Thursday, 14 January 2016
Sometime in 1852, sculptor and natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins was commissioned to create 33 "life-size" models of extinct animals (including, most famously, dinosaurs) out of concrete, to be displayed to the public. The fact that the very idea of dinosaurs was relatively new (the name "Dinosauria was only given to these creatures by Sir Richard Owen in 1842) and not altogether well-understood (Darwin's "On the Origin of Species" was not published until 1859) does not appear to have dissuaded Hawkins unduly. Over the following three years, accordingly, and in collaboration with Owen and other paleontologists, Hawkins set about creating the arrestingly odd collection of figures that are still on display in the grounds of Crystal Palace in South London today.
I had heard about these unlikely beasts years before, but only recently had determined to actually make the effort required to visit them and was still unsure what to expect. The Crystal Palace site is, itself, a remarkable remnant of times past. Although it was the second location of the enormous glass exhibition hall, first erected in Hyde Park for the Great Exhibition of 1851, just about all that remains of it is the footprint of the giant building. Below this are the surviving steps leading down to wide terraces, whose glory days of supreme manicuring are, presumably, long gone.
The building itself burned to the ground in 1936, having been moved from Hyde Park (and greatly expanded in the process) in 1854. Wandering about the ruins today, and seeing tantalising hints of what might have been, tucked away behind wire fences and beneath the undergrowth, here and there, it is hard to escape the feeling that the world that the Victorians experienced, for all that it had undoubted and extreme deprivations for many, was also almost unbelievably breathtaking; an age of supreme ambition. Even before its move and inflation, the original Crystal Palace in Hyde Park was 1,851 feet (564 m) long, 128 feet (39 m) tall and with 990,000 square feet (92,000 m2) of floor space, and in its new location its scale only increased.
Today, several levels below where the Crystal Palace once stood, despite years of ridicule for their appearance, once dinosaurs became better understood (and their 1850s appearance having been dismissed as inaccurate), having been ignored, overgrown, rediscovered and restored (more than once), the dinosaurs still reside beside their pools of water. They were most recently restored in 2002 and are now Grade I listed buildings (pleasingly, the same classification as Buckingham Palace and the Palace of Westminster). They are, without question, an odd day out. In fact, and with all due respect to them, they probably do not merit a complete day in themselves (if you're interested, it's also worth checking out the Park Farm, nearby, as well as the ruins of Crystal Palace) but they are certainly worth a visit.
They are broadly laid out in different geological eras, and include figures of prehistoric mammals, but it is the dinosaurs, including the iguanodons, pictured above, that are the real draw. Don't go expecting a real life Jurassic Park experience; these beasts are static and don't really accord with our current understanding of what dinosaurs looked like. Thinking abut it, however, we really shouldn't be too smug about what we consider to be "knowledge"; in my lifetime alone, for example, dinosaurs have gone from being widely believed to be big green scaly monsters, to brightly coloured feathered creatures,. Any assumption that our current era really "knows" anything should, within certain parameters, be treated with great suspicion.