Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Vintage Dinosaur Art: Discovering Dinosaurs

Don't you love it when an otherwise quite run-of-the-mill old dinosaur book hides one or two remarkable secrets? The vast majority of Discovering Dinosaurs is as predictable as anything; it's 1960, so here are some green-and-brown Charles Knight rejects, statically positioned about the place and staring vacantly into the middle distance like they've just been forced to listen to someone explain how carbon dioxide couldn't possibly be a greenhouse gas because 'it's plant food'. However, there's more to Gustav Schrotter's illustrations than is first apparent...as we shall see.

Many thanks yet again to Charles Leon for sending me the scans you see here (and more besides). You're quite the wonderful bloke.


I'm sure most of this blog's readership will be able to identify the T. rex and Triceratops on the cover as straightforward Charles Knight copies. Strangely, the Triceratops appears to be based on one from a famous Knight painting in which it confronts a Tyrannosaurus...a much more anatomically correct Tyrannosaurus than this one, which appears to be based on one of Knight's first ever paintings of the animal. Why not just borrow elements of the T. rex from the same painting, especially the vastly superior head? It's all most peculiar, so it is.


To further add to the strangeness, Rexy's anatomy changes from page to page; here, it seems to sport two extra digits on each hand, as opposed to just one. Once again, it's a dead ringer for Knight's earlier version, complete with misplaced eye and ear; the croc-like scales are, I believe, Schrotter's personal touch and become something of a motif as the book goes on. The grumpy-looking brontosaurs aren't too remarkable, although it's worth noting how smooth-skinned they are when compared with the other dinosaurs depicted. No doubt it's because of their 'aquatic habits', but it was also a remarkably persistent trope.


Rexy pops up again inside,  this time sporting a more accurate-looking head and better-defined limbs while keeping the croc scales. The finger count is back down to three per hand. Note also the reversed hallux, which at least remains persistent.


Author Glenn Blough is fond of comparing dinosaurs with modern-day objects, encouraging kids to go out and do the same thing themselves, which is rather a nice idea. It also leads to this slightly offbeat illustration of a fat-tailed Rexy peering into a first floor window with a strangely warm, contented smile plastered on his ugly mug. While it's very common for old dinosaur books to describe Rexy as being tall enough to do this, the scenario is rarely illustrated, which makes this something of a treat. Of course, I have no doubt that Spielberg was thinking of this trope when it came to a certain scene in The Lost World: Malcolm Returns. Now if only this Rexy had a dog kennel dangling suspiciously from its mouth...


As strongly suggested by the cover, all the usual suspects show up to keep Rexy company. Here's an extremely Burianesque brontosaur hanging around on a shoreline with some horsetails, because horsetails were everywhere throughout the whole Mesozoic, like weeds or branches of Costa Coffee. This Bronto is somewhat more veiny and swollen-looking than those featured earlier, almost as if it's suffering from some rather unpleasant disease.


Everyone's favourite pea-brained plate rack also puts in an appearance, sporting a disconcertingly bony and cross-looking head, a bit like Peter Cushing (or Peter Cushing's CGI animatronic waxwork abomination of modern special effects, if you've just seen Rogue One). Given the spiky one's obvious prominence on this spread, it's all too easy to miss the more sprightly fellow in the background who is apparently posing for a figure painter just out of view.


Stegosaurus' erstwhile nemesis Allosaurus is also featured, although sadly they are not shown having a spirited disagreement with one another. I've often noted that classical depictions of Allosaurus omit those inconvenient horns and ridges on its skull, with the artist instead opting for a smoother look more akin to a monitor lizard. Well, not here! The horn configuration might be rather incorrect, but hey - at least there are horns at all. This allosaur is also missing the first toe on each foot, but that's just because they've been grafted onto the hands.


In addition to the generally formulaic life restorations, there are also a number of drawings of skeletons and wouldn't you know it, they're actually pretty good; the majority appear to have been drawn from life, or at least decent photographs. These include an illustration of the famous AMNH Allosaurus mount (above), which makes for an amusing juxtoposition with the fleshed-out version.


A number of fossil non-dinosaurs also feature, including what appears to be a teleosaur crocodyliform that might just be Steneosaurus. This illustration is remarkably good, and immediately cast my thoughts back to Telyers Museum in Haarlem. It's a gem among a cavalcade of lacklustre illustrations of dinosaurs.

