The Crystal Palace Dinosaurs

In 1854, the Crystal Palace Park was opened by Queen Victoria to an estimated crowd of around 40,000 people. Situated in large grounds at Syndenham (South London), this featured Joseph Paxton’s beautiful Crystal Palace – a large structure made mostly of cast-iron and plate glass. This building had been moved from its original location at Hyde Park, where it had housed the Great Exhibition of 1851.

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Painting of the Crystal Palace dinosaurs with the Crystal Palace visible in the background. (‘V0013783′ from Wellcome Images is licensed under CC BY 4.0)

The Crystal Palace held a permanent exhibition of the arts and sciences, displaying a tremendous variety of material. For our purposes though, of great interest is a display that was placed in the grounds of the Crystal Palace. It was here that the world’s first life size reconstructions of dinosaurs (and a variety of other extinct animals) were created. In being separate from the main Crystal Palace, they survived the fire that destroyed the building in 1936 and are therefore still present to this day in their original location. They represent a valuable snapshot of the scientific views of these animals back in 1854, only 12 years after the term ‘Dinosauria’ was first created.

The Revivifying of the Ancient World

The creation of these reconstructions came in a time of rapid growth of knowledge about the Earth’s history and its former inhabitants. E.g. In the early 1800s the first descriptions of dinosaurs, along with numerous marine reptiles were made. (My previous post ‘The Road to Dinosauria’ goes over some of the early work on dinosaurs and marine reptiles from this time period). Growing scientific and public interest led to the idea of creating a display of life-sized models in the grounds of the Crystal Palace.

Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins (via Wikimedia Commons)

The responsibility of creating these models went to Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins (1807-1889) who was an artist and sculptor focused on natural history subjects – e.g. he created the drawings for the report on reptiles from the voyage of the Beagle (famous for Charles Darwin’s involvement).

To supervise the work, the anatomist Richard Owen (1804-1892) was appointed. Richard Owen had worked closely on the various animals that were to be reconstructed – perhaps most famously, he was the person to introduce the grouping ‘Dinosauria’ to contain the recently discovered Iguanodon, Megalosaurus and Hylaeosaurus.

L0018202 Engraving: portrait of R. Owen,
Portrait of Richard Owen (‘L0018202’ from Wellcome Images is licensed under CC BY 4.0)

The final reconstructions represent a close working partnership between these two men. As Hawkins himself said in a lecture to the Society of Arts, London (1854):

”being deeply impressed with its important and perfectly novel character, without precedent of any kind, I found it necessary earnestly and carefully to study the elaborate descriptions of Baron Cuvier, but more particularly the learned writings of our British Cuvier, Professor Owen…. by the careful study of their works, I qualified myself to make preliminary drawings, with careful measurements of the fossil bones in our Museum of the College of Surgeons, British Museum, and Geological Society; thus prepared I made my sketch-models to scale, either a 6th or 12th of the natural size… These sketch-models I submitted in all instances to the criticism of Professor Owen, who with his great knowledge and profound learning most liberally aided me in every difficulty… His sanction and approbation obtained, I caused the clay model to be built of the natural size by measurement from the sketch-model, and when it approximated to the form, I with my own hand in all instances secured the anatomical details and the characteristics of its nature.”

Great lengths were therefore taken to ensure that these models were scientifically accurate at the time – with both artist and supervisor having studied the fossils closely to inform their reconstruction.

Waterhouse Hawkins’ ‘Extinct Animals Model-Room, at the Crystal Palace, Sydenham’. From the Illustrated London News (1853). Note Hawkins working on the large Iguanodon model in the centre. (via Wikimedia Commons)

Designing the models was one hurdle, building them was quite another! In the same lecture, Hawkins described the hefty pile of material that went into one of the Iguanodon models. As he states, “In the instance of the Iguanodon, it is not less than building a house upon four columns, as the quantities of material of which the standing Iguanodon is composed, consist of 4 iron columns 9 feet long by 7 inches diameter, 600 bricks, 650 5-inch half-round drain-tiles, 900 plain tiles, 38 casks of cement, 90 casks of broken stone, making a total of 640 bushels of artificial stone. These, with 100 feet of iron hooping and 20 feet of cube inch bar, constitute the bones, sinews, and muscles of this large model, the largest of which there is any record of a casting being made.”

