Vintage Dinosaur Art: Extinct Monsters and Creatures of Other Days – Part 2

Vintage Dinosaur Art

A while ago we had a look at Extinct Monsters, a book from 1892 by H. N. Hutchinson and illustrated by Joseph Smit. Now, we’re going all the way to 1910 for the the new, revised, expanded edition of Extinct Monsters by the same author, that reflects almost two decades of scientific discovery. This new version of the book is the one that has the awesome extended title “…and Creatures of Other Days“.

The ageing Joseph Smit, Dutchman in England, returns as the featured artist with dozens of brand-new illustrations. This time Smit, well in his seventies, is joined by others, notably Alice Woodward (daughter of Henry Woodward, one of the scientific advisors for this book). Alice’s contributions to this version are mostly in the mammal realm; she produced dinosaur reconstructions of her own for Dr. Henry Knipe, author of Nebula to Man and Evolution in the Past.

Things had changed in palaeoland between 1892 and 1910. For better or worse, the Bone Wars had made America the epicentre of palaeontology, and in its slipstream had come America’s first home-grown palaeoart superstar: Charles R. Knight. His spectacular, dynamic and dramatic paintings made the greyscale, graphical work of Smit and Woodward look drab in comparison, even though I’d argue Smit in particular had a better eye for dinosaur anatomy. As a result, Smit’s generation of palaeoartists has been slightly forgotten by history. Time for a reappraisal!

Once again, the book is in the public domain and can be read here.

Like the original, the new Extinct Monsters opens with Triceratops. Between the first and second book, the NHM in London had gotten hold of a replica Triceratops skeleton (it’s still there), and this one is heavily based on that. Its strangely hunched, stooped posture with the drooping tail carries over. The shape of the frill is more accurate this time around, and the animal retains some of the interesting spiky structures on the skin that I liked from the first one. Smit’s most intriguing choice is the wrinkles in the neck, reminiscent of an Indian rhinoceros.

Speaking of skeletons the NHM had acquired in the meantime: Here’s Dippy! The impact of seeing a gigantic sauropod must have been immense at the time, and is to this day. No wonder there was a lot of interest in dinosaurs in England at the time. And no, a whale dangling from the ceiling does not compare. You will not change my mind.

Smit’s work here is, as usual, decent without being flashy. The anatomy is well-observed and the animal looks big, powerful and even somewhat sleek for its day. Compared to the original book, Smit makes more effort here to show some of the underlying bones and muscles as they shape the animal.

It is noteworthy how inconsistent Smit is with regards to dinosaur limbs. He tends to favour bird feet on bipedal dinosaurs (which is good), mammal feet on Triceratops, and lizard feet on sauropods, as is the case here. That said, as noted in the comments last time, the hind feet are not bad. He is also inconsistent in how much of a sprawl the legs have. In some reconstructions, the dinosaurs have their limbs straight underneath them. Others, like this one, have this sort of semi-sprawl going on. This is accurate in the case of Triceratops, but not Diplodocus. The Dippy cast in London always had straight limbs, as far as I can tell, making the choice all the odder. At the same time, Smit doesn’t take the sprawling limbs as far as Heinrich Harder would do later. Compared to that, this Diplodocus is pretty good for its day, not a million miles away from the reconstructions of Burian.

Ah yes, predatory Anchisaurus! Anchisaurus is a dinosaur that has been around forever but never made a big splash as a palaeoart staple – neither Knight nor Burian ever touched it. Nevertheless, it has an interesting history as a research subject. For much of the 20th century, it and its early sauropodomorph kin were believed to be omnivores or carnivores, due to some hilarious mix-ups involving rauisuchians, I think. In lieu of any of the big names ever illustrating Anchisaurus, I’m happy to have at least one classical reconstruction. Smit’s piece follows the Marsh skeletal fairly well, and holds up okay to this day, diet notwithstanding.

A counterpoint to the somewhat shapeless Megalosaurus from the first book, here Smit tries his hand again at a large carnivore with Ceratosaurus. It’s not a round blob anymore; its head is comparatively bigger and Smit has given it some clearly defined ribs and muscles. It’s a fair effort for its day, and a bit less goofy than an earlier reconstruction by Frank Bond. Like that piece, and like the Anchisaurus above, Smit is clearly following the Marsh skeletal very closely. Compare the foreground animal to the ravenous beasties in the background, and you can tell Smit struggles with putting the animal in a different pose. Again, compared to the Marsh source material, the legs are considerably more bent.