I had to break open the ouzo after seeing this one.
 And finally...an illustration of a dinosaur that's so much more than just lacklustre. Admittedly, this has to be one of the earliest illustrations of Oviraptor that I've ever seen, but it's also one so spectacularly wrong in every aspect that it beggars belief. It's an illustration that grows all the more disturbing the longer one looks at it. At first, the temptation is just to think that the illustrator has copied a lizard; a sprawling, long-tailed animal sneakily devouring eggs at a nest. Alas, dear reader, for your fragile mind is simply defending you from the truth; closer inspection reveals the disturbing extent to which Schrotter has carefully detailed the humanoid musculature of this angry-eyed abomination. As Anna Taylor pointed out to me on Facebook, this creature has quite deliberately been given the arms and torso of a man. It reminds me of something from a Guillermo del Toro movie. It makes all the tiny-handed creeps from '80s and '90s dinosaur books look positively benign. This, dearest readers, is where palaeoart ends and your insidious childhood nightmares recommence.

And with that, may I wish you a merry Christmas, happy holidays and a wonderful new year! Don't get too drunk (advice to give, not to live by). Here's hoping for another wonderful year of dinosaur discoveries in 2017.

14 comments:

  1. Knowing what we know about Oviraptorosaurs now, I'd have to say that last nightmare is quite probably as maximally distant from the true life appearance of Oviraptor as it is possible to get while still rendering a tetrapod, oh except maybe the snake-necked, duck-billed crocodile thing that faced off against Brontornis, in an old illustration once featured on TetZoo.

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    1. Welp, now I'm curious. Happen to have a link to that Brontornis/Crocodile illustration?

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  2. If only Oviraptor had been discovered alongside Iguanodon and Megalosaurus, we would have so many more illustrations of this kind. What a beautiful, beautiful hellspawn.

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  3. This unlovely Oviraptor is indefensible, though one could kindly say that Oviraptor was so little known at the time. There probably weren't many illustrations of articulated skeletons or previous restorations for an artist to copy. Zallinger painted it as a clone of Ornithomimus. At least Shrotter attempts to give his beast a beak and a crest. The Brontosaurus in the frontispiece is damn familiar, as is the Allosaurus. Thank you Marc! Didn't think we'd get another vintage art post before Christmas but here it is. A lovely Xmas treat.

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    1. Oh yes, it's understandable that Schrotter would bodge many details of an animal that was so poorly known at the time; it's hardly likely that he could have got hold of much reference material. But on the other hand, he could've just given it a generic theropod body, rather than making it an uncanny lizard-man.

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    2. I imagine it speaking in a voice like Peter Lorre.

      Wait... did Gustav Schrotter come up with a dinosauroid 22 years before Dale Russell?

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  4. The upper torso looks like more-or-less all of a man's torso, with plenty of (what we'll loosely call) lumbar region that looks less humanoid. It's sort of centaur-like in having way too much torso.

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  5. That "Burianesque" Brontosaurus actually reminds me a little more of this piece by Knight of a brontosaur entering the water:
    https://chuckmanchicagonostalgia.files.wordpress.com/2010/08/postcard-chicago-field-museum-note-still-called-chicago-natural-history-museum-one-of-famous-charles-r-knight-murals-brontosaurus.jpg

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    1. You're probably right - I was thinking of this Bronto, which in my defence is in a very similar pose: https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/736x/5b/8c/c3/5b8cc3c4dd073a328a1bfbd7c95d79db.jpg

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  6. After the beast has tormented my nightmares for a few nights, I think I have an idea what the artist was thinking: Maybe the beak and obviously bipedal build of this creature gave the impression of a transitional form between ornithopods and ceratopsians, srengthened by the presence of a "primitive" ceratopsian in the area. I think that about checks out with the way the creature is drawn, it would especially explain where hat weird head comes from (see, that horn a primitive form of a crest!).
    Was that idea ever a thing?

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    1. I'm referring to the Oviraptor, of course

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  7. Well, there was Psittacosaurus, often regarded as just that -transitional between ornithopods and ceratopsians. Perhaps that was what he was thinking of? If so, there were plenty of reliable artistic models to go on. I think this beast was just drawn after the office Christmas party.

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  8. Oh, man. If explaining my existing tattoos weren't already a chore, I'd add that oviraptor to the mix.

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  9. http://scienceblogs.com/tetrapodzoology/wp-content/blogs.dir/471/files/2012/04/i-d090ddc52f7afab3fe1b5c0a54b13524-Brontornis_card_6-1-2009.jpg

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