Following the closure of the Great Exhibition in October 1851, Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace was bought and moved to Penge Place atop Sydenham Hill, South London by the newly formed Crystal Palace Company.
The grounds that surrounded it were then extensively renovated and turned into a public park with ornamental gardens, replicas of statues and two new man-made lakes. As part of this renovation, in 1852, Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins was commissioned to build the first-ever life-sized models of extinct animals.
Hawkins set up a workshop on site at the park and built the models there.
He originally planned to just re-create extinct mammals before deciding to also model dinosaurs. Whilst they may, to varying degrees, be inaccurate by modern standards, the models were designed and sculpted under the scientific direction of Sir Richard Owen, a celebrated biologist and palaeontologist, and represented the latest scientific knowledge at the time.
Unveiled in 1854, they were the first dinosaur sculptures in the world, pre-dating the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by six years.
The models were displayed on three islands acting as a rough timeline, the first island for the Paleozoic era, a second for the Mesozoic, and a third for the Cenozoic. The models were given more realism by making the water level in the lake rise and fall, revealing different amounts of the dinosaurs. To mark the launch of the models, Hawkins held a dinner on New Year’s Eve 1853 inside the mould of one of the Iguanodon models.
Hawkins benefited greatly from the public’s reaction to the dinosaurs, which was so strong it allowed for the sale of sets of small versions of the dinosaur models, priced at £30 for educational use. But the building of the models was costly (having cost around £13,729) and in 1855, the Crystal Palace Company cut Hawkins’s funding. Several planned models were never made, while those half finished were scrapped, despite protest from sources including the Sunday newspaper, The Observer.
The models represent fifteen genera of extinct animals, not all dinosaurs. They are from a wide range of geological ages, and include true dinosaurs, ichthyosaurs, and plesiosaurs mainly from the Mesozoic era, and some mammals from the more recent Cenozoic era.
Over time, the models and the park fell into disrepair, a process accelerated by the fire that destroyed the Crystal Palace itself in 1936.
Gradually the models became obscured by overgrown foliage.
A full restoration of the animals was carried out in 1952 by Victor H.C. Martin, at which time the mammals on the third island were moved to less well-protected locations in the park, where they were exposed to wear and tear. The limestone cliff was blown up in the 1960s.
In 2002, the display was totally renovated. The destroyed limestone cliff was completely replaced using 130 large blocks of Derbyshire limestone, many weighing over 1 tonne. It was rebuilt according to a small model made from the same number of polystyrene blocks. Fibreglass replacements were created for the missing sculptures, and badly damaged parts of the surviving models were recast. For example, some of the animals’ legs had been modelled in lead, fixed to the bodies with iron rods; the iron had rusted, splitting the lead open.
The models and other elements of Crystal Palace Park were classed as Grade II listed buildings from 1973. The models were extensively restored in 2002, and upgraded to Grade I listed in 2007.
We visited last week: