Vintage Dinosaur Art: Fortidsdyr i farver

Vintage Dinosaur Art

Hej allesammen! It’s hard to find proper illustrated mass-appeal dinosaur books from before the 1970s, when Zdeněk Burian brought Life Before Man into every European home. It’s always cause for minor celebration whenever something older than that shows up that isn’t Knight or Zallinger. So imagine my delight when I rediscovered this book in my very own archives when I moved house last year. Oh yes, I remember this one. This very, very old one.

How old? It dates from as far back as 1957. It is of Danish origin, originally titled Fortidsdyr i farver (Prehistoric Animals in Colour). It was written by Kai Petersen and illustrated by Verner Hancke. All I know of Vintage Danish Dinosaur Art begins and ends with Gerhard Heilmann, so I had to google these guys. Kai Petersen is so common a Danish name that I didn’t find much of a trail there. This seems to be the only book of his out there. What I found from Verner Hancke was mostly Christmas cards, kitsch with gnomes and guides to garden plants; your typical jobbing illustrator who would do you a dinosaur or two on the side on a commission. Expertise in palaeontological reconstruction was not really a skill people had or even knew how to acquire back then. Getting a hold of some quality reference material was the best you could hope for.

As the front cover indicates, this is a “journey through time” book about prehistoric animals in general rather than a dedicated dinosaur book. There is plenty of dinosaur content, however, so that’s what I’ll focus on here. On the cover, you can enjoy the Burian-tastic terror bird, Archaeopteryx with hoopoe colours and a prehistoric guy taking on a cave bear head-on with nothing but a pointy stick. I don’t fancy his chances much.

There’s some enjoyably patronizing rambling in the foreword, written by Magnus Degerbøl, who was the curator of the NHM of Copenhagen at the time. He ponders how kids these days are all about their coloured illustrations, not like in his day, when all you got was scribbles in black and white and you were happy with that. I wonder what the man must have made of colour TV.

I’m not gonna lie. I disliked this book as a kid. That’s because I was an insufferable snobby nerd raised on Dinosaurs! Magazine, the series that mercilessly presented outdated views on dinosaurs as stupid mistakes. All this retro stuff, all dragging tails, ponderous upright tyrannosaurs and wading sauropods, looked very stupid to me. How foolish I was. Now that I’m older and wiser, of course, I’m going to be insufferable and snobby at this book for a completely different reason. The copying of Knight and Zallinger is pretty blatant with this one. For Brontosaurus, the best Hancke could do was mildly change the composition and the styling of the Knight original. The Jurassic bird flying low is a cute touch, and it shows up in several other illustations, too. For instance…

I am quite suprised to see Anchisaurus make an appearance. Between all the usual suspects, your brontos and rexes and iguanodons, Anchisaurus is an animal that has been slightly forgotten. It appears little in books even now, but Anchisaurus has a long and storied history as one of the first dinosaurs ever found. Not that the experts in the early 19th century knew what it was, of course. As you probably know, it’s a very small herbivorous sauropodomorph that is, despite its diminutive stature, closely related to sauropods proper. In this book, however, it is described as, I kid you not, a “massive predator”, the giant among carnivores in the Triassic. I don’t know whether this is where science stood at the time (as you might have guessed, Anchisaurus has been a wastebasket taxon for a long time) or if something got lost in translation here. The red bipeds in the foreground are meant to be Compsognathus, far from the only anachronism in this book.

The illustration shows a pretty recognizable bipedal sauropodomorph, anyway. Which is to say, as generic as dinosaurs come. It looks very humanoid, with plantigrade feet (something Hancke avoids elsewhere) and very human arms. If it’s meant to be a toothy predator, those teeth are hidden behind lips, an idea that is back in vogue again. Its expression is pretty haughty. I don’t think Hancke has based himself on any pre-existing artwork here. The only older Anchisaurus illustation I could find was from Joseph Smit*, and this one doesn’t resemble it much.

*The Dutch illustrator, not the Mormon prophet. I hope that’s clear.

