The Art and Science of the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs

Once you’ve begun to wade into a reasonable amount of paleo literature at virtually any reading level, it doesn’t take long before you start to notice the iconic status of certain moments and individuals in the history of paleontology, casting long shadows over everything that has come since. The Crystal Palace Dinosaurs enjoy just such an iconic status, overshadowing their own creator, paleoartist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins, and perhaps even their scientific advisor, Sir Richard “Dinosauria” Owen himself. I’ve even featured an entire children’s book about Waterhouse Hawkins’ involvement, appropriately titled The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins.

Some previous Crystal Palace media worth familiarizing yourself with. I’m personally partial to the old TV special I grew up with where Eric Boardman had to retrieve water from Crystal Palace Park to cure Gary Owens of… well, I’ll let you find out!

The Crystal Palace Dinosaurs, or as it was once more properly known, the Geologic Court (since only four of the many prehistoric animal sculptures are intended to depict true dinosaurs) has occasionally served primarily as an example of the naivety of early paleontologists, as many of the sculptures look nothing like the animals as we now understand them. A Crystal Palace style Iguanodon in Boy, Were We Wrong About Dinosaurs! serves exactly this purpose, for example. However, over the years, appreciation of the depth of scientific and artistic expertise that actually went into the creation of these models has significantly elevated their esteem in the eyes of paleontology enthusiasts the world over. In fact, paleontologist Darren Naish went so far as to hail the sculptures as “Among the Most Accurate Renditions of Prehistoric Life Ever Made” in an article for an older version of the Tetrapod Zoology blog.

In the vein of the aforementioned TetZoo article, but much more expansive, Mark Witton and Ellinor Michel stepped up to publish perhaps THE definitive book on these historically important works of paleoart, titled The Art and Science of the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs. This incredibly detailed and lovingly researched book provides a hereto unheard-of level of detail on the design and construction of the Crystal Palace’s Geologic Court, from the train of thought on certain interpretations made by relevant experts, to models that were constructed but completely lost to history.

A map of the original grounds for the overall Crystal Palace Exhibition, as well as a map of the models, both extant, missing, and never built, along with markers for their original locations.

I found myself particularly fascinated by the discussions around a fact known to more niche experts on the subject, but not widely appreciated and certainly not discussed in detail: that of the “extra species” hiding in plain sight (at least from a lay perspective). While the two Iguanodon and several of the Megaloceros/Irish Elk (though read on) belong to the same species, many of the “duplicate” models are meant to represent separate species within a particular genus. Most recognizably, the “Ichthyosaurus” and “Plesiosaurus” sculpts each consist of three models of different sizes, each of which represents a different species, some of which have since even been granted their own genera. For example, the mid-sized Ichthyosaurus, I. communis, remains in its original genus, while the smaller, longer-snouted I. tenuirostris has since been referred to as Leptonectes, and the much larger and robust I. platyodon has been assigned to Temnodontosaurus.

Pages like these help demonstrate the care and detail taken by not only Waterhouse Hawkins, but the authors in their research for this book as well.

Less recognizable to the average patron is the similar but more complicated history surrounding some of the mammal sculptures. Similar to Ichthyosaurus, the three varying sizes of Paleotherium statures represented the appropriately-named P. minus, P. medium, and the now-lost P. magnum. The known loss of this latter sculpture provides precedent for a feature that escaped even many professionals’ attention: the seeming complete loss of four Anoplotherium statues. The three that have remained in the public eye represent A. commune, but park records indicate the one-time presence of four A. gracilis as well (renamed Xiphodon even before the Crystal Palace opened, though Owen refused to acknowledge this in a sort of “old guard” mindset). Unfortunately, apart from mistaken attempts to identify one of the A. commune as an A. gracilis, they completely disappear from historical record by the mid-20th Century. Thanks to some incredible sleuthing on the part of the authors, it can now be confirmed that the supposed Megaloceros/Irish Elk “fawn”, which otherwise appears in no original records, seems to be the sole surviving member of this set of four, apparently the only one moved out of harm’s way when a petting zoo set up operation for a time in the model’s former location.

A couple of brief excerpts from the Anoplotherium saga.

Other details regarding the planning and construction of the models are no less fascinating to me. Of note, famed paleontologist Richard Owen, though always mentioned as the scientific advisor to the project, appears to have had remarkably little to do with it at all, visiting only a few times during construction, providing little if any direct advice. His biggest contribution in fact seems to have been writing the official guidebook to the Geological Court which was disseminated during the inaugural Grand Exhibition, explaining many of the design choices post-hoc. Much of the details of the models thus relied entirely on the knowledge Waterhouse Hawkins possessed through thorough study of the natural world, and the extreme “believability” even in the face of their scientific inaccuracy speaks to his skills an an artist.

Waterhouse Hawkins still wasn’t the only artist responsible for the creation of the Geologic Court. One long-neglected feature is hinted at in the Court’s very name: its original artistic vision apparently saw the geology of Britain as just as large a component as the restorations of its fossil taxa. To that end, geologist David Thomas Ansted oversaw the construction of replicas of many of the important geologic strata in Britain, which mining engineer James Campbell built out of the very native rock they were based on! There was even a replica cave and lead mine, which is today unfortunately partially condemned and collapsed. The more famous animal sculptures were fully integrated into these displays, placed on or near the geological formations they were originally discovered in. While each geologic sequence was placed in their own area, they also contacted each other in true-to-life ways, unconformities and all.

A picture of the Carboniferous Coal Measures, some of the best preserved of the Geologic Court’s geology displays, along with a diagram showing the nature of their construction.

I would joke that I should leave something for the book to teach you, but all this is only a taste of the exquisite detail in which Witton & Michel have chronicled this landmark. Even so, I feel like I am perhaps rambling on more than one should in a normal review. If you couldn’t tell, this is just what happens when I get excited about something! I hope my readers don’t mind. The Art and Science of the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs is a triumph in the study of paleontology’s history, and essential reading for anyone who fancies themselves any kind of paleontology enthusiast. If you haven’t bought yourself a copy yet, do so now! Your paleo cred depends on it! Whether you have thoroughly acquainted yourself with the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs before or not, there’s certainly plenty for anyone to pore over here.

I feel like I should apologize for how long it took to get this review out. Ellinor actually sent me an eBook copy back in March, which I greatly appreciated. Unfortunately, I apparently have some weird mental block that makes it difficult to concentrate on eBooks. While I have been able to push through shorter books like The Adventures of Padma and a Blue Dinosaur, the greater detail in this book overwhelmed me a bit, and I didn’t feel like I was absorbing it well enough to properly review it. I eventually just bought myself a physical copy, and I have had a much easier time with it since then. I hope the authors will forgive my poor ability to repay their gesture in a timely manner!

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