Wednesday, 30 July 2008

PREHISTORIC PLEASURES

The other week - before the big break - the weather was so unseasonably nice that we took a small break and made the trip to one of my Favourite Places --- Crystal Palace Park.

Of course, there isn't actually a crystal palace there any more and hasn't been for the past 62 years but the name - like a dream - lingers on...


The famous cast-iron and glass building was designed by Joseph Paxton to house the 1851 Great Exhibition. This Temple to the Gods of the Industrial Revolution was 1,850 feet long (Joe definitely missed a trick there: one more foot and it would have been an appropriate 1,851 feet), had an interior height of 108 feet and covered 990,000 square feet of exhibition space displaying the best examples of arts, crafts and technology from ever corner of Victoria Regina's boundless Empire.

In 1854, the Crystal Palace was relocated to Sydenham Hill (where it stood until it was destroyed by fire in 1936) and the grounds surrounding the great building were opened as a public park with ornamental gardens and a series of man-made lakes in and around which dinosaurs were encouraged to frolic!

Not real dinosaurs, since they were by then somewhat extinct, but accurate recreations (or so it was thought at the time) of prehistoric reptiles and mammals sculpted by Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins with guidance from the eminent palaeontologist, Sir Richard Owen.

Hawkins set up a studio in the Crystal Palace grounds in which to create his giant sculptures...


To begin with the plan was for a series of early mammals such as giant sloths, tapir-type animals and the magnificent Irish Elk...


Then project was extended to cover examples of the great reptiles.

Fifteen species were exhibited (others were planned but never made) and the resulting Dinosaur Court, as it was known, were the first dinosaur sculptures in the world.

Prior to the opening of the exhibit, Hawkins used one of his two iguanodon sculptures as the venue for a private dinner party on New Year’s Eve 1853, to which prominent naturalists of the day were invited (right).

The iguanodon sculpture was located beneath a striped marque with part of its back removed (the operation scar is still visible to this day!) in order to create a space within which a dinner table could be set up complete with all the requisite china, silver and candles demanded by Victorian good taste.


When it was first opened, what a stir the Dinosaur Court must have caused for Victorians whose Christian beliefs were being assailed by the new religion of Evolution! One can imagine them strolling with their top hats and parasols and gazing in total awe - probably disbelief - at these inconceivable beings from the mists of time.


As a child in the '50s, I found the place totally entrancing, even though there weren't any Stegosauruses or Tyrannosaurus Rexes - on account of the fact that they hadn't yet been discovered when Messrs Hawkins and Owen created their monstrous theme park.


Every school summer holiday, my Mum would make up a picnic lunch, we'd hop on a 227 bus, go to Crystal Palace and spend the day in the park before going on to my Nan and Granddad, who, lived nearby, for tea. I drew pictures of the dinosaurs and, a few years later, took some of my first photos (not the ones exhibited here) with my newly acquired Kodak Instamatic.

Along with the bony occupants of the Natural History Museum, the dinosaurs of Crystal Palace fired my youthful fascination with prehistoric life to the extent that I created my own model park in a soup tureen filled with earth from the garden and decorated with stones, small plants and half a dozen plastic dinosaurs that collected from packets of Shreddies breakfast cereal...

The chief failing of my replica was revealed when I attempted to create a lake in which to put the figure of the pleisosaurus. Every time I filled the lake the water disappeared until all the denizens and the vegetation sunk in primordial ooze!

The original lake has, fortunately proved rather more enduring...



Over the years, I came to learn that many of the sculptures were anatomically inaccurate: one creature appears only as a head emerging from the water (left), because all Hawkins had to go on was a fossilized skull. But I never lost my affection for the great beasts - even when they were re-painted for the umpteenth time in the most unsuitably garish colours.

Now, however, the dinosaurs of South London have been superbly restored: the several dozen layers of corroded paint have been removed and the great beasts live once more. True, they may prove something of a disappointment to kids brought up on the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park, but for me they are as dynamic and wondrous as when I entered their realm as a seven-year-old...


For a contemporary reaction to the Crystal Palace dinosaurs, check out a recent posting on button's blog...

Images: Dinosaurs today by Brain Sibley © 2008

7 comments:

LisaH said...

Another fascinating blog, Brian.

Suzanne said...

I've never lived in London, the place had long disappeared by the time I was born and yet Crystal Palace still manages to evoke for me the magnificent building that it once was. The park looks like a great place to spend the day - lucky you!

Richard said...

Fascinating article Brian. I remember when Mum first took me to Crystal Palace back in the 1960s (I still have the dinosaur exhibit souvenir book of the visit). You're right that the creatures' anatomical inaccuracies are part of the charm. Although, I must confess to being a bit old-fashioned about how I like 'my dinosaurs' to look, preferring the reconstructions in movies like King Kong and The Valley of Gwangi and in the stunning artwork of painters Burian and Knight.

Brian Sibley said...

I understand (and share) Richard's penchant for the great dinosaur artists, I think what - as a child - was so magical about the Crystal palace 'monsters' was (and, perhaps, still is) the ability to observe them 'for real' (or sort of) in a natural habitat!

Carl V. said...

That places looks and sounds fascinating. I can certainly identify with your descriptions of childhood wonder at the place. The whole idea of the creation of places like this is so fascinating. I love all the illustrations and yet wish that they had actual pictures of, say, the dinner inside the dinosaur, etc. Those would be wonderful to see. Very interesting, thank you so much!

Diva of Deception said...

I had always wanted to visit the dinosaurs in the park but it was always too far for us to travel from NW London!

Thanks for showing them off here so I could enjoy them anyway.

Phil Beard said...

Great stuff! If I had my way, I would arrange for the reconstruction of the Crystal Palace right down to the last detail.