Vintage Dinosaur Art: Prehistoric Animals (Purnell Library of Knowledge)

Vintage Dinosaur Art

Purnell’s prehistoric animal books of the 1970s – of which there were several, of varying quality (as mostly featured on LITC Mk 1) – attract a great deal of nostalgic fondness from people, uh, a little older than me. The fact that their output seemed to dry up from the 1980s onwards becomes a lot more explicable when one learns of how the company fell into the hands of notorious crook and amateur yachtsman Robert ‘Cap’n Bob’ Maxwell, and consequently suffered a terrible decline. And now it no longer exists. Oh well – we’ll always have those lovely, chunky, hardback books. Like this one – Prehistoric Animals, published in 1970 as part of the Library of Knowledge series.

Purnell Prehistoric Animals cover

When compared with some of Purnell’s other books on the same subject matter, and in spite of the title, Prehistoric Animals only bothers with life up until the end of the Mesozoic. Sorry, mammal fans – we’ll be having no sabre-toothed cats, proto-horses or improbably large rhinoceroseses here, and it’s not because I callously chose to exclude them. The cover gives us a decent indication of what to expect, in that it’s very, very obviously pre-Dino Renaissance. However, in terms of art style, it’s actually quite far removed from anything found within – the vibrant colours here contrast with the very muted, Burian-like palette of the other pieces. As we shall see. While that theropod obviously looks ridiculous by modern standards, I nevertheless really like the red wattle on its neck. It’s an exuberant touch that is quite unique in this book.


The painting splashed across the endpapers is much more typical. Sadly, I can’t tell you exactly who it’s by – the art here is credited to Vernon Mills (who’s also the author), Frances Vargo, Andrew Farmer and Janet Smith, but the individual illustrations aren’t credited. Boo! The artist of the above piece contributed most of the larger illustrations of dinosaurs, and the Burian influence is very obvious, although there’s also more than a hint of Neave Parker. The above piece – depicting Diplodocus – certainly takes after Parker’s Cetiosaurus, although here the animal is shown standing in water. Its proportions are also hugely exaggerated, which can at least partly be attributed to perspective, although the impression is of an animal that mostly consisted of thighs and, you know, arse. I like the highlights, and the added serpentine tail tip emerging from the water. I don’t really like how murky it is. Would Troco have painted stuff like this if he was around in 1970? We can but speculate…


On a very similar theme, seemingly the same artist contributed this Stegosaurus. Suddenly, Blackgang Chine’s Stegoslug makes a lot more sense. This one is also very reminiscent of a Parker piece (in this case his, well, Stegosaurus (yes, there are NHM-endorsed roller blinds of that)), but almost cartoonishly exaggerated. Depicting dinosaurs from the perspective of a person standing right next to their thighs (to the EXTREME) is certainly an interesting choice, I’ll give them that. It might be a good idea for a Luis Rey project, if he ever happens to completely lose his mind. EXTREME DINOTHIGHS. Foreword by Robert Bakker.


And as if to reinforce my point, here’s a Plateosaurus illustration that predominantly focuses on the animal’s limbs. This time, the influence shifts from Parker to Zallinger and The Age of Reptiles mural (although in the original, both plateosaurs are facing the same direction). While the intent was to illustrate the animal’s ability to shift from a bipedal to quadrupedal stance (insert obligatory mention of how it’s now thought to have been an obligate biped), the decision to omit the neck and tail of the individual in the foreground is a curious one.

Allosaurus and Brontosaurus

Speaking of Zallinger copies…oh boy. Now, it’s quite understandable that illustrators back in the day, with access to only scant resources on the subject matter (even if they weren’t just jobbing), might turn to aping the most renowned artists in the field. And, certainly, the background here – with is lush foliage and copious smoking volcanoes – is rather lovely. What’s less forgivable is that Allosaurus, which shows absolutely no regard to anatomy or basic perspective. At least it does deviate significantly from Zallinger’s original; the Bronto is clearly based on it, but while Zallinger’s Allosaurus has actual limbs and musculature and, like, shoulders, this one manages to be somehow cruder than a straightforward man-in-a-suit, mid-century depiction of a theropod dinosaur. How do those arms work? How does that neck work? What’s HAPPENING?

I don’t like it, although I suppose the way that this illustration appears to give Ol’ Bronto a really short, weedy tail is quite comical.


As this is a book very much of the good old ‘sauropods used water to support their weight’ school of thought, there’s inevitably a take on Burian’s snorkeling brachiosaur, although in this case it appears to have borrowed the neck from a mamenchisaur. “With his nostrils high on his head,” Mills explains, “he undoubtedly used his great height in deep water where he was safe from his enemies.” Undoubtedly!


Burian’s Corythosaurus makes an appearance too, or rather, a copy of it that’s been a little, er, compressed. This perhaps explains its displeased expression. It really looks like it should have a cigarette dangling from its mouth, and a shopping bag from its arm. Again, though, I do really like the painterly backdrop! The artist was obviously generally competent, but dinosaurs weren’t their thing. Bonus Burian Trachodon is a bonus.


Equally miserable-looking is this Ankylosaurus, which I believe is another Zallinger-inspired piece. I’ve mostly included it because I know how much some of you love retro ankylosaurs, and I must admit that I do find them quite fun myself. With their squat, stubby limbs and short tails, they are often adorable in ways that modern, far more accurate ankylosaur reconstructions aren’t. I was also quite struck by the impressionistic nature of the background, with its broad, obvious brushstrokes. It’s a fairly unusual approach for palaeoart, and certainly not something we see much of these days. I suppose digital art and publisher requirements don’t lend themselves to approaches like this; you’d have to turn to work by the likes of John Conway (as exemplified in his book Famous Paintings But There Are Dinosaurs Now, Innit).


And finally…Neave Parker’s gawping Tyrannosaurus rides again, but this time, it’s strolling through a lush landscape complete with lovely flowers. Which actually feels like a significant improvement – the rather bare lanscape in Parker’s original never felt like a good match for the type of habitat that Tyrannosaurus actually lived in. There are some slight tweaks to the animal, too, in that its torso seems to be twisted slightly to the left, and its tail is no longer completely limp and dragging, but arches a little towards its tip. The overall impression is of a slightly more active creature (very slightly) than that seen in Parker’s original, and one inhabiting a much more interesting, colourful world. Or maybe I’m forgiving too much just ‘cos I really like the sky behind it. Could be…

Next time: something else! Unless anyone wants to see more from this (there’s some Palaeozoic stuff), in which case, let me know. And thanks for reading this far.

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1 Comment

  • Reply
    Vincent Giard
    October 17, 2023 at 1:35 pm

    The perspective on those underwater brachiosaurs messes me up. Is that one further back emerging past the shore?

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