Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins and the Dinosaurs of Earl's Court

8 February 1807, the English sculptor and natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins was born in London.

“Presently they came to a region of caves and waterways, and amidst these waterways strange reminders of the possibilities of the Creator. They passed under an arch made of a whale's jaws, and discovered amidst herbage, as if they were browsing or standing unoccupied and staring as if amazed at themselves, huge effigies of iguanodons and deinotheria and mastodons and suchlike cattle, gloriously done in green and gold.
"They got everything," said Kipps. "Earl's Court isn't a patch on it."
His mind was very greatly exercised by these monsters, and he hovered about them and returned to them. "You'd wonder 'ow they ever got enough to eat," he said several times.“ (H.G. Wells “Kipps”)



 A contemporary illustration of Hawkins’ quirky iguanodons populating Hyde Park in front of the Crystal Palace during the exhibition of 1851.


Bloomsbury has quite a bit of a reputation to be a centre of education and science as well as the arts, far older than Virginia Woolfe’s “Bloomsbury Group” from Edwardian times around the 1900s. The arguably most influential association that sprung from Bloomsbury’s grounds was the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, founded in the house of John Millais’ parents in Gower Street and then there was Montagu House in Great Russell Street where Sir Hans Sloane’s collections made the foundation of the exhibits of the British Museum, opened to the public in 1759. Thus, young Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins came upon a perfect amalgam of the arts and science, at least in terms of a genius loci, when he was born as the son of a painter in Bloomsbury, since his imagination would shape dinosaurs into a cultural mass phenomenon along with rather Romantic imagery of the days when reptiles were supposed to rule the Earth. 



Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins' take on the Pleistocene Fauna of Asia (1876)


Sir Richard Owen had coined the name Dinosauria from Greek δεινός (deinos) "terrible, powerful, wondrous" and σαῦρος (sauros) "lizard" during the 1840s on grounds of sensational but still rather meagre fossil discoveries. As a well-connected and -funded conservator and career scientist with a bit of a reputation of hogging the finds and achievements of others, Owen certainly had a well developed sense of gaining publicity and placing his scientific theories on the market of public interest. By that time Hawkins had already made a name for himself with natural-historical illustrations and since he was a trained sculptor as well having soundly developed marketing skills, Prince Consort Albert’s rather whimsical idea of having Britain’s glorious natural-historic past manifested in sculptures of the brutes the Royal Society endlessly expostulated about found the perfect executors in the dynamic duo Owen and Hawkins. The latter was commissioned to create 31 life-sized creatures under the guidance of Owen. 15 of them, some, like the Iguanodon containing 30 tons of clay, were unveiled to an astonished and enthusiastic public during the Great Crystal Palace Exhibition of 1851. Afterwards, they relocated to the new “Dinosaur Court” in Crystal Palace Park, now in the London borough of Bromley. Owen and Hawkins decided to open “Dinosaur Court” with a bang – one of their two Iguanodons’ moulds would become the venue for a dinner party celebrating New Year’s Eve of 1853. 21 famous natural scientists were invited to feast on a dinner table set up within the Iguanodon, under a large tent in the park, complete with china, silver, chandeliers and full service. The whimsical idea found not only favour with the invited guests but the press and the public as well. Most London papers covered the story of the dinosaur dinner party and Crystal Palace Park and the “Dinosaur Court” became quite a success, smaller models of the beasties were sold for the proud price of £30 (equivalent to € 3.000 today), but, nevertheless, the production of Hawkins’ dinosaurs proved to be to costly, £13,000 per giant lizard, and in the end only 15 were realised by 1855, when his funding finally got the axe.





Hawkin's studio at the Central Park Museum, New York


Four years later, Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” was published and Owen’s and Cuvier’s ideas of archetypical development of dinosaurs were rather soon forgotten and by today’s standards, almost everything about the contemporary cognitions of Hawkins’ dinosaurs, modelled along these lines of thought, is obsolete, actually his and Owen’s idea of the famous Iguanodon as a heavy, hippo-like creature, were already questioned by the lizard’s original name giver Gideon Mantell, the naturalist husband of the lady who discovered its first tooth that was so like an iguana’s. Nevertheless, Hawkins continued to lecture about pterodactyls and dragons, went to New York for a spell where his project of a Dinosaur Court in Central Park ran afoul of Tammany Hall maneuverings, casts and sculptures were destroyed and Hawkins returned to London to live to the ripe old age of 86. His creatures still roam through Crystal Palace Park, extensively restored in 2002, the legacy of one of the greatest palaeo-artists of all time whose works set the ball rolling, the now familiar sight of mounted fossils in natural history museums as well as movies like “Jurassic Park” and the ongoing popularity of dinosaurs in pop culture.



And more about John Waterhouse Hawkins on:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Benjamin_Waterhouse_Hawkins

and his “Dinosaur Court” on:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crystal_Palace_Dinosaurs