As if London didn’t have enough to deal with at the moment, one of its most well-loved pieces of public sculpture has been significantly damaged in what is feared to have been an act of vandalism. The megalosaurus is one of four giant Victorian dinosaur sculptures in Crystal Palace Park in south London. A member of the public noticed on May 18 that a large portion of its jaw and snout appeared to have broken off and fallen to the ground. Although many of the sculptures had been showing cracks in their concrete structures for some time, the Metropolitan Police are now investigating this incident as a deliberate ‘heritage crime’.
Speaking to the BBC, one of the trustees of the Friends of Crystal Palace Dinosaurs (FCPD), Sarah Slaughter, said: ‘The magnitude of the damage shocked me. I have known of the dinos since I was a little girl living in Croydon. I have worked really hard alongside the other board members to protect the sculptures and make sure that people love them, too. It is upsetting to be reminded that not everybody cares about them.’ A post on the FCPD Facebook page reflects the love that people have for the sculptures: ‘Actually didn’t take my walk in CP Park this morning because I couldn’t bear to see it.’ When Time Out asked Londoners to vote on their favourite public sculptures in the capital, guess what came top?
There are more than 30 life-size sculptures in Crystal Palace Park, including four dinosaurs, other prehistoric creatures, and exotic animals. They were created in 1852-53 by Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins, an artist and natural historian, and were the first sculptures anywhere in the world to try and imagine how dinosaurs would have appeared in a primaeval landscape (in Penge). Although now it is accepted that they are wildly inaccurate in terms of their anatomy, they were a genuine attempt at the time to recreate prehistoric animals based on the science available. The Victorian public had a huge appetite for such discoveries, and it is significant that when the 1851 Great Exhibition was moved to its a permanent home and reopened in 1854, these dinosaurs should have been a spectacular part of it.
Sadly, although being Grade I listed, the works were placed on the Heritage at Risk register earlier this year because of their deteriorating state. Hawkins constructed the sculptures by casting concrete over a metal armature. Over time, as moisture has penetrated the works and corroded this, they have become extremely fragile. It is thought that the landscaped islands on which they are situated may also have shifted, further destabilising them.
These sculptures have survived two world wars, the loss of the Crystal Palace in a fire in 1936 and long periods where anything Victorian was completely out of fashion. As Londoners try to piece their lives back together after a global catastrophe, spare a thought for some of our vulnerable forebears.
You can donate to the Friends of Crystal Palace Dinosaurs on their website. We’ll let you know if there is a dedicated crowdfunder for the conservation of the sculptures.
Take a virtual tour of lots of London’s major museums and galleries.
It’s not just physical things in danger right now. The Globe is warning it might not survive.