Vintage Dinosaur Art: Megalosaurus (Dinosaur books from The Child’s World)

Vintage Dinosaur Art

In the long-ago days of 1992, American publisher The Child’s World (based in Mankato, Minnesota at the time, but now apparently to be found in Parker, Colorado) published a series of 26 dinosaur books as part of a series named, er, ‘Dinosaur books’. All but two of them focused on a single genus, looking at its likely lifestyle and palaeoecology in a similar vein to the well-known Rourke books, although in this case there’s no narrative thread to follow. David reviewed the Baryonyx book back in 2010 (and featured a single image from the Tyrannosaurus book in 2009), but that’s all we’ve featured on LITC…until now! For I’ve recently acquired nine of these books, quite oblivious to how chunky they were. Hooray!

Where to start? Why not with the first dinosaur to be named…

Megalosaurus cover

Of course, I mainly wanted to start with this one because that cover is quite irresistible. Sneaky, sneaky! This illustration (which also appears inside) is by far the silliest in the entire book, making it a slightly odd choice for the cover; then again, it got my attention, so job done I suppose. The bizarre arrangement of the apparently retracted head, with the humanoid arms reaching out in front of it, reminds me of a scene in Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom in which the “Indoraptor” reaches out towards a girl cowering in her bed, in complete defiance of its theropod(-like) anatomy. One could put it down to artistic licence in both cases, I suppose.

The illustrator here (and in many, but not all, other books in the series) was Diana Magnuson, an artist with an immense wealth of experience in the field of children’s books in particular (there’s a lot of beautiful work on her website). Even if some of the dinosaurs look rather anatomically dubious, I do really like the technique employed here, straying away from strict realism and high detail towards something more painterly. Decent reference material would have been hard to come by back then, of course – especially for an animal as poorly known as Megalosaurus – and when Magnuson does have something more substantial to work with, the results speak for themselves.

Crystal Palace Megalosaurus by Diana Magnuson

Magnuson’s gorgeous illustration of the Crystal Palace Megalosaurus (above) is, for my money, easily the best piece to appear here. I’ve seen the model in person a few times, and this gives the perfect impression of its skin textures and fine detailing (without actually employing a huge amount of detailing to do so), not to mention its sheer presence. The surrounding foliage is also excellently realised, immersing the viewer in the scene. Lovely work.

Megalosaurus diagram by Diana Magnuson

The ‘modern’ Megalosaurus that appears throughout the rest of the book is, predictably, a rather generic large theropod dinosaur (occasionally straying into tyrannosaur territory). Thankfully, that does mean we aren’t subjected to a parade of hunchbacks in the Neave Parker stylee, although the beast in the above piece certainly does invoke Parker’s much-copied creation (with tweaks to make it a little more up-to-date). I do like this sketchy take, giving us an overview of the animal’s anatomy, but sadly this is the only such illustraton in the book.

Megalosaurus attack by Diana Magnuson

Naturally, what kids will want to see in a book about a vicious, predatory dinosaur are scenes of violence driven by unfeeling, reptilian bloodlust. And Megalosaurus (the book) is happy to oblige, even if it’s a little light on the gore. I do appreciate Magnuson taking on a tricky perspective with the fallen…ornithopod…of some sort, even if the megalosaur’s pose feels like a bit of a cheat (so it has really long feet now?). The theropod’s head is also somewhat tyrannosaur-like to my eye, heavily built and with a rather low number of very large teeth. It must be said, though, that scientists have only really worked out what the overall form of this animal’s head was (probably) like relatively recently, so any older take is going to very much be in the ‘generic theropod’ category. And, the use of so few brushstrokes to give an impression of the animals’ forms is quite impressive.

Megalosaurus hunting by Diana Magnuson

Megalosaurus is also shown in a highly dynamic, post-Dino Renaissance guise, sprinting after a sauropod (in stark contrast with the impression given by the text here). There’s something very familiar about this piece – I have a feeling that it might owe something to Greg Paul, although the inaccurate hands and feet of the sauropod suggest otherwise (do feel free to chip in in the comments). The sauropod also looks to be based on a diplodocid rather than the cetiosaurs that were Megalosaurus‘ actual contemporaries; in fact, its body from the shoulders back reminds me a lot of the Invicta Diplodocus. In truth, it’s probably intended to be a generic sauropod as much as the Megalosaurus is a generic large theropod.