The finished models included reconstructions of Iguanodon, Megalosaurus, Hylaeosaurus, various marine reptiles (including multiple species of Plesiosaur and Ichthyosaur), Pterosaurs, as well as numerous others!

The detail that went into these reconstructions was remarkable. For example, the Labyrinthodon model was reconstructed alongside a set of artificial footprints, reflecting the fact that it was known at the time only from fragmentary remains and associated trackways.

Also, some representative plants from the time of the Iguanodon were reconstructed with their models. As Owen stated in the guidebook he wrote for the display – ‘The animal probably lived near estuaries and rivers, and may have derived its food from the Clathrarice, Zamice, Cycades, and other extinct trees, of which the fossil remains abound in the same formations as those yielding the bones and teeth of the Iguanodon’.

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The two Iguanodon models

These models are therefore remarkable not just in the fact that they were the first of their kind, but also for the attention to detail and scientific knowledge that went into their creation.

Nature’s Cemeteries

Apart from the models themselves, what is also of note is the context in which they were presented in the park. At the time, Geology was very much in the public eye, with growing interest in the methods by which geologists reconstructed the past.

Hawkins (again in the aforementioned lecture) rather poetically describes the work of Geology: ‘Nature’s pyramids are mountains of granite, slate, and limestone; her aqueducts majestic rivers, leaving gigantic boulders for land-marks; but more to our immediate purpose, the geologist, like the modern antiquarian, finds his richest stores of information, in nature’s cemeteries, where the bones of byegone generations lie embalmed with proof of how they lived and where they died.”

Some of the other models present at the park – the photos show them in the chronological order of their display. From the top left (Labyrinthodon), to top middle (Icthyosaurus and Plesiosaurus), to top right (Teleosaurus), to bottom left (Megalosaurus), to bottom middle (Anoplotherium) and bottom right (Megaloceros).

The models at the Crystal Palace were displayed to inform, not only about the creatures themselves, but also about the rocks from which their remains came. For one, the models were arrayed in chronological order stretching from the earliest (represented by the Labyrinthodon and others) up to the most recent animals (such as Anoplotherium and Megaloceros). Alongside them were placed (in many cases) examples of the rocks that these fossils came from. For example, the Megalosaurus is sited on oolitic limestone, a rock type from that time period.

The park also originally featured reconstructions of various geological features (credited to James Campbell, a mining engineer, in the various guidebooks of the time). For example there was a Coal Measures section that was supposed to imitate the Coal Measures from the neighbourhood of Clay Cross, near Ashover, in Derbyshire. The constructed section showed layers of different rock types interspersed with faults.

Artificial layers of rock interspersed with faults, displayed near the models. (‘Artificial Geological Strata At Crystal Palace Park – London.‘ by Jim Linwood is licensed under CC BY 2.0)

Many of these geological features have since been destroyed or have become overgrown. Yet, at the time, they served to give the geological context from which these animals had arisen.

A Socially Loaded Stomach

With the models and the park under construction, attention turned to the importance of publicity. After all, the Crystal Palace Company were looking to turn a profit from this venture!

In a now famous event, Hawkins held a dinner party on New Year’s Eve of 1853 to celebrate and stimulate interest in his reconstructions. In the ‘socially-loaded stomach’ of the Iguanodon (as the Illustrated London News phrased their article), a dinner party was held with Hawkins, Richard Owen and numerous guests.

‘Dinner in the Iguanodon Model, at the Crystal Palace, Sydenham.’ From the Illustrated London News (1854) (via Wikimedia Commons)

This certainly caught the eye of the public! My favourite summary has to be that from Punch:

‘The world of scientific gastronomy will learn with interest that Professors Owen and Forbes, with a party of gentlemen, numbering altogether 21, had an exceedingly good dinner, the other day, in the interior of the Iguanodon modelled at the Crystal Palace at Sydenham. We congratulate the company on the era in which they live; for if it had been an earlier geological period, they might perhaps have occupied the Iguanodon’s inside without having any dinner there”

A Grand Opening

And so we return to the grand opening of the Crystal Palace in 1854, where the models were finally placed on display to the general public. Published alongside this opening was a small guidebook written by Richard Owen titled Geology and Inhabitants of the Ancient World. This contained sections on a variety of the rock layers represented in the park, detailing the fossil discoveries made from them and how these were used to inform the reconstructions.

