Friday 31 July 2020

Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins: the first grand master of palaeoart

Few of us need an introduction to the Crystal Palace dinosaur sculptures (here shown during construction in 1854), or their artist, Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins, but not many of us know much about Hawkins or his work beyond this one installation, thus overlooking a major contributor and pioneer in the early history of palaeoart. Image from the Friends of Crystal Palace Dinosaurs blog.

Most of us would agree that palaeoart history is marked by a few key figures that, for one reason or another, define their generation. Knight, Burian, and Paul are perhaps the most considered of these, each producing an iconic portfolio of work that set the bar for other artists and recast how we might view and consume palaeoartworks. But the professional grandfather to all these famous figures is Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins, a familiar name to anyone interested in palaeoart or vertebrate palaeontology, and yet one that doesn't always receive the accolade and praise it perhaps deserves. Hawkins - whose life spanned 1807-1894 - became the first great palaeoartist at a time when both palaeoart and palaeontology was still finding their feet. We all know of Hawkins' work at Crystal Palace, where he built 33 life-sized restorations of prehistoric mammals, reptiles and amphibians as part of the grand educational and commercial extravaganza, but many of us do not know much about him, his other works, or even how groundbreaking and unique his Crystal Palace sculptures were, demonstrating the sort of good practise and insight that we regard as essential in modern palaeoart.

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Hawkins was a skilled anatomist who wrote several books on animal anatomy and form. These images, from his 1860 book A comparative view of the human and animal frame, show his mastery of osteology and anticipate the now-common convention of a dark soft-tissue silhouette behind our skeletal reconstructions.

An appreciation of Hawkins is helped by learning something of his life. Although featuring frequently in accounts of Victorian-age natural history, the details of Hawkins' life had not been pieced together in real detail until his great great, great-granddaughter Valerie Bramwell and historian Robert M. Peck synthesised his personal and professional records into a concise biography (Bramwell and Peck 2008). Hawkins' existence was an eventful one, including both great professional success and tragedy, as well as a complex and somewhat mysterious personal life. The latter is perhaps the most cryptic and unexpected part of the Hawkins story, as he somehow sustained nearly four decades of bigamy (juggling two wives and 10 children, seven of whom survived infancy) without his families discovering the deception. His strange domestic life was found out in the mid-1870s, not long before a string of personal tragedies and a stroke brought Hawkins' life to a sad, inauspicious end. But despite his bizarre private dealings, Hawkins seems to have been a well-liked, generous man known as hardworking, personable and charming, equally confident of his abilities as an artist and anatomist but also reverential and respectful to his peers, especially the academics and intellectuals he frequently worked with.

Hawkins never secured permanent or long-lasting employment but instead moved from commission to commission and project to project. Though he dabbled in a few other careers, his chief profession was creating art of animals - initially living, and eventually extinct. Known best today for his sculpture, Hawkins only began working in 3D during the 1840s, well after he had established himself as an expert painter and illustrator. He was regarded as a high-quality, experienced natural history artist early in his career such that, even before he reached his career peak - the Crystal Palace geological restorations - he was sought-after as an illustrator of zoological specimens. He produced art for many of the biggest names in contemporary palaeontology and biology, including William Buckland, Gideon Mantell, Richard Owen, Thomas Henry Huxley, Charles Darwin and Joseph Leidy (interestingly, Hawkins could have worked with another big name, Edward Cope, but he disliked and refused to work with him - see Desmond 1976). Hawkins' association with Darwin and Huxley is of interest because he became an outspoken anti-evolutionist in later life, a position he expressed directly and clearly in many of the popular public lectures he delivered in his post-Crystal Palace career.

Before Hawkins recreated extinct dinosaurs, he was a prolific and sought-after illustrator of the modern kind, along with many other types of animals. This illustration of a White-crested Kalij was produced for John Edward Gray's Illustrations of Indian Zoology (1830-1835). (From Bonhams; incidentally, original Hawkins' lithographs like this sell for hundreds or even thousands of pounds to private collectors, a sad contrast with the under-financed conservation of his Crystal Palace works.)

Hawkins was well-known for his expertise in animal anatomy and form, which he learned primarily from zoological museum specimens as well as drawing captive animals (Bramwell and Peck (2008) recount an urgent trip to Paris in 1849 to sketch a newly born giraffe calf). As would happen later with Charles Knight, this expertise with living animals was instrumental in his later work at reconstructing extinct ones. Hawkins authored several books on animal anatomy and from the 1850s onward spent a large amount of time - and commanded a high fee - for grand public lectures. At his lecturing acme, Hawkins produced large drawings of prehistoric animals on stage (of such size that a ladder was required to reach the top of the board canvas) to bring his restorations direct to his audience. A gleaming reputation among British academics meant he enjoyed a warm reception in the US where he was offered many auspicious platforms and opportunities by well-regarded officials and academic institutions. These included the production of (sadly never realised) Crystal Palace-like prehistoric animals installations in Central Park and the Smithsonian, and production of the first-ever mounted dinosaur skeleton (Hadrosaurus), of which several casts were made (of which only one skull survives).

