This must be one of those ‘how in the Jack Horner haven’t we covered it yet?’ books – The World of Dinosaurs, published in 1977 by Book Club Associates (“by arrangement with Weidenfeld and Nicholson”) and written by Michael Tweedie. Just when you think you’ve exhausted every post-1970, chunky, full-colour illustrated dinosaur encyclopedia, up pops another one. And it’s quite something, boasting artwork featuring a wide range of prehistoric animals – although predominantly dinosaurs, of course – mostly provided by Wilcock Riley Graphic Art. Given how influential I’m quite sure this book was on a great many people now in their 40s (and in the field of palaeontology), it’s a pleasure to finally talk about it.
But who were the artists at Wilcock Riley Graphic Art? Honestly, through the little bit of searching that I’ve bothered to do as I am, at heart, quite a lazy person, I have no idea. It’s always annoying when agencies are contracted for books and the individual artists aren’t credited. If you happen to know, I’d be thrilled if you left a comment. In any case, I imagine the artists (there two seem to be two of them at work here) were quite experienced wildlife artists, if not necessarily dinosaur specialists; their creations look quite convincing as living beings, but are often missing the small details that a true dinosaur artist would surely have included. They are also very of their time, but, y’know, fair enough.
The Parasaurolophus pair that feature on the cover are an excellent example – they’re very much bipedal in 1970s stylee, but they also appear massive and quite muscular, without necessarily being overweight. They hang together well as real animals, and are further embellished with convincing-looking skin creases and folds and muscle tone. They aren’t the Gangly Dork Hadrosaurs they might have been. (There’s a real treat lurking on the back cover, but, oh ho, you’ll have to wait for that one.)
The other artist (as per my hypothesis) has a style that is a little more painterly (take a shot! Look, I’m taking a shot even if you aren’t). Their creatures are also a little less convincing. The Coelophysis in the foreground here is pleasing enough, with a rather ‘modern’ horizontal posture, but the tottering fellow in the background looks very awkward indeed (and I’m sure it’s been copied from elsewhere). Still, regardless of what one thinks of the dinosaurs – and I do really like the lean, stripy foreground Coelophysis – this artist is especially excellent at foliage. Just look at all that lovely foliage! No bland, conveniently featureless deserts for these guys.
The World of Dinosaurs takes a slightly unusual approach, in that it’s not simply a jaunt through the Mesozoic in chronological order. I mean, there is a bit of that, but it follows a more general look at dinosaur lifestyles and habitats; the various ways in which they involved and ecological niches they occupied. This includes a double-page spread featuring Struthiomimus in unusually mean mode, viciously mauling lizards and wearing faces that resemble Sam Eagle on a bad day. Actually, those mean brows might not be too far removed from reality, given the projecting bone in front of their eye sockets – maybe we’ve grown a bit too used to the palaeoart trope of these animals being someone’s skittish prey. In any case, this isn’t too bad, even if that background’s a little bland. Look, tarsal scutes! How intriguing.
One of the most striking images in this book is surely the above, featuring Deinonychus pursuing its prey (which, you’ll note, is not Tenontosaurus). Its scaliness is expected, but its most unusual feature is its head – it resembles no other reconstruction I’ve seen. A rare thing indeed, at a time when most artists were happy to copy Bakker and call it a day. The crest of scales on its neck is especially noteworthy. Note also that, while some of the proportions are a little off, it’s still depicted as a fast, active creature with huge thigh muscles – as is its prey. Both of them are caught mid-stride, kicking up dust and dirt, while the predator appears closely focused on its prey. It’s worlds apart from what many people would have seen in dinosaur books in the years prior and, indeed, in much of the rest of this book. Tellingly, Tweedie is quite receptive to the ideas of Ostrom and Bakker (although not completely, of course).
By comparison, this Compsognathus appears quite retrograde in many respects, not least its weedy musculature, clearly reconstructed with lizards in mind. It also has a slightly odd head with a paper-thin lower jaw, although I appreciate that this might be down to perspective. That aside, though, this is a bloody gorgeous painting. The leaves! Look at the leaves! I mean, I can’t help but feel that the artist might have been glancing over at some of their houseplants, but that foliage is beautiful. The speckled, countershaded livery on the dinosaur is also very appealing.
Compsognathus is featured alongside Allosaurus, to illustrate diversity among theropods. The Allosaurus illustration is much more of what you’d expect from a dinosaur book of this vintage – a group of slavering beasts with pillar-like limbs, standing around a big grey lumpen carcass, looking like they’d maul you just for kids. As ever, Allosaurus is reconstructed as something of a generic Big Theropod, seemingly with little recourse to skeletal references (although, of course, those could be difficult for artists to come by back in the day). The artist eliminates all of the curious horns and ridges from the animal’s head, in favour of a much simpler Angry Brow. The eyes are oversized for the skull, the feet only have three toes, and so on and so forth. Still, those spotted patterns are very fetching, and I do admire the attempt at an unusual perspective for the leg-chewing individual, even if the hips are perhaps a little too wide.
Given all that, I actually believe the book’s Spinosaurus has aged considerably better than its Allosaurus, in spite of our knowledge of the former having moved on far more drastically. But why, you ask? How, why, and how and why? Well, the short-snouted carnosaur face is obviously very wrong, yes. But pay attention to the rest of it – it has truly theropod-like narrow hips and muscular legs, superbly drawn given the difficult perspective, a long, deep tail, a sail that one could probably still get away with, and long, robust forelimbs (even if they resemble those of an heraldic lion). I actually think it’s really good for the time. In spite of its Godzilla face.
Ouranosaurus also features, and is actually far more prominent in the scene. But, as you might have gathered, this post is all about the book’s theropods, and so it’s of lesser importance according to the arbiter of such things, who happens to me. Still, its reticulated skin patterning, oversized dopey eye, and nonplussed expression are all very endearing. (Those tarsal scutes, though – can one get away with that on a hadrosaur?) The background, too, is very beautiful. More than anything, it’s impressively undulating and topographically varied. As I mentioned, I’m quite sure the illustrators behind this book were experienced natural history artists, even if dinosaurs weren’t their forte.
And finally…it’s Archaeopteryx, and some more really fantastic foliage. I mean, look at that beautifully detailed bark! Treeees! In any case, this Archie isn’t too bad, only suffering very slightly from the reptilo-bird hybrid monster syndrome. ‘Wings – but with hands!’ is not in evidence, although the feathers don’t quite align correctly with their respective digits. It has a bit of a lizard face (and the eye on the background individual looks a bit…off), but the plumage is so excellently done, I’ll let the artist off. Again, you can tell when these illustrators had extensive experience in illustrating modern animals. I should also mention that Tweedie is very much of the ‘birds are dinosaurs’ school in this book, quite unlike many experts at the time – for example, Alan Charig. But I’m banned from mentioning Charig in a bad light ever again, so let’s leave it there.
Coming up next time: dinosaurs that aren’t theropods, or Ouranosaurus!