Feature February 2015

George Baxter’s Dinosaurs at the Crystal Palace and Gardens

George Baxter’s Crystal Palace and Gardens

When looking at George Baxter’s ‘The Crystal Palace and Gardens’ (CL 193) you would be forgiven for thinking that the dinosaurs shown in the front of the print are rather badly drawn. They are indeed a bizarre group of creatures that now seem rather misshapen and imprecise, but they are in fact a good representation of the huge models that were erected in the Crystal Palace gardens in Victorian times.

Baxter portrayed 8 of the 30 models that inhabited the Crystal Palace gardens; he exercised a little artistic licence and moved some of the models to create a frieze along the foot of the picture, but details such as the stream and the footbridge are accurate and the dinosaurs shown are faithfully copied from the actual figures. The creatures depicted by Baxter are (from left to right):-

Teleosaurus – two crocodilian creatures whose long snouts are just visible in the lake on the left

Megalosaurus – a carnivore shown here as a four-footed creature, but now known to be bipedal, walking on only two legs

Iguanodon – shown here in the centre of the picture as four-footed, with spines and a spike on its nose. Later discoveries have proved this to be an inaccurate representation

Hylaeosaurus – on the bank to the right of the stream

Labyrinthodont – another crocodile like creature emerging on the right of the lake

The 30 models in Sydenham Park were a mixture of dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals that were created from brick and concrete on cast iron cores by Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins, a British artist and amateur scientist. These sculptures were erected in 1853 / 54 and were the first attempt in the world to model dinosaurs as full-scale, three-dimensional, active creatures. Knowledge of dinosaurs was limited at this time – scientists had only been aware of dinosaurs since around 1815 when William Buckland began his work with fossilized bones. In 1824 Buckland became the first person to describe a dinosaur in a scientific journal, although the word ‘dinosaur’ wasn’t in existence until 1842 when the English paleontologist Richard Owen used the term ‘Dinosauria’, or ‘terrible lizards’.

The model of the Iguanodon in Sydenham Park is incorrectly shown as a quadruped with spines on its back and a spike on its nose, but this is what scientists of the day believed to be correct based on the few bones they had to work with. The first Iguanodon fossils had only been discovered by Mary Ann Mantell at Cuckfield in 1822 and scientist were having to speculate somewhat about the appearance of the creatures. The models represented the latest scientific knowledge at the time – in fact the design of the models was completed under the scientific direction of Sir Richard Owen himself. It wasn’t until a full skeleton of an Iguanodon was discovered in a coal mine at Bernissart in Belgium in February 1878 that it was realised that the spike that was thought to be on the nose of the creature was actually its thumb.

If you visit Sydenham Park today you will not be able to see the Crystal Palace as shown in the background of Baxter’s print, as the Crystal Palace was destroyed by fire in 1936. And the last World War bombed the landscape away, leaving a hole now accommodating the athletics stadium. But the Waterhouse dinosaurs still lurk in their original positions amongst the trees of the islands and the ducks in the lakes. The models were restored in 1952 and again in 2002. In 1973 the models were classed as Grade II listed buildings and in 2007 they were upgraded to Grade I listed.

The Baxter print was published in October 1854 and measures 11cm by 18cm.

It is signed very low down, in two lines, in the left centre, “Published Octr. 30th (or in some prints 28th), 1854, by G. Baxter, Proprietor & Patentee, London.”

Under the print, in the plate margin, is engraved in one line is:
“The Crystal Palace, Drawn by W. Hawkins, and Engraved, Printed, and Published Oct. 30 (28th in some), 1854, by George Baxter, the Inventor and Patentee of Oil Colour Picture Printing, 11 & 12, Northampton Square (Entered at Stationers’ Hall).”