History of Crystal Palace Dinosaurs

Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins was the sculptor responsible for the statues that today are remembered as the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs. He was a natural history artist of international reputation. His sculptures were set in a landscape designed by Joseph Paxton that also included hillside illustrations of economic geology created by Professor David Ansted. This section of the park was constructed 1853-1855 and has remained largely as it appeared to visitors when the park opened. The statues are the first ever attempt to interpret paleontological discoveries as full-scale, full-bodied, living animals.

Crystal Palace Park opened in June 1854. When the park opened, only some of the sculptures were complete. The Tertiary Island was least complete. During 1854-1855, Waterhouse continued towards his whole plan, but in 1855 the directors of Crystal Palace Company ordered him to stop. He had just begun a life-sized mammoth. However, the directors decided his work had already created the effect first intended. “More” was not always “better”.

Waterhouse Hawkins often is presented as merely the craftsman who did as he was told, guided by expert palaeontologist, Richard Owen. But this does him an injustice. Waterhouse Hawkins did the intellectual, as well as the physical, work. He examined fossils firsthand. He followed the fast-moving literature. He discussed his ideas with several experts, including Owen. He also have to make quite a thousand-and-one interpretive decisions. What was the texture of their skin? How did they stand? What expression was on their face? How long were their toenails? His working practice was to make scale models, then discuss these with Owen and others. His consultants didn’t always agree. Or, they hedged their bets by sticking to the facts. But a sculptor, pressed the a specific delivery date, has to decide what to do. Waterhouse Hawkins did that.

Richard Owen normally gets credit for Crystal Palace Dinosaurs largely because he authored the guide to this part of Crystal Palace Park (Richard Owen (1854) Geology and Inhabitants of the Ancient World. 2013 facsimile edition).  This book isn’t much, and recent research suggests Owen have very little to do even with this book’s construction. In its specifics, this guide covers the material Owen emphasised elsewhere in his professional life. It omits mention of the mammals and the geological displays. It mentions animals not represented by the statues, and the  map looks nothing like the site as a visitor would have found it. In short, it’s one odd piece of work.

The big picture

This June 2013 lecture by Professor Joe Cain on Crystal Palace Dinosaurs discusses how the dinosaurs fit into the larger setting of the park and the history of science. It also interprets the statues as a visitor would have done in 1the 1850s. This is part of UCL’s “Lunch Hour Lectures on tour,” series at The Museum of London. The original title was “Dinosaurs in Crystal Palace Park”.