Crystal Palace Dinosaurs
The Dinosaurs and Geological Illustrations in Crystal Palace Park were commissioned in 1852 to be the world’s first large-scale public outreach on science. They include the first ever life-sized reconstruction of extinct animals set in palaeo landscapes, arrayed across the park in a way that explains the depths of geologic time. Geologic outcrops were constructed to show how the past is captured in layers of rock, and also to illustrate the sources of Britain’s mineral wealth in the strata of iron, coal and building stone.
The sculptures and landscapes were designed by the renowned natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins (1807-1894). They were built in situ with scientific guidance from Sir Richard Owen, the famous anatomist who founded the Natural History Museum thirty years later. They predated Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species by five years.
The Dinosaurs were revealed in 1854 as part of the re-opening of Joseph Paxton’s gigantic Crystal Palace. This beautiful glass and iron pre-fabricated building celebrated everything which was new and forward-thinking in the mid-Victorian age. It was rebuilt and filled with marvels in the newly-established Crystal Palace Park on the former grounds of Penge Place after having been moved from Hyde Park where it had been installed in 1851 for the first World’s Fair or Great Exhibition. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert patronized the site and visited it many times: the Crystal Palace was admired all over the world.
There are currently thirty statues of dinosaurs, marine reptiles, early amphibians, pterosaurs, and extinct mammals from prehistoric eras of the Palaeozoic, the Mesozoic and the Cenozoic. They were originally surrounded by appropriate plants to indicate that not only animals but also ecosystems changed through time. They are situated on three lakes, one of which originally held a man-made tidal current run by the extensive hydraulic system underlying Crystal Palace Park. An additional twelve models were planned, including a mammoth and a moa, but funding ran out before they could be built.
Only four of the sculptures represent true dinosaurs – Megalosaur, two Iguandodons, and Hylaeosaur. – but these are historically very important as they are among the first known dinosaurs, pre-dating discovery of the more famous North American T. Rex, Tricerotops, or Stegosaur, by many decades. This was the first time three-dimensional models had been made of extinct animals and they were crafted to be very convincingly alive, with the best information available at the time. Waterhouse Hawkins used his artistic skills and information from scientists who studied the fossils in detail. However, because there was not much data to go on, the animals look quite different from how we would construct them today. Waterhouse Hawkins even captured debates about how the animals should look when he posed the iguanodons in two alterative contradictory stances. These seeming inaccuracies tell us how science works: it is an ever-improving representation of the natural world as new data accumulates and interpretations improve.
Conservation of the sculptures has always been a challenge, as they are outdoors and subject to harsh conditions. The models are made from mixed materials, including early concrete or mortar. Over the years the models have fallen into disrepair a number of times. A major round of conservation work was completed in 2002, but as no maintenance was done, they are again in urgent need of further work. Nine sculptures have been recently repaired, with twenty-one more to be worked on.
Crystal Palace Park was created from the grounds of the old Penge Place mansion which was situated on Penge Common. The only remains we have of Penge Common today are the local Penge parks, of which Crystal Palace is one. The dinosaurs are situated on the SE20 side of the park but of course are loved, valued and admired by all. The park itself is situated within several neighbourhoods: Sydenham, Penge, Anerley and Upper Norwood, giving an informal name to the area of Crystal Palace. The park is owned by the London Borough of Bromley.
‘Dinomania’ was born when the Crystal Palace dinosaurs were revealed as the first Jurassic Park and has continued unabated through to today. Because of its historical importance, the site is classed Grade l and listed on the National Heritage list for England. They are free to visit, as is the whole park.
The Friends of Crystal Palace Dinosaurs is a charity committed to ensuring conservation of the sculptures and in sharing knowledge about them. See their webpage here Crystal Palace Dinosaurs
They present a fun, historically accurate four minute introduction to the Dinosaurs in a short film The Lost Valley of London. Seven minutes of animated information and fun on conservation, The Seven Deadly Agents of Destruction.
http://cpdinosaurs.org/library/1582 and a more mesmeric, poetic view of the sculptures and recent conservation work in Back to Life. http://cpdinosaurs.org/library/2287
Another fun and instructive video on the dinosaurs can be found on this You Tube link: instructive video