benjamin waterhouse hawkins

“The extinct animals” Model-room, at the Crystal Palace Sydenham / Artwork by Philip Henry Delamotte / The Illustrated London News / Dec. 31, 1858.

Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkin’s dinosaur workshop on the grounds of the Crystal Palace. At the time, dinosaurs were known only from a handful of teeth and bones, forcing Hawkins to improvise. The result was a grotesque variety of shapes reminiscent of reptiles, lizards, dragons, large mammals, birds, fish, kangaroos, and amphibians. //  “Dinomania, the lost art of Winsor McCay, the secret origins of King Kong, and the urge to destroy New York”, Ulrich Merkl, Fantagraphics Books, Seattle 2015

Crystal Palace Dinosaurs

Scattered around the shore of, on the islands of, and even in the Crystal Palace lake, is a collection of large, strange-looking concrete statues. In 1853, with the relocation of the Crystal Palace building from Hyde Park to Sydenham Hill, extensive remodelling of the surrounding land was underway. As part of this, the artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins was commissioned to build life-sized models of extinct animals.

Originally planning to create sculptures of just mammals, Hawkins later joined with palaeontologist Sir Richard Owen to also build models of dinosaurs, to educate visitors in this relatively new field of study (the word dinosaur had only been coined 11 years earlier by Owen). The models included creatures from a wide range of eras, with Dicynodonts, Ichthyosaurs, Iguanodons, a Mosasaurus, Plesiosaurs, a Megalosaurus, Irish Elk, and a Megatherium among those on display, as well as a model limestone cliff to illustrate how fossils were dated at the time.

When made, the sculptures were designed to the latest scientific knowledge – but given the lack of fossil evidence available for some of the creatures, some are hilariously wrong by modern standards. Iguanodon is depicted as an obese, quadrupedal version of its namesake, with a large horn on its nose – nowadays the dinosaur is known to have been bipedal, the nose horn actually a thumb spike.

The statues were in poorly looked after for many years, first overgrown by vegetation, then the mammals in particular were damaged by wear and tear after some were moved following a restoration in the 1950s. In 2007 the sculptures became Grade 1 listed, and a programme of restoration is underway, to bring the statues back to their full, scientifically inaccurate glory.


Comparative anatomy of the Bactrian and Dromedary Camels, and the human.

Humans domesticated Bactrian camels (Camelus ferus) over 4500 years ago, and Dromedary camels (Camelus dromedarius) even earlier - around 4000 BCE, or 6000 years ago. Domesticated Dromedary camels are so ancient that even the first dynasties of Egypt were thought to use them, from archaeological remains.

Domestic Dromedary camels are very similar in build to their extinct wild counterparts (all “wild” Dromedaries are escaped feral herds), but Bactrian camels have been significantly altered by domestication. They’re shorter, far more amenable to human interaction, and have been bred to have longer fur and greater milk output. There is over a 3% difference in the genetic code between domestic and wild Bactrian camels - more than exists between humans and chimpanzees.

Comparative anatomy as applied to the purposes of the artist. Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins, 1883.

‘Dinner in the Iguanodon’ lithograph from the London Illustrated News 1854. When the Great Exhibition of 1851 ended, it was decided that the Crystal Palace which had housed it should be moved to a new site. The structure was rebuilt in a park at Sydenham in south London. The park was renovated and filled with new attractions including the ‘Dinosaur Court’, a collection of over 30 concrete statues of dinosaurs and other extinct creatures, which are still present today.

These statues were the first in the world to depict dinosaurs as they may have looked when they were alive (subsequent discoveries have proven that many are wildly anatomically inaccurate). This momentous achievement was celebrated with a banquet which took place in the park on New Year’s Eve 1853. It was attended by 21 people including the sculptor Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins, geologists, paleontologists, and journalists.

The 8 course meal was served at a table placed inside the mould of one of the iguanodons. A tent was set up around the creature (complete with chandelier) and, because of the statue’s height, a special stage was erected to allow the diners and waiters access. Discussion centred on the latest scientific discoveries, though by contemporary accounts the evening became more boisterous as time went on and the proceedings lasted well past midnight.