Vintage Dinosaur Art: Extinct Monsters and Creatures of Other Days – Part 1

Vintage Dinosaur Art

We at LITC are the historians of prehistory, the rememberers of the forgotten, the detectives of dinosaurs. As the palaeontologist diligently searches the rocks and sediments, looking for traces of ancient life, so it is our calling to unearth the most dusty and ponderous tomes of outdated palaeontology, looking for ancient life reconstructions. And thus we come once more to the Victorians. Not the pioneers of palaeontology like Anning, Mantell, Buckland and the wretched Owen, but the second generation. Those inbetweeners, who lived to see Hawkins’ beloved Crystal Palace behemoths become outdated before their very eyes as the epicentre of palaeontology shifted to America.

Today’s book is originally from 1892. Called Extinct Monsters; A Popular Account of Some of The Larger Forms of Ancient Animal Life, it was written by Henry Neville Hutchinson and illustrated by Joseph Smit (with a Dutch hard “t”, not to be confused with Joseph Smith, the Mormon prophet).

Like many a learned Victorian gentleman, the Reverend H. N. Hutchinson was a member of the Anglican clergy, a vocation which, at the time, allowed its practitioners tons of free time on a comfortable salary and thus produced many of the day’s great amateur naturalists (Buckland was another). Hutchinson also wrote books on anthropology and the races of the world, which I would advise you not to read, because… oof. Badly dated dinosaurs are one thing, badly dated anthropological views are quite another.

As for Joseph Smit, he was a Dutch wildlife illustrator who initially worked, mostly on birds, for the Natural History Museum in Leiden, which is now known as Naturalis. He moved to England in the 1860s. He came to paleontological illustration late in his life; he was pushing sixty when this book came out. I believe this is his first commissioned palaeoart, but he did more work later on, for H. R. Knipe’s Nebula to Man (reviewed here by David Orr) and again for Hutchinson.

The book is in the public domain and can be read and downloaded here.

Even though this is Plate XI, this is the first illustration that appears in the book, one of those spectacular brand-new finds from America. As one of the earliest-ever Triceratops reconstructions (a mere two years after its description) it’s a very interesting piece. The front half of the skull is well-observed, basically spot on, which means that Smit was working from decent source material. The rest of it is more speculative and chimaeric, with its frill not quite the right shape, a very mammalian body with hippo feet, a curiously ratty tail and interesting, rough, spiky skin. Not a bad first effort, and one of the more elaborate dinosaur reconstructions in this book, though Smit would outdo himself later.

The actual Plate I concerns the creepy crawlies of the Silurian. They are typical for the time, appearing pretty much the same as they do in later works by Knight, Vatagin, Burian, you name them. Smit, unlike those guys, isn’t really a romantic, or a bold stylist. Compared to Knight and Vatagin and even his contemporary (and eventual successor as the go-to dinosaur artist in England) Alice Woodward, there’s not much in the way of drama or narrative in his work. He depicts the animals in a matter-of-fact way, with Dutch directness.

Even in a scene depicting predatory action, with ichthyosaurs hunting fish, Smit’s style remains very no-frills. His wildlife art is no different: the emphasis is always on the anatomy of the animal itself. This was probably the intent of the author as well as the illustrator. The main ichthyosaur here has a slight underbite, it seems. Smit, to his credit, does not give it visible sclerotic rings, a Hawkins-era trope that persisted well into the 20th century.

Here’s the Loch Ness Plesiosaurus. The setting sun over the distant horizon gives the piece a sense of grandeur that is rare in Smit’s work. Today’s wholly unnecessary pedantic nitpick: I’m pretty sure a cuttlefish and a belemnite are two different things.

Brontosaurus is, of course, wading. Its anatomy is extremely reminiscent of a crawling lizard, stretched out to sauropod size. This is especially apparent in the base of the neck, which extends directly from the underside of the animal, and the very reptilian plantigrade feet – Smit at least avoids rhino or elephantine feet here. Nevertheless, there are more forward-looking traits to flag up. The hindlimbs are held mostly straight. Not quite directly underneath it, but also definitely not sprawled out like we’d see in later sauropod works by the likes of Harder and Vatagin.

Unlike the Triceratops above, most of Smit’s dinosaurs in this book are a bit shapeless, featureless and round. Megalosaurus here is probably the worst offender. Of course, with Megalosaurus itself known from only scant remains (and the mother of all wastebasket genera, to boot), Smit probably did the best he could. Even then, the head is strangely small. Big predators like Allosaurus were known at this time, but Smit clearly wasn’t basing himself on those proportions; he seems to be going more off smaller, better known theropods at the time like Compsognathus and Coelophysis. Look at the feet. Smit’s familiarity with birds shines through here.

Speaking of proportions. This is the freshly-minted Iguanodon from the Belgian mines, shining a whole new light on ornithopod anatomy. I appreciate how the art, and indeed the caption, emphasize the animal’s great size. Smit turns it into a bulky beast. The hands are fairly well-observed, if too small. In fact, all of its proportions are highly suspect; especially those short, stumpy legs. I wonder if Smit ever had the opportunity to go to Brussels and see Dollo’s Iguanodons for himself.

Smit was ambitious enough to illustrate not one, but two species of Iguanodon, showing the differences between the two. This is the original English Iguanodon, now Mantellisaurus, a smaller species than the Belgian one. Smit’s artwork reflects this with a more lithe frame, a more sprightly, upright stance, and a differently shaped head. It looks for all the world like a camel, especially the one in the background. Curiously, Smit foregoes the spiky thumbs with this one, giving it bunny hands. It seems to me this artwork was later copied by Vatagin. Again, the feet are birdlike – appropriate for an ornithopod. A completely different Iguanodon by Joseph Smit would appear in Nebula to Man.

