South London: positively prehistoric

by Listener Archive / 21 April, 2012
The exhibits in a London park are positively prehistoric.

Crystal Palace Park, South London, was the site for Prince Albert’s Great Exhibition in 1851. Later it was where the first FA Cup final was played, and where John Logie Baird developed television. Now it’s hectares of woodland, sportsgrounds, a cafe that sells baked beans on white bread, paths for walking kids and dogs. Amble those paths, and you’ll see the usual park fauna: ducks, squirrels, swans, pterodactyls, iguanodons.

Iguanodons? One small corner is given over to the metal-and-concrete sculptures conceived 160 years ago by anatomist Richard Owen, and executed by artist Benjamin Hawkins. Thirty of them crouch, loom and slither on a series of artificial islands surrounded by unintentionally but appropriately evil green water. The quickest way to the park is on a British Rail train from Victoria, which allows you to make jokes about other forms of dinosaur.

Do go: these monsters are high on London’s Most Rewarding Oddities list. They were also among the hits of the 1851 Exhibition. Leading scientists were invited to a dinner inside the largest iguanodon. A toast was proposed. “Saurians and Pterodactyls! Dreamed ye ever in your ancient festivities of a race to come, dining in your ghosts?” They don’t write them like that any more – for which, much thanks.

Both the park and the dinosaurs became increasingly neglected as decades passed. Strollers of the early 1900s record being startled by vast heads snarling at them from the invading foliage. Things got even worse after the Crystal Palace burnt down in 1936.

Restoration began only this century; now the hulking beasts are rather incongruously classified as Grade I listed buildings. With them comes a bank-high reconstruction of contemporary geological strata, and signs reminding you how you can use your mobile phone to “hear the creators of these prehistoric monsters discuss their ideas back in the 1850s”. The 30 comprise 15 different species. (With elegant indifference to anachronisms, Hawkins had planned to add dodos, mammoths and bison. Fortuitously, the Crystal Palace Company ran out of cash.)

The concrete characters are big – lifesize – and unexpectedly impressive in pose and arrangement. The pterodactyls, a couple of them recent additions after someone nicked the originals, rear reptilian and leathery-looking on a rocky point among fibreglass Jurassic vegetation. The megatherium (giant ground sloth) stretches its suitcase-sized claws up a bare tree. The megalosaurus faces off against the iguanodons in massive humpings of bone and scale. Intricate detailings of skin, spines, teeth and claws still impress after 160 years.

The anatomical accuracy is open to challenges. Owen believed the little herd of anoplotherium should look like camels; now they’re believed to have resembled a hippopotamus. The iguanodon bear an embarrassing resemblance to giant dogs. The megalosaurus evokes an elephant with lizard’s jaws. Others are more accurate. The two teleosaurs, with their skinny crocodile jaws and nasty little eyes, are sculpted virtually the way modern reconstructions show them. The megatherium and the megaloceros (giant elk) family also get scientific nods of approval, with the exception of the latter’s ludicrously topheavy antlers.

How the mighty have faded. Swamp hens strut past the predatory icthyosaurs. Seagulls perch on the megalosaurus’s back and shit on its head. Fangs are coated with lichen. One iguanodon has lost a tail tip. Passing parents point the monsters out to their kids, who aren’t hugely interested. They’ve seen more colourful and animated versions onscreen. There’s a limited colour range: recent restoration has kept to the original Owen/Hawkins scheme, which means ditch-green and scum-grey for the carnivores, bandings of olive and an awful orange for the tree-munchers. Yet they’re affecting.

As well as their satisfying size, there’s an eagerness and naivety about their rendering, and enough felicities about their new sitings to bring nods of approval. They’re particularly photogenic in winter, among the bleak black branches. Add to this the agreeable melancholy of diminished saurian majesty. Plus, you get the chance to tell friends about eating your choc ice in the lee of a 3m-high giant ground sloth.
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