British artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins, who sparked dinosaur mania in the nineteenth century, still influences how natural history museums represent prehistoric life today.
By Robert McCracken Peck
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; he also produced a wealth of drawings, paintings, and lithographs to illustrate the publications of such influential figures as Charles Darwin and Thomas Huxley. Indeed, no other artist had direct involvement with so many of the leading scientific lights of that seminal period. Yet Hawkins, who changed forever the way people thought of time and the history of life on Earth, never came to believe in evolution.
The beginnings of Hawkinss 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 Londons Crystal Palace. The building, which had originally housed the Great Exhibition of 1851 in Hyde Park, was to be re-erected as part of a commercially owned and operated exhibition ground in Sydenham, in South East London. A landscaped park was to feature lakes, fountains, and a series of islands on which Britains geological and paleontological history would be portrayed for the public to enjoy. Hawkins was given a prime location, a substantial budget, and a mission, in his own words,
for the first time to illustrate and realisethe revivifying of the ancient worldto call up from the abyss of time and from the depths of the earth, those vast forms and gigantic beasts which the Almighty Creator designed with fitness to inhabit and precede us in possession of this part of the earth called Great Britain.
With scientific guidance from Richard Owen, the eminent comparative anatomist and paleontologist who was head of natural history collections at the British Museum, Hawkins went about his re-creation of the prehistoric world with typical diligence, carefully researching the current understanding of geology, stratigraphy, geography, and paleontology.
SINCE THE END of the eighteenth century, fossil finds in Great Britain and elsewhere in Europe had stimulated thinking about prehistoric life on Earth. Discoveries by naturalists and collectors had provided tangible evidence that large reptiles once roamed the oceans and shorelines of a pre-Adamite world. In 1821, British paleontologist Gideon Mantell and his wife, Mary Ann, discovered the fossil teeth of a large reptile in Sussex. Mantell eventually named the creature from which the teeth had come Iguanodon because of a similarity between the fossil teeth and those found in living iguanas.
Over the next few decades, as other fossils were discovered, scientists began to acknowledge that they might represent newfound classes of ancient creatures whose existence had previously been unknown. In a paper published by the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1842, Owen proposed assigning the name Dinosauria, or terrible lizards (from the Greek deinosterribleand sauroslizard), to three of the terrestrial finds.
Hawkins had followed the news of those discoveries and scientific debates with great interest. Now he was given the opportunity to examine the actual fossils at the British Museum, the Royal College of Surgeons, and the Geological Society and in other collections around England. Using them as the foundation for his speculative reconstructions, Hawkins created clay models of dinosaurs, extinct reptiles, and early mammals. He worked to scale, one-sixth to one-twelfth the natural size. Once his models were approved by Owen, Hawkins began turning them into full-size sculptures. In an address to the Royal Society of Arts, he later explained the enormous undertaking:
Some of these models contained 30 tons of clay, which had to be supported on four legs, as their natural history characteristics would not allow of my having recourse to any of the expedients for support allowed to sculptors in an ordinary case. I could have no trees, nor rocks, nor foliage to support those great bodies, which, to be natural, must be built fairly on their four legs. In the instance of the Iguanodon [it] is not less than building a house upon four columns, as the quantities of material of which the standing Iguanodon is composed, consist of 4 iron columns 9 feet long by 7 inches diameter, 600 bricks, 650 5-inch half-round drain tiles, 900 plain tiles, 38 casks of cement, 90 casks of broken stone, making a total of 640 bushels of artificial stone.
Although Hawkins tried, when possible, to re-create extinct animals of which the entire, or nearly entire skeleton had been exhumed in a fossil state (namely Iguanodon, Plesiosaurus, and Megatherium), there were some, such as the Mosasaurus, of which only the fossil skull and a few detached bones of the skeleton had been discovered. These Hawkins only partially represented, obscuring their unknown body parts in the water that surrounded his island displays. Other species, such as the Labyrinthodon and Dicynodon, he tried to reconstruct imaginatively. Although plausible by mid-nineteenth-century standards, and convincing to the public, those sculptures were, in Owens words, more or less conjectural.
While the accuracy of Hawkinss reconstructions couldand wouldbe debated among the scientific cognoscenti, the life-size antediluvian monsters made an enormous impression upon the many people who saw them. Millions of visitors flocked to the Crystal Palace and its beautiful grounds after the exhibition was opened by Queen Victoria in June 1854. Forty thousand people attended the opening ceremonies alone.
Hawkinss work at Sydenham firmly established his reputation: no one else had ever combined an artistic interpretation of the fossil evidence with the complex engineering skills needed to reconstruct such colossal creatures on a life-size scale. Inevitably, in a fast-emerging field such as paleontology, new discoveries and interpretations would soon reveal errors in Hawkinss speculative reconstructions. But whatever criticisms were leveled at the sculptures were really thinly veiled attacks on Richard Owen, whose imperious personality and conservative (and later, anti-evolutionary) views made him a popular target for younger scientists. Such critiques did little to diminish Hawkinss achievement. While a small number of scholarly publications had been discussing and even illustrating deep time for a century or more, it was Hawkinss installations that brought the concept into the open and began to prepare the public for the contentious debates about evolution that were to emerge within just a few years.
IN 1868, AFTER A HIATUS in which he mainly worked as a freelance illustrator and lecturer, Hawkins received a second major commission, to create a grand Paleozoic Museum in New York City. There he would undertake the resuscitation of a group of animals of the former periods of the American continent in Central Park. Community leaders, self-conscious about what they considered the citys cultural shortcomings, envisioned an installation comparable to the one at the Crystal Palace.
Just what to put in the new museum was another matter. The discovery of the first reasonably complete dinosaur skeleton in New Jersey ten years earlier, along with additional finds in England, revealed that Hawkinss heavy, mammal-like reconstructions of Iguanodon and Megalosaurus were in error and that Owens ideas about the appearance of those creatures had been wrong. Hawkinss new challenge was to design a dynamic display of life-size extinct animals from America, as he phrased it, clothed in the forms which science now ventures to define.
Because neither the specimens nor the scientific expertise he required were available in New York, Hawkins traveled to Philadelphia, to the Academy of Natural Sciences, to seek the advice of Joseph Leidy, a curator who had become the countrys leading expert on prehistoric life. Leidy was generous in sharing his deep knowledge and innovative thinking about dinosaurs with Hawkins, to whom he gave access to the important fossil specimens in his care at the Academy.
In September 1868, with Leidys encouragement and the approval of the Academys curators, Hawkins began the painstaking process of reconstructing a complete skeleton of Hadrosaurus foulkii, a thirty-foot herbivore. The result forever changed the way dinosaurs were displayed in museums around the world. Up to that time, dinosaur bones, if they were exhibited at all, were usually shown as isolated paleontological specimens, without context or meaning to any but a very few specialists. With Leidys guidance, Hawkins took a new approach to the ancient bones. He carefully suspended plaster casts, bone by bone, from a metal armature, filling in the missing bones with plaster reconstructions, and topping his model with an invented skull, based loosely on the skull of a modern-day iguana. In a little more than two months of feverish activity, he created the first fully articulated dinosaur-skeleton display in the world, which he presented as a gift to the Academy in thanks for the institutions generosity in allowing him access to its collections.
Hawkinss Hadrosaurus skeleton was put on exhibition in the Academys museum in November 1868. The publics response was overwhelming. Even though the museum was open to the public only two afternoons a week (and closed for the month of August), nearly 100,000 people came to see the Hadrosaurus foulkii in 1869almost twice as many as had visited the museum in the previous year.
Most of the Academys members were highly appreciative of Hawkinss gift, but not everyone was pleased with its unexpected consequences. In a year-end report, the secretary described the wreckage the new Hadrosaurus display was causing in the formerly staid Academy:
The crowds lead to many accidents, the sum total of which amounts to a considerable destruction of property, in the way of broken glass, light wood work, &c. Further, the excessive clouds of dust produced by the moving crowds, rest upon the horizontal cases, obscuring from view their contents, while it penetrates others much to the detriment of parts of the collection.
Hawkins had introduced dinosauromania to America. The curators concluded that the only way to reduce the excessive number of visitors was, for the first time in the Academys history, to charge an admission fee.
Despite the tremendous success of his display in Philadelphia, Hawkinss New York venture did not fare so well. Corrupt politicians in Tammany Hall, led by the infamous William Boss Tweed, suspended Hawkinss contract in the middle of his work on the lucrative museum project. When Hawkins complained publicly of their interference, their retribution was shockingly brutal and complete. On May 3, 1871, a gang of vandals, hired by one of Tweeds henchmen, broke into Hawkinss New York studio and completely destroyed the models, molds, and completed sculptures that Hawkins had been preparing for over three years.