Scelidosaurus is another one of the more elaborate dinosaurs here, with the little osteoderms lovingly rendered. It was one of the most complete known dinosaurs from England at the time, so Smit could be much more confident in his reconstruction. I like how round and wide it is this time – for Scelidosaurus, it’s appropriate. What’s odd about it, of course, is the posture. From the book, I glean that the author (and indeed the scientists) did interpret it as a biped. The forelimbs on the London specimen are missing, which probably explains this. However, the animal depicted looks awkward in its kangaroo pose, and unmistakably like something that would be much more comfortable on all fours.

Stegosaurus is another one of those spectacular American finds from the Bone Wars, and here we have one of its earliest ever reconstructions barring the skeletals of Marsh himself. Like the 1891 Marsh reconstruction, this version has 12 plates arranged single-file, and eight spikes on the tail. Earlier versions proposed the plates were lying flat on its back. Even though this reconstruction is quite a simple one, Smit was faithfully following the most recent science. As realization dawned that Stegosaurus had more plates than would fit on its back this way, later reconstructions by Harder, Vatagin and Knight – as well as Smit himself – showed it with two parallel rows of plates, and finally with the alternating pattern and four spikes we are familiar with today. The limbs are very sprawled here, something Smit mostly avoids elsewhere. Again, like the sauropods but unlike the Triceratops, the feet are more reptilian than mammalian. It also has a lizard ear.

Here are some pterosaurs. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen these before, in the same pose, by other artists. I wonder who copied whom. I bet you’ll tell me in the comments. After all, this is not a million miles away from what Burian would later do with these animals, if with a bit more artistic flair.

Here’s one of the more outdated and “out there” works by Smit, depicting elasmosaurs and mosasaurs as sinister, elongated sea serpents. Here be dragons! Well, at least it’s got character. No mosasaur reconstructions before or after look much like this! Interesting how behind the times Smit is here. Much of his work in this book (especially Triceratops and Stegosaurus) is well up on contemporaneous science. These depictions of animals that have been long known to science are far more fanciful than those of his predecessors. This seems to be not based on any evidence in particular, but more on hearsay. He’d have been better off copying the Crystal Palace Mosasaurus. I’ll give it points for some ammonite diversity representation, even if it’s only empty shells on the seafloor. Strangely, mosasaurs appear to be fairly closely related to snakes, while looking nothing like them.

The Fin de Siècle was a productive time for palaeontology and the natural sciences. Not just England, with the clergy producing many naturalists, but over in America too, where the Bone Wars were in full swing. Science was marching at a brisk pace, and Hutchinson was paying close attention. Some years after this book came out, Hutchinson produced a new and revised edition of Extinct Monsters, with many new pieces of art by Joseph Smit and others. We’ll have a look at that next time. Extinct Monsters will return!

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  • Reply
    Marc Vincent
    August 16, 2023 at 3:03 pm

    Ah, beat me to the punch with a post. Gives me an excuse to play the Quake 2 remaster today and wait a few days before posting what I was working on (another fairly unremarkable kids’ book from the ’70s, obviously). Some thoughts:
    “A very mammalian body with hippo feet” – I wonder if you’re being a bit unfair here. The greatest sin throughout the decades when it comes to ceratopsian reconstructions has been to give them pachyderm paws, and to make the hands and feet look the same (a la quadrupedal mammals). This is avoided here, with clearly differentiated digits and distinct forefeet and hindfeet (or, hands and feet).
    “The very reptilian plantigrade feet” – sauropod feet (at the back, anyway) have been interpreted as quite plantigrade in recent years, although I guess you’re talking about the hands, in which case…yeah.
    Bipedal Scelidosaurus: posited for a few armoured dinosaurs as their forelimbs were often surprisingly puny.
    Megalosaurus: could the hump be based on Altispinax vertebrae?
    Stegosaurus: I love it. It’s adorable.

  • Reply
    August 19, 2023 at 9:21 am

    This was quite an interesting one. True that the Triceratops’ body looks somewhat like a big rodent, but I appreciate the effort of making it look like a giant reptile instead of giving it elephant feet like it would become so common later on. And for a drawing made so early after its discovery, I think it’s a pretty decent effort.
    I also find it interesting how Megalosaurus and Iguanodon share roughly the same build, with proportionally long necks and small heads. The Scelidosaurus is very interesting and the Stegosaurus is just the cutest thing. It’s amusingly refreshing to see how artists depicted these creatures well before the most common tropes emerged.

  • Reply
    August 22, 2023 at 4:44 pm

    The Stegosaurus illo is referenced by Edwin Colbert in his Dinosaurs: Their Discovery and Their World (1961). In a discussion of reconstructions of Stegosaurus:

    (p 148) ” With this figure in mind [referring to Marsh’s skeletal reconstruction of 1891], an artist by the name of J. Smit made a restoration of Stegosaurus, as he thought it might have appeared in life, for a book, published in 1893, entitled Extinct Monsters, by the Reverend H.N. Hutchinson, an English author. It seems probable that Smit’s drawing was supervised by Hutchinson. The restoration shows the single row of plates down the back as first indicated by Marsh, and the four pairs of spikes on the tail, these reduced to spines of almost pin-like proportions. Hutchinson and Smith gave Stegosaurus a sprawling alligator or lizard-like pose, sadly out of keeping with the anatomical evidence of the skeleton.” [Colbert goes on to discus other early reconstructions of Stegosaurus.]

    Also, I have seen other snake-like mosasaurs in early drawings, possibly derived from these.

  • Reply
    Stefan Lungu
    September 23, 2023 at 12:32 am

    When you get to Creatures of Other Days I hope you cover the illustration of “Belodon” being looked at by some adorable big-eyed aetosaurs!

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