The Crystal Palace was massively popular in this time, estimated to have received around 2 million visitors each year. This large number of visitors spread the geological and palaeontological ideas represented in this display to a much wider audience.

A view of part of the display today – from right to left are reconstructions of Ichthyosaurus, followed by Plesiosaurus, Teleosaurus, and then Megalosaurus at the far left.

As I have already described, this display was carefully informed by what was known about palaeontology and geology at the time. Also of note though, is the way that the models were arranged to give a real sense of the life of these animals. Reconstructed, as they were, on islands in a large lake, surrounded by trees, the effect was of animals in a natural environment. In the original display, the action of the park fountains also gave the lake the impression of a tide so that models at the water’s edge would become partially submerged and then emerge over the course of a day. All this combined to give a great sense to the public of what these animals may have been like in life all those years ago.

Small scale models, as well as prints of illustrations by Hawkins, were also sold, increasing the reach of the display to an ever widening public.

To the Present Day

As time moved on, money became an increasing issue. In 1855, Hawkins was eventually forced to leave his post, meaning that many planned models of animals such as Mammoths and Glyptodons were never constructed.

Still, even after all the intervening years, most of the models still survive in their original location in South London. Sure, when viewed with our modern scientific knowledge, most of the models are highly inaccurate. Take for example Iguanodon, who was reconstructed with a prominent horn on its snout, which has since been found to be a large thumb spike on the animal’s hand! Also, Megalosaurus is now known to have been bipedal, rather than having the stocky four-legged stance of its Crystal Palace model.

Still, as I have noted, these models are a snapshot of the scientific views of the time. Clearly, they were heavily influenced by Owen’s interpretations, but they were still built upon careful study (by the artist and by Owen) of the actual fossils, and were presented in the context of their geological setting. As Hawkins phrases it, ‘The whole of the great scheme now working to completion, known as the Crystal Palace, might be properly described as one vast and combined experiment of visual education”. And in this respect the models are of great importance, for their attention to detail and their vivid portrayal of the lives of extinct creatures to the public.

They were the first of their kind, and reflected a real growth in awareness of these animals and their ancient environments. The influence of this display on later reconstructions is clear, with the models familiar form popping up in various illustrations in later years.

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An afternoon with the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs

To end, I just want to note that this display has gone through many sequences of renovation, and has suffered from vandalism over the years. Yet, these now Grade 1 listed monuments, survive under the care of many volunteers. One of the major groups are the Friends of the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs  who do stellar work in maintaining this wonderful slice of history.

If you’re near London, they are certainly worth visiting in person – walking around the display is a small window into an early moment in palaeontology’s history, and I don’t think there’s any better way to spend an afternoon…

References / suggestions for further reading

The Crystal Palace Dinosaurs: The Story of the World’s First Prehistoric Sculptures by Steve McCarthy and Mick Gilbert – excellent guidebook covering all aspects of the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs

Scenes From Deep Time by Martin J. S. Rudwick – great book charting the progress of ‘pictoral representations of the prehistoric world’, devotes most of a chapter to the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs

Geology and Inhabitants of the Ancient World by Richard Owen (1854) – the original guide written by Richard Owen for the display

Guide to the Crystal Palace and Park by Samuel Phillips (1854) – one of the original guides to the Crystal Palace at Sydenham

Doyle, Peter and Robinson, E. 1993. The Victorian ‘Geological Illustrations’ of Crystal Palace Park. Proceedings of the Geologists’ Association 104: 181-194 – great paper on the geological parts of the display

The Dinosaur Hunters by Deborah Cadbury – a popular science book focusing on Mary Anning, Buckland, Mantell and Owen

Friends of the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs – – many resources about the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs

Tetrapod Zoology – – blog post by Darren Naish on the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs (the rest of his blog is well worth a look!)

Palaeocast – – interview with Joe Cain, Professor of History and Philosophy of Biology at University College London about the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs

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