In praise of the thick-skinned

From Wikipedia:

“Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins (1807 – 1894) was born in Bloomsbury, London. He learned sculpture from William Behnes; then, at the age of 20, began to study natural history and later geology. He was elected a member of the Society of Arts in 1846 and a fellow of the Linnean Society in 1847. Fellowship of the Geological Society of London followed in 1854.

Hawkins was appointed assistant superintendent of the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London. The following year, he was appointed by the Crystal Palace Company to create 33 life-size concrete (palaeontological statues) to be placed in the south London park to which the great glass exhibition hall was to be relocated. In this work, which took some three years, he collaborated with Sir Richard Owen and other leading scientific figures of the time: Owen estimated the size and overall shape of the animals, leaving Hawkins to sculpt the models according to Owen’s directions.

A dinner was held inside the mould used to make the Iguanodon. The dinner party, hosted by Owen on 31 December 1853, garnered attention in the press. Most of the sculptures are still on display in Crystal Palace Park.”

From the website of the Natural History Museum, London:

“The Crystal Palace dinosaurs might look comically incorrect, but they hold an important place in the history of palaeontology and at the time of construction were as accurate as was possible based on the scientific data available…Dr Susie Maidment, a dinosaur researcher at the Museum, explains.

The best-known of Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins’s numerous sculptures in Crystal Palace, southeast London, are the four dinosaurs: one each of Megalosaurus and Hylaeosaurus, and two Iguanodons. At the time of the sculptures’ construction in the 1850s, there were very few remains of these animals to work from. Although Waterhouse Hawkins and his advisors knew they were reptiles, we now know that some of the men’s theories about dinosaurs weren’t quite right.

Susie says, ‘I think really what they did was take things that they knew, like crocodiles and lizards, and blow them up to be the size of the bones.

‘Big things today tend to be four-legged and relatively bulky. A gracile two-legged thing was completely beyond anybody’s understanding of what a reptile could be.’…

In the park, Hylaeosaurus faces away from visitors. The Friends of Crystal Palace Dinosaurs  – the group that promote the long-term conservation of the Crystal Park statues and wider geological site – suggest that this might have been due to the lack of skull material for Waterhouse Hawkins to use as a guide for the models.”

The website IDEAL HOMES:A HISTORY OF SOUTH-EAST LONDON SUBURBS shows the “Location plan of the Crystal Palace site published in ‘A Guide to the Palace and Park’ (1857), and adds,

“Although not designed with it in mind, music was nevertheless an important part of the life of the Palace throughout its history.

Beginning with the “Great Handel Festival” of 1857, which was organised by the Sacred Harmonic Society, an organisation run by the then manager of the Palace, the huge Central Transept proved an ideal venue for such events.”

By the 1920s Handel was out of fashion, being considered too Victorian…

In The Book of Forgotten Authors (2017), Christopher Fowler writes of R. M. Ballantyne’s The Coral Island (1857):

“…(it) remained a hit for over a century and was translated around the world…However, Ballantyne never went to such an island and got his details wrong. It wasn’t so much his description of peaceful Polynesians as cannibals that caused him a problem but his idea that coconuts had soft skins.

Mortified, Ballantyne resolved only to work from direct evidence in future, living with a lighthouse keeper and hanging out with Cornish tin miners, but this in-depth research made little difference to his work…

Ballantyne wrote around a hundred books but this was his biggest success, proving that the life of the imagination may be more vivid than one drawn only on empirical evidence…The Coral Island is a fascinating window to a lost world…”

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