Every reader of this blog must surely be familiar with the Crystal Palace dinosaurs. These were the life-size dinosaur models made around 1854 by Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins in collaboration with Richard Owen and placed in a naturalistic, outdoor setting in Crystal Palace Park. They were the very first dinosaur models ever made. The story of these magnificent and ground-breaking models has been told extensively elsewhere, but I’d like to share with you slightly lesser known versions of these famous sculptures.
From their inception, Hawkins and his supporters saw the sculptures as being primarily educational and accessible to everyone – not just the educated elite. Hawkins thought of his dinosaurs as ‘one vast and combined experiment of visual education’. The sculptures were envisioned not as mere spectacle, but as a public educational resource to improve the mind, for all classes of Victorian society. The dean of Hereford, Richard Dawes, a cleric and educator, suggested to Hawkins that small-scale models of the dinosaurs be made for the purpose of scientific studies in schools and other educational institutions. In the spirit of inclusiveness, Dawes said:
‘He should be glad to see those models multiplied at a price which would enable them to be introduced into village and ordinary school, as every one could not visit the Crystal Palace, and he therefore hoped that specimens like those before them might be rendered attainable by those in remote and secluded districts, who would not have the advantage of witnessing the splendid and gigantic illustration of the extinct creation of the early ages of the world which would be there exhibited.1
Knowing a good merchandising deal when he saw it, mineralogist James Tennant struck an agreement with Hawkins to produce the models, along with a series of six posters depicting the prehistoric animals that had been sculpted. Tennant, capitalising on the lucrative market of well-to-do gentlemen naturalists, and had built up a successful business selling fossils, shells, minerals and the tools needed to collect them. (By 1854, Tennant laid claim to the impressive and unique title of ‘Mineralogist to her Majesty’). Small- scale models were produced of the dinosaurs Megalosaurus and Iguanodon, the aquatic reptiles Ichthyosaurus and Plesiosaurus (combined as a tableau), the pterosaur Pterodactylus, and "Labyrinthodon," an obsolete name for the temnospondyl amphibian Mastodonsaurus.
In addition to these models, replicas were made by Henry A. Ward, an American professor of natural science and dealer of in fossils, bones and other scientific specimens. Ward was advertising the models from at least 1866 and sold them from his business, Ward’s Natural Science Establishment, in Rochester, New York. According to Ward’s catalogue of the time, a full set of the five models could be purchased for $30, or individually from $5 to $10.2
We have two of these small-scale models in our Tiegs Museum Zoology Collection at the University of Melbourne, an Iguanodon and a Megalosaurus. They were donated to the collection sometime between 1916 and 1921 by trail-blazing zoologist Associate Professor Georgina Sweet. Due to the university’s historically close association with the British scientific establishment, I suspected our models were Hawkins’ originals rather than Wards replicas. After some detective work I found that although the two model types are very similar in their shape, there are differences in the models’ colouration. Ward’s models are a coppery-brown colour, with a green plaster underside. Our models, and all of Hawkins’ originals, are painted a glossy black, while the exposed plaster underside is a mottled white, grey and green.
While I was researching these models, I visited the collections of the Melbourne Museum to see their own Iguanodon (also a Hawkins’ original). A geologist friend of mine was there with the collection manager. He heard about my project and scoffed cheerfully; “Why are you interested in those things? They’re wrong!” This is a common reaction to these dinosaurs and I think it’s short-sighted. If I was writing this in the eighties, I’d be correcting Hawkins’ assumption that Iguanodon was quadrupedal and reconstruct it instead as the awkward, kangaroo-postured biped we all know and love. But paleontological research has brought us full circle and Iguanodon is again considered predominantly quadrupedal, albeit more lightly built than the Victorians had envisioned. Any student of the history of paleontological illustration should be wary of the notion that current reconstructions aren’t every bit a work in progress as their predecessors. Imagine how silly all of these featherless dinosaurs are going to look to the next generation of dinosaur devotees.
1. Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins, ‘On visual education as applied to geology’, Journal of the Society of Arts, (London), vol. 2, 1853–54.
2. Henry A. Ward, 1866, quoted in Jane P. Davidson, ‘Catalogue of casts of fossils (1866) and the artistic influence of Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins on Ward’, Transactions of the Kansas Academy of Science, vol. 108, nos 3–4, Fall 2005, pp. 138–48.