run into an unexpected little gem like Thomas Thiemeyer’s Grosse Buch der Saurier. And sometimes, you get this. (Don’t worry, I didn’t steal the book, I bought my own copy). It doesn’t feature the best dinosaur reconstructions ever, it’s typically derivative of other works that also weren’t at the vanguard of science, but it has its charms, whether it be the unintentional goofiness of the animals or the intentional grandeur of the landscapes. And, once again, there’s quite a lot of it. If there’s any appetite for it, I’ll discuss some of the non-dinosaur stuff later. Creatures of the Past will return!

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  • Reply
    April 7, 2022 at 11:37 am

    The Deinonychus on the left reminds me of the Jurassic World Evolution Deinonychus, which itself is a hideous and disgusting bastardization of Bakker’s 1969 Deinonychus.

  • Reply
    April 7, 2022 at 9:00 pm

    Thanks for this one, Niels. I had noticed when I looked up Marc’s 2014 post that it had an original 1986 copyright. Following it up, there are several other books with the same reference. Without having either edition available, it looks like the current edition (1986) is the complete original and in 1991 it was split into several separate parts:

    1) Life Begins
    2) The Day of the Dinosaurs (reviewed by Marc back in 2014)
    3) Mighty Mammals of the Past
    4) When Humans Began

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