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Crystal Palace Dinosaurs | © Gabrielle Brace Stevenson
Crystal Palace Dinosaurs | © Gabrielle Brace Stevenson
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The Crystal Palace Dinosaurs: Very Victorian Prehistory

Picture of Gabrielle Brace Stevenson
Updated: 26 October 2016
A Victorian Jurassic Park prototype in a South London suburb. Culture Trip takes a look at the layers of history visible at the Crystal Palace Park where an enclosure of giant concrete reptiles can tell us as much about the Victorians as they do about the dinosaurs.
Part of what remains at Crystal Palace
Part of what remains at Crystal Palace | Courtesy of Gabrielle Brace Stevenson

Ruins and Relics

Walking around Crystal Palace Park can be a vaguely melancholic experience. The foundations of its once astonishing namesake are crumbling, vandalised and in some places are being reclaimed by nature. The great Victorian glasshouse was destroyed by fire in 1936, leaving only foundations and decaying statues. Knowing what used to be there, your mind’s eye rebuilds the palace on top of its old bones – a mental trip backwards in time. From statues of Sphinxes to Iguanodons, it is a place littered with the relics of copies of relics, where sedimented layers of history are visible side-by-side. Here, you can play archaeologist of Victorian history in a place which was itself an attempt to explore the much more distant past: the now historic Dinosaur Park.

The Crystal Palace after its move to Sydenham Hill in 1854
The Crystal Palace after its move to Sydenham Hill in 1854 | ©Paul Furst/WikiCommons

A Grand Project

The 19th century was a boom time for natural history with new discoveries, new ideas, and new museums. Historians and artists alike were busy filling in the blanks and fleshing out the skeletons. The ancient and natural world had captured people’s imaginations, and Queen Victoria and Albert, no less, were eager to see archaeology turn into illustration.

The dinosaur sculptures were commissioned when the Crystal Palace was moved from Hyde Park, where it was a defining feature of The Great Exhibition, to its final home. With palaeontologist Richard Owen’s scientific guidance, natural history artist and sculptor Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins took on the unprecedented challenge of creating life-size monsters from a time before man. They were revealed to the public in 1854, making them the earliest sculptures of dinosaurs as active creatures, to scale, anywhere in the world. On New Year’s Eve 1853, a banquet for a handful of academics was held inside the belly of an Iguanodon mould to celebrate the momentous project. Today, the concrete sculptures are Grade 1 listed and are subject to ongoing conservation.

Woodcut of the banquet in Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins’ standing Crystal Palace Iguanodon
Woodcut of the banquet in Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins’ standing Crystal Palace Iguanodon | ©Unknown/WikiCommons

Conserving Historic Monuments

The dinosaur sculptures are varied in type and pose, making them remarkably life-like from a distance. Some dominate the vista, visible from several yards away, while others are more surreptitious – odd brown and grey shapes glimpsed through trees and undergrowth. Much of this is due to scale, but some of it is also owed to the fact that the largest dinosaur in the park, an Iguanodon, is a curious shade of pale green, not the mottled concrete of the majority. If you look carefully at the duller statues, fragments of green paint can still be seen still clinging to the cement in places. It seems that originally the dinosaurs must all have been painted, making them a more colourful cluster of strange beasts. The sculptures are all in various states of conservation; most have been left to patina and blend with their surroundings. On some sculptures, the ongoing need for conservation is clear: a few are cracked, and one was even headless. Many play host to various forms of lichen and algae, their prehistoric friends. This returning to nature fits well with Crystal Palace Park’s ruined charm, though it is not so welcome if these beasts are to be conserved for future generations to enjoy. It is this creeping decay that conservators must fight against.

Crystal Palace Dinosaurs
Crystal Palace Dinosaurs | Courtesy of Gabrielle Brace Stevenson

Frozen In Time

The dinosaurs are fenced in to keep the public away from them, limiting wear-and-tear and vandalism. Though mighty and cumbersome, the dinosaurs seem to be frozen in motion in their little enclosure. Visually, it gives the impression of a static zoo. It’s an easy mental flip to see the dinosaurs as being fenced in rather than humans being fenced out. Although, if these creatures did spring to life, this comically flimsy barrier would do absolutely nothing to keep them contained. The small, green fence does, however, emphasise the idea that this is a collection: a selection of specimens. It speaks of the Victorian ideal to collect, classify and know everything, even the extinct. The irony is that science is always evolving, and while these concrete creatures have remained still for 160 years, palaeontology has moved on. Once cutting edge, these sculptures now remind us of extinct ideas. The misplacement of a thumbnail on the Iguanodon’s nose is a classic example. Scientific ideas are constantly mutating; just recently we learned that many dinosaurs may have, in fact, had feathers rather than scales, completely upturning the well-established image of the giant green lizard. Richard Owens, who assisted with the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs project, in fact, christened these animals as Dinosaurs, from Dinosauria, which literally means “terrible reptile.”

Crystal Palace Dinosaurs
Crystal Palace Dinosaurs | Courtesy of Gabrielle Brace Stevenson

For Generations Of The General Public

Despite the fact these representations become more and more inaccurate as science builds on and moves on from Victorian advances, this sculpture park is historically fascinating in its own right. It provides the public with a spectacle that is educational as well as awe-inspiring. The knowledge and the excitement of the discovery, usually reserved for the very wealthy and well educated, was gifted to the general public. The public nature of this project represents another very Victorian characteristic: the boom in leisure time and the free, public parks still enjoyed today. Unfortunately, public parks are now under a lot of strain due to budget cuts, another way in which times have changed since the Dinosaur Park was commissioned.

Crystal Palace Dinosaurs
Crystal Palace Dinosaurs | Courtesy of Gabrielle Brace Stevenson

It seems timely, with current advances in palaeontology and cutbacks in public parks, to look again at one of the first examples of edutainment. This project embraced some of the most recent and exciting scientific discoveries and aimed to collect, categorise and exhibit them in a quintessentially Victorian way. They also represent an egalitarian approach to knowledge and leisure space, which the working population could visit and enjoy in their recently increased time off. Perhaps most importantly, this park placed dinosaurs in popular culture: a position they still dominate today.

It is, after all, the original Dinosaur Amusement Park, making it the Victorian ancestor of Jurassic Park. It is easy to overlook how innovative this project was at the time; but, this is where many of the ideas about dinosaurs, which are now so well established in culture, came together for the first time on a monstrous scale.

Crystal Palace Dinosaurs
Crystal Palace Dinosaurs | Courtesy of Gabrielle Brace Stevenson

Lower Lake, Crystal Palace Park, Thicket Rd, London, UK, +44 300 303 8658