The Crystal Palace Dinosaurs, also known as Dinosaur Court, are a series of sculptures of dinosaurs and extinct mammals commissioned in 1852 and unveiled in 1854. They were the first dinosaur sculptures in the world, predating the publication of Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” by six years. The models are now considered out of date and very inaccurate.
Fifteen species of extinct creatures currently reside in the park. Designed and sculpted by Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins with the help of Richard Owen, they were Grade II listed from 1973, extensively restored in 2002 and upgraded to Grade I listed in 2007.
In addition to this, at least three other genera (Dinornis, a mastodon, and Glyptodons) were planned, and if contemporary reports are accurate, Hawkins began to build at least the mastodon before the Crystal Palace Company cut his funding in 1855.
An inaccurate map of the time, reprinted in Steve McCarthy and Mick Gilbert’s book “The Crystal Palace Dinosaurs”, even gives the planned locations of the Dinornis and mastodon.
Following the closure of the Great Exhibition in October 1851, the Crystal Palace was bought and moved to Sydenham Hill, South London by the newly formed Crystal Palace Company; the grounds that surrounded it were then extensively renovated and turned into a public park with ornamental gardens, replicas of statues and two new man-made lakes.
As part of this renovation Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins was commissioned to build the first ever life-sized models of extinct animals. He had originally planned to just recreate extinct mammals before deciding on building dinosaurs as well, which he did with advice from Sir Richard Owen, a celebrated biologist and palaeontologist of the time. Hawkins set up a workshop on site at the park and built the models there.
The models were displayed on three islands acting as a general time-line, the first island representing roughly the Palaeozoic era, a second representing the Mesozoic era, and a third representing the Cenozoic era. All of the mammals on the third island, however, were later moved to other locations in the park.
The models’ realism was aided by the lake at the time being ‘tidal’ and rising and falling, revealing different amounts of the dinosaurs. To mark the ‘launch’ of the models Hawkins held a dinner on New Year’s Eve 1853 inside the mould of one of the Iguanodon.
Hawkins benefited greatly from the public’s reaction to them, which was so strong it led to what could be considered the first case of tie-in merchandising as a set of smaller versions of Hawkins’s models were sold for £30 as educational products. But the building of the models was costly (having cost around £13,729) and in 1855 the Crystal Palace Company cut Hawkins’s funding, leaving several planned models unmade or half-finished and scrapped, despite protest from various sources.
As further and fuller discoveries of the species included in Crystal Palace were made, the reputation of the models declined. By as early as 1895 experts looked on them with scorn and ridicule. The models and the park fell into disrepair as the years went by, a process aided by the fire that destroyed the Crystal Palace itself in 1936. The visibility of the models became obscured by overgrown foliage, but a full restoration of the animals was carried out in the 1950s by Victor H.C. Martin. The animals were moved around then.
Though general and often ad-hoc maintenance was carried out in the meantime (including the use of plasticine), the dinosaurs did not undergo a full restoration until 2002. During that time the park had fallen into total disarray and at one point a guided tour of the dinosaurs was the only time the park was open to the public. In 2002 the Institute of Historic Building Conservation totally renovated the models, including properly fixing and re-painting the existing models (in much lighter or at times totally different colours, for instance the Megatheirium was changed from blue to beige during the restoration). The institute also had fibreglass replacements created for the missing pterodactyls and their cliff, cutting away a lot of the foliage and restoring the original recreations of plant life that accompanied the models in the 1850s.