Note the clouds of dust being kicked up by the animals – I’m sure John Sibbick would approve.

Megalosaurus stalking by Diana Magnuson

Although most of the art here is thoroughly late ’80s – early ’90s in flavour, there are occasional lapses into more retro-tastic looking dinosaurs, as in the above piece. This was, after all, a time when most illustrators (who didn’t specialise in palaeoart) would have been most familiar with images of theropods standing upright, dragging their tails, and often looking more than a little bit like a man in a costume. Other than the upright postures of the dinosaurs, this piece is also noteworthy for giving Megalosaurus (or at least, the individual over on the right) a four-fingered hand. Very Neave Parker.

Anatomy aside, this piece is intended to illustrate speculative pack- or mob-hunting behaviour, apparently based on fossil trackways (the details aren’t elaborated on, ‘cos this is a book aimed at little kids, and the text (by Laura Alden) is fairly minimal). Placing the viewer in the midst of the Megalosaurus pack does help immerse us in the scene, encouraging us to imagine what it would be like to be a theropod stalking its prey through the forest.

Megalosaurus herding by Diana Magnuson

For the next scene of herding megalosaurs, Magnuson reverts to a more 1990s, horizontally-inclined take on the animal. That individual in the background, shooting a casual glance at the viewer, is really bugging me – it’s very reminiscent of an illustration from the 1980s that I half-remember and now, frustratingly, can’t find anywhere. Damn it. Other than that, I don’t have much to say, although I will compliment the lovely reflections in the water. Very pretty.

Megalosaurus feeding young by Diana Magnuson

While I’m sure there are some out there somewhere, I can’t recall ever seeing any illustrations of Megalosaurus parenting apart from Magnuson’s. In fact – likely because it isn’t that well known – I’m struggling to think of any illustrations of Megalosaurus where it’s doing something besides hunting or, you know, walking or standing around looking handsome. So, this book is certainly noteworthy in presenting a more rounded picture of the life of the one theropod from England that everyone’s heard of that isn’t Baryonyx. In the above piece, an adult megalosaur offers a scrap of meat to two juveniles that resemble shrunken, chubbier, cuter versions of itself. The painterly style remains very lovely, even if those oddly human arms are starting to concern me again.

Megalosaurus protecting young by Diana Magnuson

And finally…not only does the megalosaur feed its offspring, it protects them from other predators! But what is that other predator? My guess would be that it’s intended to represent Altispinax, a reasonably large theropod known from some tall vertebrae and wishful thinking. Naturally, these tall vertebrae have occasionally been interpreted as forming a ‘sail’ on the living animal, albeit one much lower than that seen on Spinosaurus – hence the appearance of the creature in the above illustration. Altispinax was found in England – in Battle, in fact (a town named Battle, named after the Battle of Hastings, which took place thereabouts in 1066, which is the number everyone in England sets as their door security code) – but is now known to have lived millions of years after Megalosaurus went extinct.

Of course, all this is somewhat moot as the sail-backed Other Theropod in this illustration isn’t actually named. What we can be confident about is that the adult Megalosaurus has more theropod-like arms here than in other pieces, but the leftmost baby looks suspiciously like a quadruped. Never mind – I’m still digging that stylisation and technique, and especially the forested background, or rather, the impression of a forested background. Very nice.

There’ll be more of these to come! But before that, I must write about something very amusing that was sent to me by email…

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1 Comment

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    January 29, 2024 at 12:01 am

    All these illustrations seem to have a strangely mammal-like quality to me. Maybe it’s the lack of scales/osteoderms and smooth lines giving the impression of a fatty layer under the skin (anti-shrinkwrapping?).

    In particular, the Meg babies in that last double-page spread look very mustelid-like to me. I wonder if the artist was consciously or subconsciously influenced by mink or otters. And it’s interesting that the Crystal Palace reconstruction is described as “bear-like” – it isn’t very ursine to me, but it does kind of make me think of Andrewsarchus.

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