Above: One of the stone terraces with two of the newly painted sphynxes.
The amazing Great Exhibition of 1851 was held in Hyde Park. The building that housed it was, in effect, a giant greenhouse which the press christened the ‘Crystal Palace’. It was so large that it enclosed some of the tall trees growing in the park. The public really took the building to their hearts and although everyone knew that the exhibition would only last for less than six months (1 May – 11 October) there was a great outcry against the building being taken down. A private company took over the demolition and the building was re-erected on flat land on the ridge that is beside what we call Crystal Palace Parade.
Above: Close-up of one of the pair in the above picture still being restored.
From that ridge the land slopes away on both sides. On the southern side – now just inside the London Borough of Bromley – a large park was created to add a further attraction for visitors to the newly relocated Crystal Palace. People flocked from all over London to the venue. There were exhibitions in the building itself and there were weekly firework displays in the grounds. So many people came to what was then a remote part of the countryside near London that a railway company was also set up to build a new line to convey visitors right beside Crystal Palace main entrance.
All the grand plans came to fruition and, although not hugely profitable, Crystal Palace did make money for its shareholders. On the night of 30 November 1936 a fire broke out and the vast ‘palace’, constructed mainly of iron and glass panels, was totally destroyed. The fire was so great that people on the Devil’s Dyke, near Brighton, were able to see the flames on the horizon. The building was never reconstructed but the gardens – now much less grand than before 1936 – remain as Crystal Palace Park. Shortly after the fire, London including Crystal Palace endured bombing during the Second World War so what little masonry remained was further damaged or totally destroyed.
The only evidence for the park – as related to the Crystal Palace – is several large terraces, a few ornamental walls and some of the grand stone staircases. Along with the terraces are a few statues and a selection of sphinx statues. Their condition after the Second World War was not great and they have gradually deteriorated with time. During this year a team of conservators have been restoring the statues and then painting them a deep red colour. It will be the first time in over 100 years that the sphinx statues have been repainted. The restoration project is funded jointly by Historic England, the Mayor of London’s office and Bromley Council (the local authority which manages the park).
Above: One of a pair of figures near Anerley Hill showing the damage that will need to be repaired.
There are six figures remaining today and it is it possible that there were originally eight. They are copies of an original Egyptian statue in the Louvre Museum in Paris. They appear to have been made in an early form of concrete, part modelled in situ and part pre-cast. In places the brick core of the sculptures became exposed, saplings have taken root in surface cracks and their stucco finish has discoloured after years of exposure. Each of the sphinx statues will get two coats of paint. The two sphinx statues that are close to Anerley Hill are undergoing more repair than the other four. The staircase they flank, blocked off for many years, has been cleared of vegetation and also restored.
Above: Another pair of sphynxes almost completed.
The choice of colour – a terracotta red – is based on some archaeological research. Paint scrapings were taken from the sphinxes, showing that they had been regularly painted up to the end of the 19th century, with evidence of eight layers of paint. The project is the beginning of a 10-year programme of upgrading and preservation work in the park, which might have started two or three years earlier if there had not been delays for which the former Mayor Boris Johnson was responsible.