This is the book that brought me into the subject of extinction and specifically, as the title suggests, prehistoric creatures.
Published in 1960 at a time when colour printing was in the doldrums, this is the book that broke new ground. And it needed to because it contains reproductions of a wonderful series of paintings by the Czech artist Zdenek Burian, all shown in a large-scale format.
An argument could be made that Burian’s pictures are the most iconic and influential of all images of prehistoric animals, perhaps the only rivals being those created by the American artist Charles R. Knight. This is not to say that many more recent painters (both Burian and Knight were working in the early and middle years of the twentieth century) have failed in their efforts. They certainly have not, but it seems true to say that the painterly quality of Burian and the evocative nature of his pictures have a magic all of their own.
There are those who might say that our knowledge of dinosaurs and the prehistoric world has increased enormously since his time and that therefore some of his images are not entirely in line with current thinking. This may be true but it is beside the point. The celebrated thinker and writer Charles Fort once wrote:
I conceive of nothing, in religion, science, or philosophy that is more than the proper thing to wear – for a while!
Anyone who is interested in the subject should look at this monument in publishing history, in production standards well in advance of most books of its time. Burian’s pictures have been published in many formats over the years, but this was the first in the English language. His images are accompanied by an illuminating – if a little staid – text written by Josef Augusta, an eastern European professor who specialized in prehistoric life. But it is the pictures that make this book unforgettable.