One of the gems of London's history that you can still visit today (and for free), has to be amongst the trees and bushes of the small islands at the southern end of Crystal Palace Park, Sydenham, London.
Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins (1807-1894) was the natural history artist and sculptor, whose partnership with Sir Richard Owen (1804-1892) produced the dinosaur reconstructions that you can see today in the park.
Hawkins was born in London and was an established artist displaying his work between 1832-1849 in prominent institutions such as the Royal Academy. His skill was demonstrated in the plates for publications such as 'Illustrations of Indian Zoology' (1830-35) and 'The Zoology of the voyage of HMS Beagle' (parts 4/5, 1838-43).
It was his collaboration with Richard Owen, first Director of the Natural History Museum, London and distinguished vertebrate palaeontologist, that is arguably his best known legacy. He was appointed by the Crystal Palace Company to create thirty three life sized concrete models of extinct animals and dinosaurs (funding cuts meant only around half were produced). These were to be part of a geological time zone in part of the park, which housed the relocated great glass exhibition hall.
Owen estimated the size and overall shape of the animals, but left Hawkins to sculpt the models, under his direct supervision. Together they produced the first public display of life sized reconstructions of prehistoric life. They are a representation of the scientific knowledge of that time, unveiled to the world in 1854, five years before Charles Darwin published 'On the origin of species'.
To celebrate the near completion of the project Hawkins held a dinner party for Richard Owen and twenty distinguished scientists of the time. Dinner was held in the partially finished mould of the largest sculpture, the Iguanodon.
The NHM Library & Archives hold a collection of original Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins material, including watercolour and pen and ink sketches, showing his thoughts and designs for his geological creations. Also included is an invitation and menu from the unique New Years Eve party. In the Museum's scientific collections are a handful of surviving minature versions of the models that Hawkins produced prior to embarking on the final full sized ones.
Hawkins went on to live a life of many highs and lows, including a number of years working and lecturing in America. He returned to England in 1879 where he remained until his death in Putney on 27th January 1894.
Crystal Palace itself was destroyed by fire in 1936 and the models are his unique (and slightly haunting) legacy to London and a must see for all!
Bramwell, Valerie (2008) All in the bones: a biography of Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins, Philadelphia: Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia.