New discovery of missing Victorian dinosaurs at world’s first Jurassic Park

Evidence for numerous missing models at the world-famous Crystal Palace Dinosaurs and re-identification of a sculpture as one of the park’s “lost species” are revealed in a new book, The Art and Science of the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs (The Crowood Press).

The Crystal Palace Dinosaurs were a series of over 37 Grade 1 listed sculptures of prehistoric animals and geological displays arranged in a simulated “walk through time”, which were unveiled to the public as part of the famous Crystal Palace Park in 1854.

It was thought the original park had 32 life-sized sculptures, of which 30 (29 originals and one replica) and a handful of geological displays survive today. The new research adds five lost mammal sculptures to that list, showing that 37 sculptures once existed.

The Crystal Palace Dinosaurs are the world’s first major palaeoart project and they played a significant role in making geological sciences accessible to the public. This is the most detailed and complete history of these world-famous sculptures yet, reinforcing their status as masterworks of education and palaeoartistry.

This globally significant historic site, which includes iconic depictions of monumental dinosaurs, regal extinct mammals, serpentine marine reptiles and giant amphibians, captured a snapshot of palaeontology from a golden era of scientific discovery in the mid-19th century. Today, they are internationally recognised as a milestone in the portrayal of extinct life and the history of science.

The book’s co-author, Dr Mark Witton, a leading palaeontological artist and researcher at the University of Portsmouth, said: “We’ve uncovered a lot of new insights into the Dinosaurs and their park home in this project, but the evidence for so many lost models blew us away. They weren’t small, obscure sculptures either, but included pony-sized, tapir-like Palaeotherium magnum and a horse-sized female Megaloceros. More amazingly, we found lots of evidence for a hitherto overlooked species, Anoplotherium gracile, which we call Xiphodon gracilis today.

“There were originally four Xiphodon but only one model survives, mislabeled as a Megaloceros fawn. Happily, we have photos and illustrations of these lost models that show us what they looked like, but their existence also exposes large gaps in the documented history of the site. It means that, in total, eight original models have been lost, with only one successfully replaced – a standing Anoplotherium commune.”

Two of the most famous Victorian restorations of dinosaurs, the Crystal Palace Iguanodon and Megaladon.

Two of the most famous Victorian restorations of dinosaurs, the Crystal Palace Iguanodon and Megalosaurus. Each is 10 m long and supported on thick iron columns buried within brick foundations, with their bodies made from bricks, tiles and concrete. Photo by Dr Mark Witton

Using new archive sources, the authors have revealed how grand the site was in its heyday before almost 20 per cent of the original constructed animal sculptures went missing in following decades, mostly under unknown circumstances. In addition, 14 planned extinct animal sculptures were never made due to funding restrictions.

Several mysteries about how the non-dinosaur animal models were manufactured have also been answered. Using new analysis of historic images, the authors discovered that the smaller sculptures were probably built indoors and moved around with carts, sometimes in pieces, to be assembled on site. The largest models, including the dinosaurs, were assembled in place, under tents to protect them from poor weather.

Co-author Dr Ellinor Michel, an evolutionary biologist at the Natural History Museum London, said: “This book celebrates these classic scientific artworks and explores their history, their conception as a wider part of the Crystal Palace project, their execution using unorthodox building materials, their reception by 19th century and modern critics, and their enduring mysteries.

“These sculptures and landscapes have been a gateway to the wondrous ideas of Deep Time and to teaching us how scientific ideas come to life since 1854. These Victorian creations can still teach us a lot today about science, art and history. I hope this book will continue to bring those important messages to many generations of curious minds.”

The book, which is published by The Crowood Press, includes hundreds of historic and modern photos and original paintings that offer a detailed study of the art and science behind each sculpture, and covers:

  • How prehistoric life and the geological record was reconstructed at life-size for the first time in the 1850s, detailing how the models and their associated geological landscape were rationalised from scientific data before being rendered in iron and concrete.
  • How palaeoartists and palaeontologists view them today, with a discussion of their historical reconstructions and the debates about the animals over time.
  • An evaluation of the roles performed by the site’s consultant, the historically controversial scientist Richard Owen, and its visionary artist, Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins.

These sculptures and landscapes have been a gateway to the wondrous ideas of Deep Time and to teaching us how scientific ideas come to life since 1854. These Victorian creations can still teach us a lot today about science, art and history. I hope this book will continue to bring those important messages to many generations of curious minds.

Dr Witton said: “The Crystal Palace Dinosaurs are the world’s first major palaeoart project and they played a significant role in making geological sciences accessible to the public. This is the most detailed and complete history of these world-famous sculptures yet, reinforcing their status as masterworks of education and palaeoartistry.”

Unfortunately, conservation risks have faced generations of custodians keeping the display intact, and the challenges still face the site today.

An overgrown frog-like Labyrinthodon.

An overgrown frog-like Labyrinthodon.

Dr Michel, who is co-founder and chair of the Friends of Crystal Palace Dinosaurs, said: “The need for greater care, maintenance and research in the Geological Court is even more urgent than anyone knew as the site has suffered more damage than we thought. Through this book, we want to show the importance of conserving these endangered sculptures for the next generation.”

All authors’ royalties from the book will support the charity Friends of Crystal Palace Dinosaurs to help in the conservation and interpretation of the models.

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