Reconstructed skeletons of dinosaurs and life-size models of how they may once have appeared are now commonplace. But until the British artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins created such things in the second half of the nineteenth century, dinosaurs and their kin were poorly understood and of little interest to anyone but a handful of professional paleontologists. Hawkins was responsible for designing public displays both in Great Britain and in the United States depicting prehistoric life…The beginnings of Hawkins’s lasting influence in paleontology can be traced to September 1852, when he earned an extraordinary commission: to fashion a group of life-size sculptures of “antediluvian monsters” for London’s Crystal Palace.
In order to refute the nascent stirrings of evolutionary theory, Owens pressed Hawkins to transform the iguanodon from the huge, low-to-the-ground lizard that scientists had guessed at since its discovery nearly twenty years earlier into a majestic quadruped that walked rather than slithered, built like a grotesquely oversized dog or pig.
Mistakes of that sort abounded in Hawkins’s models, driven in most cases less by ideology than by understandable lack of knowledge. As any contemporary visitor to Dinosaur Court will instantly grasp, these dinosaurs are … off. Awkwardly, humorously so.
Following his success with the Crystal Palace Exhibition, Hawkins came to New York City with the intent of recreating on one side of the Atlantic what had been so successful on the other…The plan was to set them up in a “Paleozoic Museum” in Central Park, which was then being landscaped under the direction of Frederick Law Olmstead, an ex-engineer officer in the Union army.
However, in 1871, before either the park or the dinosaurs were finished, New York City politics intervened. The corrupt Tammany Hall-Boss Tweed machine took control of city politics, and Hawkins and his dinosaurs were out.
The Central Park Conservancy’s historian, Sara Cedar Miller, told us this morning: “The dinosaur models were made of concrete and metal so their ‘bones’ would basically be unidentifiable if found. The remains were thrown into the Pond, not under sod…and the Pond has been dredged for restoration restored many times and it is quite unlikely that anything would be there now.”
The link below leads to a collection of images from an album of manuscripts, clippings, and images assembled over time by Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins: Collection 803. Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins Album. Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia. http://www.ansp.org/research/library/archives/0800-0899/hawkins803/