The centrepiece of the Mesozoic art in the book is this “Jurassic” spread featuring many tropey dinosaurs. No doubt you’ll recognize Allosaurus as lifted from Zallinger and Stegosaurus and Ornitholestes from Knight. The kind of environment they inhabit is very much inspired by Zallinger, too, down to the colour palette. As a sign of the utter trope-dependence of the book, a separate standalone Ornitholestes illustation appears in the book, and it, too, is a-grabbing a bird. Illustrators could barely conceptualize Ornitholestes without one.

The odd one out is Iguanodon, and not merely because it doesn’t belong in the Morrison. There doesn’t seem to be any Zallinger or Knight influence there. Oddly, I do see the influence of Joseph Smit in this one, especially where the stance is concerned. I kind of enjoy how Hancke will just indiscriminately add both pterosaurs and birds to any scene to liven them up.

Here’s a phytosaur because I like a phytosaur.

Ichthyosaurs in the gloom. I never think of ichthyosaurs as particularly scary creatures, but many vintage artists will make them look monstrous or ominous. Hancke makes this one a nocturnal horror with a big, sinister eye and a toothy maw. Our knowledge of marine reptiles was about a century ahead of our knowledge of dinosaurs, so this one holds up pretty well. I particularly like the one in the background that is diving down, seen from the top.

By contrast, Hancke’s pterosaurs (these are Dimorphodon and Rhamphorhynchus) are not particularly monstrous, compared to some of his contemporaries. Hancke probably didn’t have much reference material to fall back on here save some 19th century stuff that made them look like hideous hellbeasts, and Hancke does a passable job making these look like real, functioning animals. The upside-down one is very old-school, I think that one might come from certain pre-Crystal Palace reconstructions.

Petersen in the text describes the Cretaceous in particular as a nightmare world, filled with wondrous and terrible creatures beyond any writer’s most fearful imagination. Of course, in this primordial chaos, the dreadful Tyrannosaurus appears, regal and towering, equal parts Knight, Zallinger and Godzilla (a brand new movie that had crossed over in the West by this time, so it is concievable that Hancke was familiar with it). It looks pugnacious, ponderous and not too bright. The ankylosaur (based on Knight’s “Palaeoscincus“) runs away, though Rexy doesn’t seem to pay it much attention. The ankylosaur is a bit weird. I can’t quite read its face. Where are its eyes? Background volcano, take a shot.

Triceratops is pitted against Gorgosaurus in what I could be convinced into declaring my favourite dinosaur illustration by Verner Hancke. If you compare this to Rexy above, staring vacantly into the middle distance, there’s just a world of difference. This tyrannosaur is that much more menacing, simply by virtue of actually looking at its adversary, implying its malicious intent. The expressions on the faces of both the animals is shamelessly cartoony. The Triceratops is not bad. Again, there’s anachronisms all over the place, but what can you do.

Trachodon is another vintage dinosaur art staple. I can’t get over how sinister these two look. Whereas Knight’s duckbills always looked goofy and innocent, these both have sly, evil grins on their faces… what are you up to, Trachodon? I haven’t seen hadrosaurs this scary since Flyorov’s Saurolophus.

This one’s pretty cool. The marine scene with Pteranodon and Mosasaurus is nothing new, but Hancke’s version of it is pretty dramatic and dynamic, at least. Gotta love those rolling waves. Images like this prove that, while he doesn’t add much originality to the vintage dinosaur art pool, Werner Hancke was a very fine illustrator of the natural world. The animals have a pleasing solidity to them. Hancke’s way of adding miscellaneous fish, birds and pterosaurs to every scene does a lot to liven it all up, to give it a sense of a lived in and dynamic world.

The book is mostly serious, but at the end here Petersen and Hancke allow themselves some whimsy. The dinosaurs andotherprehistoricanimals have been transported to the modern world to cause havoc! Of course, it’s always fun to have dinosaurs interact with people, buildings and machines. The Pteranodon and othocone scenes were re-enacted in Walking With Dinosaurs, the T. rex scene in The Lost World. The scared chimney sweep is pretty funny.

I especially like how the mammals disrupt the peace. The giant sloth is described as “harmless” in the text- I very much doubt it would have been. I want a pet glyptodont to ride now.