Five months later Tweed and his gang were arrested, to be tried and convicted for their egregious corruption, but for Hawkins, this justice came too late. The great Paleozoic Museum he had been hired to imagine and create would never recover. Heartbroken by the loss of his work, Hawkins moved on to other projects, augmenting his artistic commissions with a busy schedule of public lectures on life in the prehistoric world. Those lectures, though popular, were not what one might have expected from the man who had brought dinosaurs to life.
HAWKINS HAD ONCE WORKED for Darwin as an illustrator, on The Zoology of the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle (published 183943), and had received letters of endorsement from him. Subsequently the artists vision of the prehistoric world had been affected by Darwins theories, leading him to create violent and competitive scenes of deep time. Ironically, though, Hawkins never became a believer in evolution.
The themes of stability in natures design and human superiority to the rest of creation were ones to which Hawkins subscribed long before his arrival in America, even in publications ostensibly devoted to art. In his introduction to A Comparative View of the Human and Animal Frame (1860), for example, Hawkins expressed his belief that one primary pattern was created and fixed by the Almighty Architect in the beginning, and persistently adhered to through all time to the present day.
Bolstered in his beliefs by contact with well-known anti-evolutionists, Hawkins became even more open about his anti-Darwinian beliefs after his arrival in America. In a series of well-illustrated public talks, Hawkins explained the harmonious fitness of all animals for that place in Creation, which they were originally designed to fill.
IN 1875, after completing a long American lecture tour, Hawkins was invited to create mural-size oil paintings of ancient life for the Elizabeth Marsh Museum of Geology and Archaeology at the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University). Hawkins saw the commission as his chance to make permanent his vision of past life as it had been createdand ultimately destroyedby God. He fashioned a sort of panorama made up of seventeen canvases. Each painting reflects a particular time and place and has its own self-contained composition and story, and yet they are clearly intended to be seen together, an animated time line of life on Earth.
Like a theatrical set designer, Hawkins used light to evoke the eerie atmosphere of the world before humanity. Landscapes and seascapes devoid of vertebrates are shown as morning scenes, the literal dawn of life. As the Sun (or Moon) rises and intensifies in subsequent scenes, vertebrates appear and move onto the land. Early mammal life, including mastodons, hyenas, and saber-toothed cats, are illuminated by a filtered but fully risen Sun, more closely approximating atmospheric conditions that contemporary audiences would have found familiar.
The most dramatic and arresting of Hawkinss paintings are of the creatures he knew best from the Cretaceous and Jurassic periods. Cretaceous Life of New Jersey appears to be an expanded version of the scene he proposed creating in three dimensions for New Yorks ill-fated Paleozoic Museum. It shows a group of three predatory tyrannosauroid Laelaps (now called Dryptosaurus) attacking a retreating pack of hadrosaurs. The pyramidal composition of the painting focuses the viewers attention on a life-and-death struggle between two of the giant dinosaurs whose bones had been found not far from Princeton, in the greensand deposits of New Jersey. In the paintings foreground two mosasaurs and four elasmosaurs (species studied firsthand by Hawkins at the Philadelphia Academy) watch the conflict from the relative safety of the sea.
Hawkinss painting of Jurassic Life of Europe seems to pay homage to his earlier work for the Crystal Palace. Here a frightened herd of iguanodons are shown retreating from a snarling,
THE OILS WENT on public display at the College of New Jerseys Elizabeth Marsh Museum, then in Nassau Hall, in conjunction with a new cast of Hawkinss Hadrosaurus foulkii. To the colleges four hundred undergraduates and twenty-some faculty members, the creations must have offered an arresting view of the primordial world. The paintings were rehung in a new building devoted to geology and biology in 1909 and continued to be on view until 2000. Now stored in the Princeton University Art Museum, they are seldom displayed, but they remain powerful testaments to Hawkinss vision.
Hawkins spent his final years in England. By the time he died in 1894, at the age of 86, scientific thinking had moved on, and his views on prehistoric life were no longer welcome. His Crystal Palace creations fell into disrepair and his name was all but forgotten, even in the places where he had lived and worked so intensely. In recent years, however, Hawkinss contributions to the history of science and art have begun to gain new recognitionnot least of all for his lasting influence on how natural history museums engage the public. And now refurbished, his antediluvian monsters once again draw visitors to Sydenham.
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