The Listed ‘Lizards’ of Crystal Palace

Q. When is a listed building not a building? A. When it’s a dinosaur

South east London isn’t a favoured destination on the fossil hunter’s trail – visitors aren’t known to walk the streets of in search of ammonites and the petrified remnants of a much earlier era.

However, an eccentric and – to the modern eye, enchanting – Victorian vision of prehistoric life can be found in Crystal Palace Park. These concrete beasts are the result of a collaboration between Professor Richard Owen and Benjamin Waterhouse-Hawkins and were commissioned by The Crystal Palace Company in 1852.

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Wildly inaccurate, the dinosaurs are still important pieces of architecture. They are examples of early concrete use and ingenious Victorian design. In 1973 they were given Grade II-listed status and in 2002 they were deemed a vital part of our built heritage and were reclassified as Grade I-listed.

Professor Owen, originator of the term ‘dinosaur’ and eminent Victorian naturalist was tasked with producing the thirty three life sized dinosaurs in Crystal Palace Park. With the help of the famous sculptor and natural history artist, Benjamin Waterhouse-Hawkins, Owen used comparative anatomy to flesh out the design of the sculptures. Owen and Hawkins wanted their sculptures to be educational as well as awe inspiring so every detail, from the size to the natural habitat of the creatures, was discussed with the best palaeontologists and archaeologists of the day. Although not immediately obvious, the dinosaurs are in fact arranged in chronological order. Paxton and Hawkins wanted to take visitors on a journey through time, a controversial decision when Creationism rather than evolution was widely accepted. Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was not published until November 1859; five years after the Crystal Palace Park was opened to the public.

CPP dinosaurs_Labrynthodon & Dicynodon

Often Hawkins had only small fragments of bone to work from and the process was in large part creative guesswork. There are some charming anatomical quirks to the dinosaurs as they stand today. For example, the enormous iguanodons that languish beside the tidal lake have an impressive horn on their heads yet we now know this would have been one of their thumb spikes. As only one such fossil was found, Hawkins came to the entirely logical conclusion when comparing the iguanodon’s bone structure to that of a rhino that the horn would be in a similar place. In fact, no one could agree on whether the iguanodon more closely resembled a rhino or a lizard so Hawkins represented both imagined incarnations. One Iguanodon stands proudly on all four legs whilst the other has more lizard-like hind legs, its torso dragging on the floor.

CPP dinosaurs_Megalosaurus

But without the Crystal Palace itself the dinosaurs would never have been commissioned. The creatures were designed to fill up space and add interest to the enormous 200 acre plot the Crystal Palace Company had purchased in the Sydenham countryside. At nearly 500 metres long it was an impressive addition to the landscape.

The new Crystal Palace was intended to provide everything that central London galleries did but in a relaxed, rural setting. The Crystal Palace Company just didn’t have the clout that the well established London museums did so they had Byzantium Galleries and Medieval Galleries filled with very expensive reproductions.

CPP dinosaurs_Megaloceros

Sir Joseph Paxton, the landscape designer and architect for Crystal Palace, wanted to build an opulent pleasure park, with more fountains than the Palace of Versailles. Over 22,000 fountainheads were installed in the Park grounds producing an incredibly opulent display. The enormous volume of water had to be stored somewhere so the engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel was brought in to design the water storage towers. The water from the fountains collected at the bottom of the plot of land, forming a boggy area that held little interest to the Crystal Palace patrons. The dinosaurs were introduced to this far corner of the park not only as a way to fill the space but to entice visitors back to the Palace. After they had seen the reproduction exhibitions inside and enjoyed the shooting ranges in the grounds, Hawkins hoped that visitors would be so enthralled by the beasts he had created that they would return again and again. The Crystal Palace itself, built to a Beaux-Arts design, suffered severe damage from a series of fires and was finally destroyed in November 1936. You can still visit the dinosaurs though!

By Ali McClary

An extract from the autumn 2013 SPAB Magazine. The Magazine is a benefit of SPAB membership.

