Eventually, one simply has to make the pilgrimage. Frankly, I’m not sure how I managed to delay it for so long. For anyone with an interest in palaeontology - and especially for those with an interest in palaeoart - a visit to Crystal Palace Park is simply a must. More than that - it’s unavoidable. You will end up here, one day, staring up at Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins’ concrete monstrosities. Here is the Land Where Ugly Life-Sized Dinosaur Models Began. And it’s quite wonderful.
Most readers will be familiar with the backstory (and David’s done it before), so I’ll try and be brief. Crystal Palace Park in London is named after the eponymous building, which was bought up and rebuilt here following The Great Exhibition in Hyde Park in 1851. A series of landscaped gardens were created around the Palace, with the Dinosaur Park being one of these. The models were created by Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins and his team, with the scientific advice of the brilliant anatomist and evil bastard Richard Owen. Among the creatures created were the famous Iguanodon, Megalosaurus and Hylaeosaurus, but also a whole host of non-dinosaurs, including Palaeozoic amphibians and reptiles, Cenozoic mammals and, of course, marine reptiles.
The models have survived more-or-less intact into the present today, which is utterly remarkable given how exposed they all are. Replacement parts have been created here and there, but these are, for the most part, the same bizarre beasties that our Victorian forebears gazed upon. These days, the models have become icons of scientific progress - that is, of how far we’ve progressed since the 19th century. Of course, given how little the earliest palaeontologists had to go on, it’s quite surprising that the sculpts make any sense at all. But they do make some sense.
For example, although aware of their reptilian character, Owen was clever enough to realise that the dinosaurs must have had upright limbs like modern mammals and birds. Today, the ‘elephantine lizards’ he helped shape look laughably inaccurate, their nose horns the best-known example of how a simple anatomical error can result in a problem so glaringly obvious when writ large. However, at the time - with no clue as to just how different from today’s animals a large ornithopod was - these were pretty sensible and solid attempts. (Apparently, Owen also knew that the nose horn might be a mistake - but as any palaeoartist today will tell you, a little conjecture is completely necessary.)
All that said, we can only wonder what might have happened if Waterhouse Hawkins had Gideon Mantell as his consultant, as was originally intended. Supposedly, Mantell had already figured out that the dinosaurs didn’t look quite as Owen envisaged, particularly when it came to their limbs and posture. Unfortunately, ill health meant that Mantell had to turn the job down.
Although the Iguanodon often get all the attention, the park’s gigantic Megalosaurus is perhaps its most impressive model of all. Resembling a hulking croco-bear with enormously powerful and muscular limbs, it’s a world away from the svelte biped we envisage nowadays. The shoulder hump is a particularly curious feature, and some have speculated that it might be the result of Owen being privy to material now referred to Becklespinax (the hump, in reality, being from vertebrae nearer the hips).
Seemingly as if to further accentuate this model’s hopeless inaccuracy in the face of modern science, the Megalosaurus has now sprouted some foliage, which hangs limply down from its mouth. Or maybe Ken Ham broke in and wedged it in there.
The Hylaeosaurus, with its slightly sprawling posture, is closer to just looking like an oversized lizard than the other dinosaurs. It sports a replacement fibreglass head which, unfortunately, is rather difficult to photograph (hence the above ‘rear end shot’). Given how ankylosaurs have suffered in palaeoart over the years, it’s probably fair to say that this model isn’t so different from depictions that appeared 100 years later.
Unknown to (or unnoticed by) many people, the models are actually grouped together according to the time period in which the animals lived. From one end of the lake to the other, they progress from the Permian, through the Mesozoic, and then on into the Cenozoic. This way, all the Jurassic marine reptiles are grouped together, but Mosasaurus is sequestered elsewhere. The plesiosaurs are recognisable, although their necks bend and twist in impossible ways, while the large ichthyosaurs lack dorsal fins and have newt-like tail tips. It’s tempting to think that the exposed scleral rings are just another unfortunate inaccuracy, but they may have been an intentional anatomy lesson; such an interpretation is given more credence by the exposed ‘pavement’ of bones in the flippers (as above).
Just up from the plesiosaurs are a pair of marvellous, fearsome-looking Steneosaurus. The animal was a marine crocodyliform, and is known from some excellently preserved fossils. As such, Owen’s interpretations aren’t a million miles away from the modern view, although they owe a lot to the living gharial. The above photo also depicts what appears to be a coot (Fulica altra) nest under construction, carefully watched over by a grimacing, serpentine plesiosaur.
Back down in the Permian, the star attractions may be smaller, but they’re no less strange for it. The mutant toads hanging around by the lake are in fact labyrinthodonts, which were imagined to be entirely tailless. Their appearance is fascinatingly bizarre, as if someone grafted the megalosaur’s head on to a frog. Weirder still are a group of shelled dicynodonts, which Owen imagined to be turtle-like (unfortunately, I didn’t manage to get a decent photo). From the Permian end of the lake, one has a marvellous ‘time tunnel’ view through to the dinosaurs at the far side, and the lush (if not entirely appropriate) greenery that’s grown up around the models in recent years lends a suitably primordial feel. Er, if you ignore all the flowers.
Beyond the end of the tunnel, adjacent the boating lake, are positioned a handful of different Cenozoic mammals. (Many more were planned for the park originally, but funding ran out - a shame, as the proposed Glyptodon would no doubt have looked fantastic.) A Megaloceros family provides a visually striking focal point, and - because the path wraps around them - it’s possible to view them from any number of different angles, and take in all of the wonderful details. In the below photo, a pair of American tourists (I’ll get to them in a minute) are carefully examining the mighty Megaloceros male.
Around the corner we have Megatherium, another impressively large creation. The tree it’s hugging, in classic Megatherium/hippy fashion, is in fact the original Victorian specimen (now rather dead). According to signage in the park, the tree once grew enough to knock the sloth’s arm off, and it now bears a replacement limb. It’s difficult to photograph the Megatherium’s face, but it really is quite adorable, as I’m quire sure the real animal was. I mean, they’re just great big mounds of cuddly fuzz, if you think about it…and ignore the bloody great claws.
Speaking of adorable mammals…I was lucky enough to share my visit with none other than Chris DiPiazza of Jersey Boys Hunt Dinosaurs fame, along with Niroot and our mutual friends Nancy and Huseyin. Much joyous geekery ensued, as I’m sure you can imagine, and I’d like to sincerely thank one and all for the day. Cheers!
Mirror shades. Just typical. And finally…various (generally excellent) signs around the park show ‘contemporary’ (i.e. modern) depictions of the prehistoric creatures. Most of these aren’t too bad, but the ‘modern’ pterosaur is proper horrorshow. Check it out, unless you’re a pterosaur expert, in which case I’d advise closing this page and backing away from your PC at once. ‘Til next time!
The greatest (and most complete) set of photographs from a place that, although I never have been, holds such magic for me.