Dinner in the Iguanodon

Dinner in the Iguanodon_800x500

Above: The model of the Iguanodon with a section of its back removed so that guests could sit and have dinner inside the cavity. Notice the waiters (one at the left and another at the front holding a tray of glasses). The whole even took place in a large tent.

The Great Exhibition took place in London’s Hyde Park in 1851. To house the exhibits an enormous glass and steel building designed by Joseph Paxton was constructed. The satirical magazine ‘Punch’ christened it the ‘Crystal Palace’ and the name stuck. The public loved the building. Although the exhibition was only planned to last six months and the public knew that the building would then be taken down, there was a public outcry for it to remain. The authorities answered the clamour by saying that it would be removed from the park but it would be erected on a new site.

This was done in 1854 on a level site on high ground near Sydenham, an area that soon became known as Crystal Palace – which it still is to this day. The new site was laid out with a large park on one side and a revolutionary plan was realised when part of the land was laid out as a ‘theme park’, displaying life-size dinosaurs. Each replica was faithfully displayed against a backdrop of the kind of rocks in which the skeletons had been found.

Today there are 29 remaining statues, originally completed by the sculptor Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins, under the guidance of the famous palaeontologist Sir Richard Owen. Their importance lies in their being the first attempt in the world to interpret what full-scale prehistoric animals would have looked like.

Other attractions in the park included an elaborate fountain system, with the water pressure being derived from two very tall water towers, one sited as each end of the reconstructed Crystal Palace.

The Crystal Palace caught fire in 1936 and was totally destroyed. The water towers remained until the Second World War when they were blown up to prevent German bombers from using the towers as a navigation aid to bomb London.

A 1996 feasibility study revealed that, other than ad hoc repairs and maintenance, no co-ordinated and researched work has been undertaken since the statues had first been constructed. The geological illustrations had been largely unknown until a few years previously, when Peter Doyle had highlighted their significance in relation to the overall display, and the great skill and ingenuity used in forming them as accurate representations of the geology of the British Isles.

Work was put in hand just after 2000 to completely renovate the dinosaurs and restore features of the models that were missing. The work was completed by 2003 and the display area was re-opened for public access.

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Above: The newly restored Iguanodon in Crystal Palace Park.

We now come to talk about the engraving at the top of this article. The most interesting dinosaur of them all is the Iguanodon which is hollow and was moulded in concrete. The ‘animal’ was so large that, when it was completed, a celebration dinner was held for distinguished guests who sat inside the enormous cavity. The scene was recorded with an engraving appearing in the Illustrated London News for 7 January 1854, page 22.

The dinner was hosted on 31 December 1853 by the Crystal Palace model maker Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. At the dinner songs were sung in memory of the antediluvians. The Iguanodon model which weighed over 30 tonnes went on to be displayed in the park grounds where it can still be seen today.


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