Vintage Dinosaur Art: Prehistoric Animals (Sam and Beryl Epstein)

Vintage Dinosaur Art

Merry holidays! Here’s a fairly unremarkable book with a perfunctory title but, admittedly, a rather striking cover. Prehistoric Animals, by Sam and Beryl Epstein with illustrations by W R Lohse, was first published by George C. Harrap & Co in the UK in 1958, with this edition arriving in 1959. For its time, it’s not half bad, even if the monochrome illustrations aren’t necessarily all that exciting for our purposes. That jacket, though…

Prehistoric Animals (1959) cover

There’s one thing I must address first – namely, that Iguanodon is depicted squishing another, much smaller creature underfoot, apparently by accident. Which is marvellous. What an unlikely depiction of incidental behaviour to include on a book cover at all, never mind in the 1950s, when everyone was content to just trace over their volume of The Extended Works of Chazza Knight and call it a day. The red-on-green contrast is certainly striking, too, as is the fetching dappled pattern on Captain Stabbyhands. Suitably lush vegetation helps draw us into this savage world of primordial, slightly clumsy animals. Lovely stuff. Never mind whatever that is in the top right.

Intriguingly, the signature here appears to read “Cullen,” rather than Lohse. I can’t seem to find any relevant credit inside, though.

Prehistoric Animals title page featuring Allosaurus by W R Lohse

Inside, the title page features Allosaurus, and it isn’t too bad for the time – upright, sure, but with its tail clear of the ground and anatomy that’s, you know, half decent. The striping is very dapper, and it’s standing on a convincingly uneven rocky landscape. Good start.

Plateosaurus by W R Lohse

Even better is the Plateosaurus that appears a little further in, for it’s a biped! Of course, von Huene had realised some years prior that the animal worked best on two legs, but that didn’t stop people continually restoring it as a quadruped (occasionally with semi-splayed limbs and/or an enormously wide ribcage). For 1958, this is a thoroughly decent illustration. One can also appreciate the skill that went into the lines here – the art of inferring important details, such as musculature, with a minimal number of pen strokes. And the foliage is pretty good, too.

Brachiosaurus by W R Lohse

Inevitably, one thing leads to another, and you end up with eusauropods. Here’s Brachiosaurus, wading through a swamp because it was the 1950s, after all. Interesting perspective, here – it’s tempting to think that Lohse has skimped on the animal’s nasal crest, but the implication seems to be that its head is tilted up and slightly away from us, such that the crest is simply foreshortened. The head is certainly quite well observed otherwise, even given how few lines are involved. Note also the huge muscles on the right forelimb and the ridge running down the neck, and the way that the distant mountains help emphasise the animal’s great height.

Parasaurolophus by W R Lohse

Of course, you knew it had to get wacky at some point, and so here’s Parasaurolophus with a ruddy great fin running down its back, like some kind of overgrown amphibious lizard. Which is almost certainly the idea. It looks quite wild, though – sure, there are plenty of depictions of this animal in which a skin flap extends from its crest down to its neck, but all the way down its back? Forming a sail? To be fair, this doesn’t half resemble how the animal appeared in Fantasia, which, of course, is older than this book by some years. Disney’s Best Film (oh yes – no arguments) might well be the key source of inspiration, here.

Nice trees, though. Trees!

Styracosaurus by W R Lohse

Elsewhere, Styracosaurus may have a rather lumpy, warty body and shapeless tail, but at least it has an honest-to-goodness frill with horns extending from it (rather than the horns starting immediately behind its eyes) and a pointy beak. It’s almost as if the authors consulted the AMNH – because, well, they did! “Mrs Mary B Patsuris and Dr Bob Schaeffer, of the Department of Geology and Palaeontology,” to be precise. It might be a little bottom-heavy, but at least our spiked friend has a decent head on its shoulders.

Tyrannosaurus by W R Lohse

In addition to Styracosaurus, there is certainly a Tyrannosaurus in this book. I feel obliged to include it, even if this illustration is…fine. There’s nothing particularly bad about it, but it’s also very close to works by Knight, in particular, without being a copy. Once again, the implication of a rough skin texture is quite beautifully achieved, and I like the loose flap of skin hanging down from the throat – a display structure, perhaps? It’s curious that its lower teeth seem far more prominent than those in its upper jaw, and that mouth looks like it could have been drawn with a ruler, but never mind. Delightful period features include a prominent hallux that contacts the ground, presumably to support the animal’s copious bulk. At least he’ll get home easier after a night on the tiles.

Plesiosaur by W R Lohse

Amid all the excitement, let’s not forget that this book is entitled Prehistoric Animals – not even something like ‘Dinosaurs and OtherPrehistoricAnimals’, but Prehistoric Animals. Sure enough (and in spite of there being a dinosaur on the cover, ‘cos we all know what sells), there’s plenty of non-dinosaur prehistoric life to be found here. Like this plesiosaur, which I’ve partly included because it’s a remarkable example of a 1950s illustration of a plesiosaur completely submerged in the water, but mostly because its head reminds me of that troll face meme. You know the one. Although I might be showing my age.

Megaloceros by W R Lohse

There are even quite a lot of mammals in this book, if you can believe that. (If anyone cares, I might be inclined to post a follow-up article featuring them.) One of my favourites is the above Megaloceros, not just because of the fantastic title of the chapter it appears in, but also because of those antlers. The way they’re depicted with a complex, swirling arrangement of lines is simply extraordinary. They at once appear spidery and completely solid, seemingly reaching outwards like fingers or tentacles from the animal’s head into the surrounding space. Lovely work.

Incidentally, while only credited as “W R Lohse” here, the artist was presumably Willis Rudolph Lohse, a German who lived from 1890 until 1969, apparently known for his watercolours. It’s a shame that there are no colour plates in this book – I’d love to have seen him given the chance to show off his skills as a palaeoartist without the limitations that the book’s format imposed on him.

Whale by W R Lohse

And finally…SPLIT YOUR LUNGS WITH BLOOD AND THUNDER! WHEN YOU SEE THE, er, BLACK WHALE! BREAK YOUR BACKS AND CRACK YOUR OARS, MEN, IF YOU WISH TO PREVAIL! That’s quite the whale. What tumult, what drama! It only had to be an illustration of a whale, but Lohse made it an evocative Monstro worthy of a story book. You know, perhaps this book isn’t so unremarkable after all.

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1 Comment

  • Reply
    Ben Hillier
    January 4, 2023 at 5:28 pm

    Mammals always welcome with me, if you’re still considering it

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