In a series for the first day of each month, Hyperallergic is exploring some firsts in art, from the earliest known depictions of things to pioneers in the visual fields.
As New Year’s Eve approached in 1853, some fashionable Londoners received a most curious party invitation. Artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins requested their presence at an evening dinner, hosted in the belly of an Iguanodon. The long extinct dinosaur had been resurrected in concrete for the Crystal Palace’s new exhibition location in south London, one of over 30 extinct creatures that Hawkins would sculpt for the site.
The statues are collectively known as the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs, although they comprise many non-dinosaurs such as a ground sloth, Irish Elk, and marine reptiles in the mix. They’re recognized as the first sculptural recreations of dinosaurs. Albeit a bit deteriorated, and no longer arranged chronologically, the groundbreaking artworks remain in London’s Crystal Palace Park. Clustered on islands in the small, green space’s peaceful ponds, they still appear impressive, towering with scaly details or lurking in the water. Plesiosaurs with curled necks and crocodile-like teleosaurs were meant to impress visitors with the wonders of scientific research, by immersing them in a lost world.
They don’t quite look like the dinosaurs of our contemporary imagination, and there has long been criticism about their accuracy, even during Hawkins’s lifetime. Brian Selznick and David Serlin noted in the winter 2007/08 issue of Cabinet magazine that in 1878, a decade before Hawkins’s death, full skeletons of Iguanadons were found in Belgium, revealing they did not have spikes on their nose. Still, Hawkins did not remove the anachronistic horn. Yet they were cutting-edge for their time. As Darren Naish wrote last year for Scientific American, “they really do reflect, to remarkably detailed degree, what leading scientists of the time thought about the life appearance of the animals concerned.” This is particularly true of the research of paleontologist (and Darwin critic) Sir Richard Owen, who helped direct their design.
Importantly, they introduced the paleontology research that had been flourishing since the early 19th century to the wider public. Zoë Lescaze in the newly published Paleoart: Visions of the Prehistoric Past writes that the dinner party “was a celebration of Hawkins’s extraordinary sculptural achievement. But it was also a glimpse of what lay ahead, the opening salvo in one artist’s single-minded campaign to free prehistoric animals from polite society and esoteric texts and unleash them on the public imagination.”
Months after the scientists, society people, and business leaders sipped claret and dined on mutton chops in the Iguanodon, the assembled dinosaurs debuted on June 10, 1854 to great public success. Visitors delighted in exploring the life-size reconstructions of long vanished animals only recently discovered, like the mosasaurus creeping in the lake, or the wide-eyed ichthyosaur identified in the early 1800s by Mary Anning. Hawkins examined fossils by hand for his art, which he sculpted with artistic license, but also compelling realism and personality for animals known solely by bones.
New York got close to a Victorian dinosaur display of its own. Hawkins left for the United States in 1868, and soon set up a studio in the new Central Park, creating work for a planned Paleozoic Museum. Unfortunately, the powerful William M. Tweed got control of the park in 1870 and ended these plans. Hawkins, perhaps unfamiliar with “Boss” Tweed’s bullying ways, publicly protested, and the Tammany Hall leader responded by sending goons in 1871 to wreck the studio and smash the work. It’s believed their shattered fragments were thrown in the lake or buried in the park, although recent attempts to find these artifacts have turned up empty.
The Crystal Palace Dinosaurs lasted longer than the Crystal Palace itself, which burned down in 1936. The 20th century was hard on the concrete behemoths, with obscuring foliage and plants growing through the cracks in the ichthyosaur. Vandals wrecked some of the models — like the pterodactyls destroyed in 2005 — and there remains an ongoing challenge to preserve their porous material, as water can expand and crack their forms. On a visit this summer, one of the waterside beasts lacked a head, although the dinosaurs are overall looking better than ever thanks to new conservation attention. In 2007, they were upgraded to Grade I-listed monument status, and the Friends of Crystal Palace Dinosaurs were started in 2013, dedicated to conserving Hawkins’s art. Their efforts including stabilizing the Iguanodon, still remembered for that strange nighttime gathering over a century ago, and still enchanting visitors with its hulking presence in the serene suburban park.