Here’s the new version of Iguanodon, and we’ve got a real oddball on our spiky hands here. As noted in the caption, this is the Iguanodon illustration by Smit that appeared in Knipe’s Nebula to Man before being reused for this. It has very little in common with the two different Iguanodons that appeared in the first book, which were much more in keeping with Smit’s usual style. This one has much more in common with Alice Woodward’s highly reptilian creatures which she made for Knipe. Not just her own Iguanodon, but her Stegosaurus and Scelidosaurus as well. The pebbly scales on the legs, crocodilian tail and back, lizardlike head, much more bent limbs and overall reptilian colour scheme all speak to this. This makes me wonder if this has to do with the instructions they were getting from Knipe. I’m guessing Knipe had a more stodgy, reptilian conception of dinosaurs than Hutchinson. The Hutchinson-led illustrations in this book may have aged better, but this one is slightly more elaborate and, honestly, more interesting. The level of detail – details we recognize from animals we are familiar with – helps make this a somewhat more believable creature.

Morenithopods! Let’s have a hadrosaur. It’s identified as Claosaurus annectens, which is of course another name for Trachodon, Thespesius, Anatosaurs, Anatotian and Edmontosaurs. It has more names than a Lord of the Rings character. Even though Smit had done a hadrosaur for Nebula to Man, too, this time he’s made a new one. In this case, I like the more cartoonish Nebula to Man one a lot better. In that one, a theropod tries to kick it in the unmentionables while the much larger hadrosaur looks on unimpressed. It’s a rare action scene from Joseph Smit, while this one is more his usual, neutral fare. Its exaggerated duckbill from the earlier Knipe-informed piece has been heavily toned down, and like most of Smit’s other pieces, it’s portrayed in side view like the skeletal. I like that there’s a sitting one in the background. Having one animal standing, another sitting is such a classic palaeoart trope, going back to Hawkins.

To me, the classic “vintage” conception of Hypsilophodon was a bipedal tree-dwelling creature, immortalized by Neave Parker and especially in those statuettes found at the London NHM. Here, Hypsilophodon appears as a much more lizardly creature, and a facultative quadruped, to boot. Instead of a branch, it hangs out on a rock, like most lizards do. I guess Hypsilophodon started out as terrestrial, then became arboreal for a bit before looping back to terrestrial. Science! It can be messy, but we do what we can. Isn’t that human endeavour in a nutshell? It seems Smit didn’t receive many more specific instructions beyond just “big lizard”, though the one on the right is at least intriguing for being a lizard in a kangaroo pose.

I swear I’ve seen the silhouettes of those pterosaurs before. People always come to Marc and Sophie and me asking us if we know where this and that piece of vintage palaeoart comes from, as if we have this encyclopaedic knowledge. The reverse is true; we’ve all seen so much old dinosaur art that it all blends together in our minds, and anything could come from anywhere.

I’m kind of amazed by how good this Stegosaurus is. The Stegosaurus illustration from the original was, as I discussed, well up to date on then-current science but also a bit simple, cartoony and, probably unintentionally, cute. Our new and revised Stegosaurus here seems to have been made with a much more steady and confident hand. Lots of realistic detail, shading, muscles, skin and bones, it’s all there. And the limbs are straight now, none of that Harder sprawl. Honestly a much more lively and believable creature than Knight’s earliest Stegosaurus. It’s also aged much better than Alice Woodward’s iguana-like version of Stegosaurus from Evolution in the Past. Great work from Smit here.

To make up for Smit’s extremely dodgy (but fun) slinky sinuous sea-serpents in the first edition, here’s an updated mosasaur illustrated by someone else, a certain J. Green. Green’s style isn’t a million miles away from Smit’s, so it doesn’t stick out that much. Though still very much serpentine, this one is more reflective of the orthodox views of the time. This one seems based on Knight’s 1899 Tylosaurus, though rendered from a different angle. The odd hairy mane on its back that morphs into a fin further down its length carries over from that piece. The era of Let’s All Copy Charles Knight had begun.

Here’s a toothy birb. This one is unsigned. It could be by either Smit or Green, though I’m guessing it’s good old Smit again. The cliffs of Dover in the background are a nice touch. Good to know Smit felt at home in merry ol’ England.