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A Recording Session

005 MyddletonThe Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) has invited me to talk tomorrow at its advanced building conservation school about the historical recording that’s been taking place on my cottages. This work has been aimed at gaining a greater understanding of the property’s history in order to inform the renovation plans. Delegates will also visit my home during the afternoon as part of a tour that local surveyor Tony Chapman and I are conducting for them of Saffron Walden’s medieval core, which includes a trip, too, to see the town archives. The session on recording takes place afterwards at 1 Myddylton Place (www.onemyddlytonplace.co.uk) (pictured), the historic home of Tony and his family, where we’ll be dining as well.

 

There are four principal strands to my recording. The first has involved researching documentary sources and I’m very fortunate that the excellent town library is just around the corner. This preliminary research has been complemented by on-site investigations. The second strand, consequently, has comprised an archaeological survey, including architectural paint research and wallpaper analysis. Cathy Littlejohn, a director at Hare & Humphreys Ltd (www.hare-humphreys.co.uk), which has been carrying out the paint research for me, is also lecturing at Myddlyton Place tomorrow. The third and fourth strands of my recording have entailed a measured survey along with photography and filming. Although the recording is informing the project, further discoveries are being made during the renovation work that advance my understanding of the property’s history. Future blogs will reveal more.

Conservation on Camera

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My cottages are due to feature in Britain’s Empty Homes Revisited on BBC television this week (Monday 18 February on BBC 1 at 11.45am, repeated on BBC 2 at 7.50am the next day). This is a follow-up to last year’s programme. The camera crew came a few weeks ago to film the very recently conserved pargeting and their visit coincided with a tour of the cottages and town that I was hosting for post-graduate students from the University of Cambridge. Amongst the other buildings we saw was 1   Myddlyton Place (the old Youth Hostel), where we stopped for tea and heard about the renovation work not long completed by the Chapman family. Also grade I-listed, this is another property, like mine, that was once in the custodianship of the SPAB (www.onemyddlytonplace.co.uk).

 

The conservation of the pargeting on my cottages has been my most pressing task. Areas of the parge-work – which is of exceptional interest and highly unusual – were very weak and it was questionable whether they could all be saved. Huge credit is due to Torquil McNeilage and his team who have undertaken a once-in-a-generation programme of specialist repairs using state-of-the-art techniques. Future blogs will explain about this extensive work – all of which, to date, has been funded without any external grant aid. An abiding memory I have will be seeing the newly conserved pargeting bathed in gentle sunshine after the scaffolding was struck. The project had reached a major milestone and the church bells opposite were ringing as if to celebrate!

Winter Warmth

Both my cottages currently lack central heating so last autumn I purchased several oil-filled radiators to temporarily provide some warmth. Given the age of my electrical installation, I took the precaution of connecting these using plug-in RCD adaptors (www.masterplug.com).

The radiators are controlled by thermostats, which help maintain steady room temperatures. I’m conscious that old timber-framed buildings are similar to fine antique furniture in the sense that sharp variations in relative humidity caused by large temperature fluctuations can distort or crack the wood. In my case, this could also harm some of the fragile internal plasterwork that’s awaiting repair.

The data loggers I’m using show that the heating has created a more stable internal environment. The only snag has been that one of the heaters developed a small oil leak. Fortunately, I discovered this before any damage was done to the building fabric and the supplier replaced the faulty unit immediately. The previous day I’d ordered a couple of extra radiators. By chance, they’re oil-free.

Jack Frost

The recent very cold spell severely hampered work on local building sites. A contractor employed on a nearby church where work to a flint wall had been adjourned until the spring commented to me how a 1 tonne bag of sand had been transformed into a single, large, frozen cube, joking that you’d need a jackhammer to break into it.

At home, the sub-zero temperatures have fractured the second of my outside WC pans, even though I’d drained it of water. My other external WC, the rim of which was damaged last winter, now causes great amusement for my two young nieces. Every time the lavatory is flushed it sends up a fountain of water in the direction of unsuspecting users!

Frosty conditions are said to improve the quality of lime putty in storage, though, of course, it must be allowed to fully thaw before use. I picked up some more the other day when visiting conservation builder Anthony Goode (www.ajgoodeconservation.co.uk) and added this to the other tubs I’ve left maturing in one of the yards. The longer the putty is stored, too, the better it becomes. Lime will be a key ingredient in the work I’m planning.