Ill-fated Attempt to Create Crystal Palace Monsters in New York

Continuing the theme of the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs, some more information about their sculptor Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins and his ill-fated Central Park project.

Cystal Palace Dinosaurs get Grade 1 Listed Status Article

The 33 life-size prehistoric animal sculptures made by Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins under the direction of Sir Richard Owen, proved to be a big hit with the public when they went on display from 1854 onwards.  Despite Benjamin’s promises and Sir Richard Owen’s assurances, the display showing three eras in the history of life on Earth, wasn’t actually completed in time for the grand opening by Queen Victoria on June 10th 1854.

However, the exhibit remained very popular and along with the other attractions at the Crystal Palace site; attracted large numbers of visitors.  Hawkins had plans to add more models to the display but his ideas for expansion were soon shelved when the costs of this project were totalled.  The cost of making the models, preparing and managing the exhibit was estimated to be over £13,000, an absolute fortune in Victorian times.  Indeed, the palaeontological exhibit was the single highest expense of the whole Crystal Palace project.

It was decided that no more models were to be built.  For Hawkins this was a bitter blow, although his reputation as England’s leading natural history artist and sculptor was secure he had relished the prospect of building even bigger and better models as more dinosaur discoveries were made.

Knowledge of his work had spread far and wide.  He was invited to create exhibitions at a number of American museums and toured the US giving lectures.  In the late 1860s he was invited to New York by the city’s civic authorities with a view to modelling recent American prehistoric animal discoveries.  Hawkins promptly set up a studio on the upper west side of Manhattan (what is now coincidentally, the site of the American museum of Natural History).  He began to produce new versions of his beloved Iguanodon (believed to be his favourite model of all) and models of recently discovered dinosaurs from the USA.  The intention was to open a Crystal Palace type permanent display in Central Park.  Various life-size statues of ancient animals would be displayed in landscaped gardens, the plans were impressive and had the project been completed it would have made a spectacular exhibit right in the centre of New York.  The American press dubbed the project “the Palaeozoic Museum”, however no sculptures were ever finished.

In 1871 due to rivalries amongst leading dignitaries and city politics, all modelling and landscaping was promptly stopped.  The partly finished sculptures were ordered to be destroyed and they were promptly smashed and buried in the park.  Perhaps, those who took part in the breaking up and burial of these leviathans were ashamed of what they had done as they made sure that no-one would find their handy work easily. To this day no trace of the remains of the models have been found in Central Park.  They remain buried and hidden from view, just like the fossils which inspired these wonderful works of art in the first place.

Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins never really got over the sense of disappointment at not being able to re-produce his Crystal Palace works in America.  He continued to work in the USA for a number of years before finally retiring to Britain in 1878.  He died in 1889, but his London dinosaurs live on and are still marvelled at by young and old today.

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