Crystal Palace Field Trip Part 1: Walking With Victorian Monsters

This past week I’ve been out of town and unable to work on much art, but instead here’s something a little different. I finally got the chance to go visit some familiar old faces out in the wilds of south London, so let’s go on a little tour of these iconic Victorian-era retrosaurs…

A photograph of an informational sign in London's Crystal Palace Park. The text on it reads, "The Crystal Palace Dinosaurs 1854, a journey through time and science". Three of the iconic Victorian dinosaur statures are also pictured below the title, showing the Iguanodon, Hylaeosaurus, and Megalosaurus.

The Crystal Palace Dinosaurs take their name from the original Crystal Palace, a glass-paned exhibition building originally constructed for a World’s Fair in Hyde Park in 1851.

In 1854 the structure was relocated 14km (~9 miles) south to the newly-created Crystal Palace Park, and a collection of over 30 life-sized statues of prehistoric animals were commissioned to accompany the reopening – creating a sort of Victorian dinosaur theme park – sculpted by Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins with consultation from paleontologist Sir Richard Owen.

The Palace building itself burned down completely in 1936, and today only the ruins of its terraces remain in the northeast of the park grounds.

Two images of Victorian London's Crystal Palace building. On the left an old black-and-white photograph from around 1854 shows the original structure, a grand glass-paned building with ornate terraced gardens in front of it. On the right a more modern photo from 2011 shows what little remains today – just the ruins of the terraces and stairs.
The Crystal Palace building then and now
Left image circa 1854 (public domain)
Right image circa 2011 by Mark Ahsmann (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Six sphinx statues based on the Great Sphinx of Tanis also survive up among the Palace ruins, flanking some of the terrace staircases. They fell into serious disrepair during the latter half of the 20th century, but in 2017 they all finally got some much-needed preservation work, repairing them and restoring their original Victorian red paint jobs.

A photograph of one of the surviving sphinx statues in the Crystal Palace ruins, reclining on a plinth beside some stone steps. It's recently renovated with a coat of terracotta red paint to match its original Victorian-era appearance. In the background the huge Arqiva Crystal Palace telecom tower can be seen.

…But let’s get to what we’re really here for. Dinosaurs! (…And assorted other prehistoric beasties!)

The “Dinosaur Court” down in the south end of the park still remains to this day, displayed across several islands in a man-made lake. Over the decades they’ve been through multiple cycles of neglect and renovation, and are currently cared for by the London Borough of Bromley (Crystal Palace Park Trust are due to take over custodial duties in September 2023), with promotion and fundraising assistance from organizations like Historic England and the Friends of the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs charity.

Just about 170 years old now, the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs represent fifteen different types of fossil creatures known to 1850s Victorian science, with only three actual dinosaur species featured. Although often derided for being outdated and very inaccurate by modern standards, they were actually incredibly good efforts at the time, especially taking into account that the field of paleontology was still in its very early days.

They also just have a lot of charm, with toothy grins and surprisingly dynamic poses.

Unfortunately on the day I visited in early August 2023 most of the statues were heavily obscured by plant growth, both on their islands and on the sides of the paths they can usually be viewed from. Since I’d seen images from about a month ago showing things being less overgrown, this was probably just some unlucky timing on my part coinciding with some explosive summer foliage growth.

A photograph of the frog-like Crystal Palace "labryrinthodont" statues – or, what little can be seen of them through dense plant overgrowth. The back of one animal can be seen posed as if crawling up out of the water, facing away from the viewer, while the head of another is poking out from behind a small bush.

The first island on the trail features a few Permian and Triassic animals which were only known from fragmentary remains in the 1850s. These “labyrinthodonts” were recognized as having similarities to both amphibians and reptiles, and so were depicted with boxy toothy jaws, warty skin, stumpy tails, and long frog-like back legs.

A closer view of one the Crystal Palace "labryrinthodont" statues. It's posed as if crawling up out of the water, facing away from the viewer, and only its frog-like legs and stumpy tail can be clearly seen amongst the vegetation.

Today we’d call these particular animals temnospondyl amphibians, specifically Mastodonsaurus, and we know they were actually shaped more like giant salamanders with longer flatter crocodilian-like jaws, smaller legs, and long paddle-like tails.

An illustration comparing the Crystal Palace depiction of a "labyrinthodont" with a modern interpretation. The retro version looks like a large warty-skinned frog with a boxy lizard-like head, while the modern version is a salamander-like animal with a long flattened crocodilian-like snout.

A closer view of another of the Crystal Palace "labryrinthodont" statues. Its boxy toothy-jawed head is poking out from behind some thick vegetation, and a little of its warty-skinned back can be seen. Beyond it a couple of other statues are supposed to be visible, but the dense plant growth is completely obscuring them.

Somewhere in the foliage beyond this specific “labyrinthodont” there was also supposed to be a pair of dicynodonts, but I couldn’t see much of them at all and didn’t manage to get a remotely visible photograph.

Two photographs of the turtle-like Crystal Palace dicynodont statues when not obscured by dense plant overgrowth. They have toothless beaks, a pair of tusks, sprawling turtle-like bodies with shells, and scaly tails. The picture on the left shows a close-up of the head of one, while the picture on the right shows a view from behind.
Crystal Palace Dicynodon when much less overgrown
Left photo by London looks (CC BY 2.0)
Right photo by Loz Pycock (CC BY SA 2.0)

These Dicynodon are depicted as looking like sabre-toothed turtles complete with shells. That was fairly speculative even for the time, but considering only their weird turtle-beaked-and-walrus-tusked skulls were known it was probably the best guess Hawkins and Owen had. Today we know these animals were actually synapsids related to modern mammals, but Victorian understanding considered them to be a type of reptile.

Modern reconstructions of dicynodonts have a slightly different face shape, along with squat pig-like bodies and semi-sprawling limbs. They may have had fur, but currently the only known actual skin impressions from the genus Lystrosaurus show leathery bumpy hairless skin.

An illustration comparing the Crystal Palace depiction of Dicynodon with a modern interpretation. The retro version looks like a sabre-toothed turtle, while the modern version is a squat pig-lizard-like animal with a blunt toothless beak and a pair of downward-pointing tusks.

Next time: the Jurassic and Cretaceous sculptures!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *