Vintage Dinosaur Art: Before the Ark

Vintage Dinosaur Art

Described as “a collection of widely differing essays around a central theme,” Before the Ark was published in 1975 by the BBC and “based upon the BBC Television series” of the same name. Said series has seemingly disappeared into complete obscurity, although it does get a mention on Alan Charig’s Wikipedia page, and I also found this listing in the BBC Programme Index. (It’s not on YouTube, though, and if you do try searching for it, you’ll come across an awful lot of creationist bilge.) Although the series covered vertebrate palaeontology in its entirety, as ever, the publishers knew what to stick on the cover to draw people’s attention. Dinosaurs are sexy, and sexy sells, don’t you know.

Before the Ark - cover

In any case, this post will be a little shorter than usual as the book’s quite light on interesting art, and much of what there is has been covered here before – namely, in our previous looks at the work of John Barber. Barber illustrated the jacket, which thankfully is new to us. It’s a striking illustration of a Morrison Formation scene, with retro-tastic, lumpy sauropods bestriding the landscape, the front cover being dominated by a snaky-necked Diplodocus. Retrograde as those blob-headed brontosaurs might look today, this is still a visually arresting piece, with Barber’s trademark lush vegetation present and correct.

Before the Ark - back cover

Moving to the back cover, and a skulking allosaur confronts a brachiosaur with a slightly quirky-looking head (I think it’s the low nasal crest) and grinning mouth full of alarming pointy toothy-pegs. Rhamphorhynchus-like pterosaurs fly overhead (and I still hate trying to spell that name). I absolutely love the colours in this scene, from the allosaur’s speckled-green hide to the purple mountains and smudgy, ink-blue sky. It’s highly atmospheric and, once again, just look at those plants. TREEES!

Morrison Formation scene by John Barber

The whole affair is repeated inside the book, but in black and white this time, and mirrored for some reason. (I’m not sure which is the original orientation.) This monochrome version does draw particular attention to whatever’s going on with the Diplodocus’ thigh. Are those healed wounds? Pock marks? Just very thick skin folds? Dunno.

The Niobrara Chalk Sea of Kansas, by John Barber

The book features a number of panoramic scenes by Barber, many of which later featured in Prehistoric World by Richard Moody, which is where we saw them last. Among these is the above Niobara Formation illustration, featuring a typically crocodilian-looking mosasaur with crenellations just about visible, plesiosaurs, and two birds that are probably Hesperornis and Ichthyornis. There’s also an ichthyosaur that’s just fallen out of the TARDIS. The depiction of foaming, choppy waters in this piece is superb – I really wish they’d included the piece in colour, but I imagine there were budgetary constraints.

As usual, Mesozoic marine reptiles in 1970s art look like they really want to escape the water. It’s dramatic, innit.

London Clay scene by John Barber

In addition to a number of Barber pieces that we’ve seen before – including his Carboniferous, Wealden, and La Brea scenes (see the above link) – we’re also treated to the above London Clay piece. So, what on Earth are we looking at? The book doesn’t say, but I’ll bet that the largeish mammals with implied semi-aquatic habits are Coryphodon, the tiny horsey things are Hyracotherium, the little rail-like bird is Nasidytes, the crocodilian is Diplocynodon, and the birds sitting on the log are…er…I don’t know. Anatalavis? If you know better, then do drop us a comment. There’s also a turtle, but no one cares for them.

In any case, this is another beautifully painted piece by Barber with gorgeous tropical foliage (I particularly like the rare Dichromatic 3D Palm on the left) and an effective impression given of a lush, open landscape bordering the sea.

Ankylosaurs v tyrannosaur by Bakker

So, yes, there’s plenty of John Barber. But the book also features a couple of illustrations by some young upstart named Bakker – perhaps surprising, as Charig was sceptical about Bakkerian ideas around dinosaur physiology. While the animals in Barber’s scenes are quite energetic, they are still very much of their time, while other, supplementary illustrations of individual dinosaurs in this book are solidly retro Burian and Parker-type affairs. In that context, the two Bakker pieces look like they’ve been beamed down from outer space by some kind of galaxy-roving, exuberantly bearded extraterrestrial in a big hat.

Just look at the tyrannosaur in the above scene – lean and lithe, balancing on the tippy-toes of one foot, it’s the type of reconstruction you’d expect in Predatory Dinosaurs of the World – not a Charig co-authored book from the mid ’70s. Yet here it is. (Of course, these do feature in a chapter that specifically mentions Bakker and his ideas, so it’s not so surprising to see them in that context.)

Those ankylosaurs, too, look far more modern than they have any right to – especially the one on the left, taking the most determined stride forward that I think I’ve ever seen an ankylosaur take in any artwork, ever. These pieces are credited as “Bakker drawings” from the National Museum of Canada, so I guess the tyrannosaur is Albertosaurus (unless it’s Gorgosaurus) and the ankylosaur is Euoplocephalus (unless it’s Scolosaurus).

Styracosaurus and Lambeosaurus, by Bakker

And finally…the second Bakker piece features Styracosaurus and ol’ hatchet-head, Lambeosaurus, roving around a stark landscape devoid of anything much besides rather dead-looking trees. Again, these illustrations are so far removed from what one would expect to find in a mid ’70s book of this type, it quite boggles the mind. Granted, those hadrosaurs are alarmingly skinny, but the attempt to draw these animals from such unusual perspectives is very commendable, and far more successful than most managed back then. That wacky Bakker, you know – he didn’t half get an awful lot right.

Coming up next (from me): I’ve just ordered Mesozoic Art! Hooray!

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  • Reply
    October 29, 2022 at 12:43 am

    The two Bakker pieces are stunning!

  • Reply
    T.K. Sivgin
    October 29, 2022 at 5:52 am

    Bold choice of whoever made the original show to give it that name, as you’d think it would attract crazy creationists and confuse people interested in actual prehistory. Seeing only the title at first, I expected this post to be about some book from Victorian times.

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