This is the odd one out in the book. It’s not by Smit, Woodward or Green; rather, it’s a pre-existing piece by one Robert Child, apparently commissioned originally by an aviation enthusiast. Here’s an early reconstruction of Pteranodon, crestless and flying with their necks tucked in, like herons. What is striking about these, apart from its unusual silhouette and big, staring eye, is the high detail, going beyond the pencil work of Smit. All the veins are rendered, the wing is almost translucent like so many membranous structures you’d find in nature, including bat wings. You can see the veins. Of course, this would not be the case for pterosaur wings to this extent, but it shows that the illustrator has some familiarity with animals. To show its great scale, the pterosaur is accompanied by birds. They look like ordinary, modern gulls to me. I keep seeing modern birds in palaeoart. I probably need to explore that more fully at some point. I admit I don’t know much about prehistoric birds.

I’ve been talking about Alice Woodward all this time without showing you a single one of her illustrations. Here, have some weird elephants. Woodward’s palaeoart, as instructed by Knipe, was not as up-to-date as Smit’s, but she always had a bit more going on in terms of narrative and drama. Smit was always a purely scientific artist, while Woodward’s background was in illustrating novels. We have not just one Tetrabelodon, but a whole heard of them packed closely together. Rather than the dry reconstructions of Smit, here we have a scene with movement, with dynamics, with a little story to it.

And there you have it; the forgotten generation of English palaeoart, stuck between the pioneers of the early Victorian era and the exuberance of Knight. Smit made solid, unflashy, down-to-earth palaeoart that was mostly devoid of the high drama and Technicolor razzle-dazzle of Knight, but there is always a place for that. In a way, he was ahead of his time, placing greater emphasis on the anatomy and appearance of the animals in a more neutral and scientific way, which would become very much a staple of palaeoart in the Dinosaur Renaissance. To boot, many of his reconstructions were well researched and up there in terms of scientific accuracy. In short, Joseph Smit was the Greg Paul of his day.

It was inevitable that it was Knight, the American dreamer, rather than Smit, the no-frills Dutchman, who would set the standard for how dinosaurs would come to be defined in the popular consciousness in the 20th century. Still, we lost something when we forgot about Smit, and his work didn’t deserve the obscurity it got. So let me pay homage to Joseph Smit in the most Dutch way I can: Kon minder.

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  • Reply
    Brett Austin
    August 29, 2023 at 12:46 pm

    the Mosasaur looks like Richard O’Brien as Riff Raff

    • Reply
      September 6, 2023 at 3:58 am

      First thing that came to my mind is that it looks like the subway ghost on… well, the movie ‘Ghost’, played by Vincent Schiavelli. But yours is good too.

  • Reply
    August 29, 2023 at 2:54 pm

    Barrett (2000) argued that prosauropods were omnivores after all, citing a specimen with a rhynchocephalian bone in its stomach & the fact that iguanas (the go-to prosauropod analogue) are more zoophagous than usually appreciated.

    Also McPhee et al. (2018) interpreted Anchisaurus as an obligate quadruped.

  • Reply
    Zain Ahmed
    August 29, 2023 at 6:38 pm

    I find the Anchisaurus bit ironic as I am very certain basal sauropodomorphs really were omnivores, or at least inferred to be. They still leaned more toward herbivory, but still,

    Also damn that Pteranodon! I legit thought it was a photograph with the art put into it, a technique we’ll see a lot in our times. It’s that good.

  • Reply
    September 5, 2023 at 12:54 pm

    Well, this is a *huge* improvement over the 1st edition. Both the Triceratops and Stegosaurus look way more “modern”, and the Ceratosaurus, while still having a relatively small head, looks more like a proper “carnosaur” than the theropods on the previous edition.
    Oh, and that Pteranodon is just lovely.

  • Reply
    T.K. Sivgin
    September 8, 2023 at 4:36 pm

    Regarding the Mesozoic bird-thing, up until maybe the early 80s or 90s there was a real trend among paleoornithologists (usually those who believed in a Triassic thecodont origin) of identifying modern bird groups all the way into the Jurassic (usually these claims were based on fragmentary remains that later turned out to be pterosaurs or something else). Many Cretaceous bird fossils were also originally shoehorned into modern groups, as it was not yet conceived that between Archaeopteryx and Aves there could have been a whole plethora of unknown extinct proto-bird groups.

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