And that’s Prehistoric Animals in Colour, the Danish dino book from the fifties. There’s plenty of otherprehistoricanimals in here, but I’ll leave it here. Honestly, there’s only so far a book of this vintage can go to impress me, especially when the art is so derivative. But Hancke is a competent illustrator, the book doesn’t talk down to its audience and no doubt it would have looked a lot more impressive to the European households at the time, who weren’t used to there being many books on dinosaurs on the market. Still, it makes you appreciate just how much of a leap forward Burian’s work in Life Before Man was. Maybe not so much in terms of science, but definitely in terms of artistic flair.

And speaking of leaps forward: I think I’ll return to the good old nineties for the next one.

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  • Reply
    April 16, 2023 at 6:52 pm

    Prosauropods were considered possible carnivores for most of the 20th century, partially because they were considered theropods sensu lato (i.e. non-sauropod saurischians) & partially because of the “teratosaur” chimeras of prosauropod postcrania & rauisichian skulls.

  • Reply
    T.K. Sivgin
    April 17, 2023 at 9:59 am

    Like Adam said, Anchisaurus being described as a predator likely stems from the confusion around Teratosaurus, which at the time this was written was considered a predatory prosauropod (at least by some).

  • Reply
    Eli Burry-Schnepp
    April 17, 2023 at 9:53 pm

    That Stegosaurus is TINY. Looks dog-sized at most.
    I do think that Ichythosaurs are pretty spooky when the artist isn’t just treating them as Jurassic dolphins. There was a NatGeo pic of Temnodontosaurus which terrified me as a kid. I always loved the retro-Ichthyosaur as well as it’s own sort of fantasy creature.

  • Reply
    Jamie Proctor
    April 18, 2023 at 10:04 am

    “On the cover, you can enjoy the Burian-tastic terror bird, Archaeopteryx with hoopoe colours and a prehistoric guy taking on a cave bear head-on with nothing but a pointy stick. I don’t fancy his chances much.”
    I mean he has TWO pointy sticks, that like, doubles his chances.

  • Reply
    July 23, 2023 at 6:35 pm

    Thanks for posting this one, Niels. I remember the English version from my childhood (mid ’60s). It was apparently from a different branch library from my usual one, so I ran across it by pure accident (probably a one-time shelving error). The English version is titled “Prehistoric Life on Earth” and was included as one of the Methuen’s World of Nature series. The hard cover was around the same time as the Danish original, and there was a softcover edition issued in the ’70s (or early ’80s, I’m not certain of the date). The others in the series (Mammals, Birds, Fishes, Reptiles & Amphibians of the World) were authored by Hans Hvass, and featured illustrations by Wilhelm Eigener. I received the copy that I ordered through Amazon about a year ago and am very pleased to finally have it in my collection. Since it’s in Storage, I can’t check, but I’m sure that the English version does NOT have the b&w ending chapter.

    It’s probably just my weird sense of humor, but I cannot look at the Trachodon illustration without thinking of the Monty Python skits with the Cockney Ladies hooting at each other.

    Re the carnivorous Anchisaurus: I don’t know about Anchie, but I’ve seen several references to Plateosaurus being a carnivore dating from as late as the 1930s-’40s period (mostly in non-scientific popular sources).

  • Reply
    November 16, 2023 at 7:32 pm

    This is great! I’ve only just discovered LITC and am thrilled to discover Peterson/Hanke being featured. I still have the Methuen 1963 edition beside me. It was my first introduction to prehistory other than dinosaurs, and I thought I was very grown up as a 12 year old reading (most) of it. Of course it’s outdated, but the text treated its audience with intelligence, and as a kid I didn’t care about the art being derivative. Of course, I have Zdeneks Spinar and Burian’s Life before Man (Thames and Huson 1972), and as a palaeoartist today, Burian is still my hero, submerged Brachiosaurs and tail dragging aside. Those compositions and backgrounds! Wow!

  • Reply
    November 16, 2023 at 7:59 pm

    Paleocharley, you’re quite right – the English version does not have the rather dinky B&W final chapter. I’m glad – it kinda dumbs down the whole book.

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