Contrary to the beliefs of some - who seem to think that I collect these books by holding a net out of the window and reciting an arcane incantation until obsolete illustrations start falling from the clouds - I do actually physically own the vast majority of the books I review in Vintage Dinosaur Art. As time goes on, finding fresh old books and not paying through the nose becomes increasingly difficult. Praise be, then, to the Amnesty International book shop in Brighton, which is where I happened to find this gem of a book on sale for a single quid. Stumbling across something like this, and being able to walk out of the shop with it in my clutches, is a real joy. And believe me, this book is a corker.
The unmitigated, gleeful pulpiness begins on the cover, where a tyrannosaur with a rather salamandery face is depicted effortlessly snagging a (rather small) Pteranodon from the sky. Or Pteranodon is shown to be a hopelessly careless flyer, depending on your point of view. It's the kind of dino-kitsch that I can't miss from a mile away. Can the rest of The Mysterious World of Dinosaurs (1980) be this wonderful? Of course it can.
The majority of the illustrations in this book are by W Francis Phillipps, who proudly signs each of his works...while notably failing to add 'after [insert name]' on each occasion when he is clearly, uh, borrowing from another artist. Typically it's Burian, although the above illustration, depicting Allosaurus attacking one of those cheapy hollow sauropods you decapitated as a kid (just me?), seems to be based far more on a classic work by Knight. (EDIT: Terry N Thielen, on Facebook, reminded me of a Rod Ruth painting that this is a dead ringer for. Of course, it's not like I reviewed Ruth's work before...oh, wait.) The painterly (take a shot!) style is certainly attractive, and Phillipps is excellent at evoking a forbidding, ominous mood in his pieces; the muted, swampy browns and greens are both sombre and primordial, not to mention very reminiscent of Burian. It's a shame, then, that he doesn't really know his dinosaurs much. At all. Case in point: the next time Allosaurus appears in this book, it is depicted sneaking up behind a happily browsing Stegosaurus. But wait...isn't that...? Hang on a minute!
Up from the depths! Thirty stories high! Go go iffy perspective!
Fortunately, Allosaurus looks a little more like a normal (non-mutant, non-rubbery) theropod in the next scene. Unfortunately, that theropod is a tyrannosaur.
There's an awful lot to love about this image, and I might just have to have it printed on a t-shirt. I mean, Stegosaurus is often depicted flailing its spiny bits around in the faces of assailing theropods - after all, what else is supposed to do? Sprout pointy teeth and attack with the other end, too? But of course! In this scene, it's hard to tell who's attacking whom - which has a lot to do with the look of relish on the face of the stegosaur, angry eyebrows and all. It's all Allosaurus' fault for taking that oddly spreadeagled approach, which looks like it would be about as effective for attacking opponents as a member of the Brazilian football team.
Rather more successful in the predatory stakes is (not so) Sexy Rexy himself, here depicted in a guise about as aesthetically pleasing as a Range Rover Evoque. Classic old school palaeoart tropes on show here are the generic head that pays little heed to the skull, including uniform teeth; the lumpen, wrinkly body; and the upright posture. It's also - yet again - depicted tackling Styracosaurus, an animal from millions of years prior. Still, the massiveness of the thighs is at least a step up from the weed-o-muscles depicted in earlier artworks, and that lighting is fantastic. Just look at the gorgeous sunset reflecting on Rexy's chops! You can almost feel it. Lovely.
As an aside, there are very few depictions of bones in this book. (Hey, bones are boring, right? Who needs 'em?) One exception is this painting of a T. rex skull that has gone, er, a little awry. Clearly, the artist had reference material available to them, as the basic shape is there - but they might have been better off just pulling off a tracing job. That mandible...yeesh.
But back to the life restorations. Rexy might be a little tubby, but he has nothing on Gorged-o-saurus (below), who resembles the lovechild of Godzilla and that weird turd monster he battled once. The overall shininess of this creature's latex-like hide and its rotund shape are both reminiscent of some of Burian's work, although Burian tended to avoid the mistake of giving his theropods 'wide gauge' hips. I should point out again, however, that that background really is quite something; imagine a Wayne Barlowe dinosaur in there, and you'd have an instant classic.
Gorgo's gormlessness is matched by Iguanodon, here depicted in classic upright guise, and with erroneous extra teeth. The overall look of the creature is, again, highly reminiscent of Burian, while the obligatory dewlap is a trope that probably originated in Neave Parker's work. Nice sky, mind.
Perhaps the most blatant Burian rip-offs of all occur in the book's sauropod section. Not only is there a snorkelling brachiosaur that's a straight-up (mirrored) copy, the below 'brontosaur' is also derivative of a Burian painting, with a few modifications. Still, I love the head. Is this proof that artists working on copycat palaeoart in the late '70s and early '80s had the foresight and anatomical intuition to realise that sauropods' fleshy nostrils likely resided near the ends of their snouts, in spite of the bony nasal openings being above the eyes? No.
And finally...Archaeopteryx. Because you've got to have Archaeopteryx. It's a fairly typical effort that includes the usual slight misunderstanding of how primary feathers attach to the hand. Aside from that, and the oft-utilised blue/green colouration, and the strangely curving mouth (moreso on the one I had to crop out), it's not too bad. I haven't mentioned the text of this book yet; perhaps I should have done, for not only is it dramatic and slightly florid in the tradition of vintage kiddies' dinosaur books, it also features such wonderful lines as this:
"It [Archaeopteryx] was about the size of a pigeon and although feathered, had reptilian scales on its legs..."
I suppose if you don't count feet as part of the legs...there's still not a great deal of evidence that Archaeopteryx had scaly legs. Not to mention the fact that the legs are feathered in the illustration. Birds: someday, nobody will have a problem with the idea that they're reptiles.
And that's all for now. But I haven't finished with this book yet; far from it. Next week, zombie pterosaurs, and Knightian plesiosaurs rise again!