Hawkins' Central Park Workshop, c. 1869, with an assembled Hadrosaurus mount and the beginnings of a Laelaps skeletal reconstruction alongside - note the mount outline to the right of the Hadrosaurus ;skeleton. This terrific image (reproduced from Bramwell and Peck 2008) is a treasure trove of detail: look out for various mouldings of reptile skin, including a carnivorous species on the left, real animal skeletons in the background and unmounted bone replicas on the floor (are these bits of Laelaps?). There's also a lack of vermin - Hawkins' Crystal Palace workshop was shown with rats and birds scampering over the floor, and described as lying among a muddy swamp. The content of this workshop was destroyed by order of corrupt New York politicians, which devasted Hawkins.

There's a lot more we could say about Hawkins career, but you get the point: Hawkins wasn't a flash-in-the-pan artist who happened to land the Crystal Palace gig, nor was he someone who just knew how to throw clay and concrete around to someone else's design. He was a distinguished and respected intellect with expertise in natural history and anatomy, and brought considerable experience to his palaeoart commissions. Indeed, historians are uncovering increasing evidence that Hawkins was the principle intellect behind many of the Crystal Palace sculptures. We touched on this in my previous discussions of the Crystal Palace palaeoartworks but it's worth repeating: Richard Owen, lauded by many (e.g. Phillips 1854; Owen 1894; Desmond 1979; Beaver 1986; McCarthy and Gilbert 1994) as the brains and overseer of the Crystal Palace models, was actually barely involved and may have even held disdain for this grand project (Secord 2004; Dawson 2016). Numerous pieces of evidence, the best of which are the private correspondence from Hawkins, Crystal Palace officials and others, show that Owen only visited the models once during their construction for the famous 1853 New Years's Eve banquet held in the clay Iguanodon. Most tellingly, Hawkins is on record as stating that Owen "afforded no assistance" while the models were being built (Dawson 2016). Owen later attempted - as was his custom - to take greater credit for his role in the project, but his actual contributions seem restricted to input on some early clay maquettes constructed by Hawkins; a short, incomplete guide book about the sculptures (Owen 1854); some promotional duties; and allowing his name to be used to give the restorations scientific authenticity. We can thus draw two conclusions: 1) having been largely abandoned by his consultant, Hawkins' expertise and anatomical confidence were probably instrumental in seeing the models realised and completed on time; and 2) the sculptures are not - as so often stated - Owenian theory brought to life, but Hawkins' personal take on the works of Owen, Mantell and Cuvier. This probably explains why, as we discussed previously, many details of the models are at odds with Owen's ideas, as well as the nitpicking tone his 1854 sculpture guidebook.

File:Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins Moas of Prehistoric New Zealand ...
Hawkins' 1870s take on the moa, produced for College of New Jersey (now Princeton University). The moa is not a creature we intimately associate with Hawkins, but its research history - where its form was predicted from a small amount of fossil material - underpinned Hawkins career as a palaeoartist. From Wikipedia.

It's in this largely unguided context that we have to view many of the details in Hawkins' Crystal Palace work as the product of a genuine palaeoart master, and especially so given their incorporation of an important but ultimately flawed 19th century way of interpreting extinct animals. Hawkins was a student of the then-in vogue Cuvierian philosophy of anatomical correlation: that is, the idea that whole animals could be reconstructed with some degree of precision from very few anatomical remains. This concept, explored in depth by Gowan Dawson in his 2016 book Show Me the Bone, gained traction after successful demonstrations in the early 1800s by Cuvier and then, most famously, by Owen's seemingly miraculous reconstruction of the moa from a femoral fragment. Anatomical correlation became the principle philosophy guiding the earliest visualisations of all poorly known extinct creatures and became celebrated as a scientific marvel in popular and academic spheres alike. Although some scholars - including Mantell - developed misgivings about anatomical correlation by the time the Crystal Palace project began in August 1852, Hawkins relied on this technique to restore his dinosaurs as well as Dicynodon, Mosasaurus and Labyrinthodon, none of which were known from more than scraps of bone at the time. In lieu of a reliable consultant, such predictive restorations might have been disastrous, had they ever been achieved at all, but Hawkins' anatomical expertise instead saw the creation of genuinely lifelike, plausible-looking restorations. Moreover, as discussed in my previous posts, his restorations of Crystal Palace are often more precedent than they first appear, anticipating not only many genuine aspects of prehistoric animal anatomy but also demonstrating sound, logical palaeoart approaches that we can approve of today.

The buffalo-like shoulder hump of Hawkins' Megalosaurus has a slightly complex backstory. Sometimes logically assumed to reference the tall-spined vertebrae of Altispinax dunkeri (a species once part of the Megalosaurus taxonomic complex), it was actually a Hawkinsian speculation that large-skulled dinosaurs needed vast neck and shoulders musculature to support their heads. Initial interpretations of Altispinax seemingly proved Hawkins right, but, of course, we've since realised that the Altispinax vertebrae belong much further down the body, possibly representing a Concavenator-like sail.

Using the dinosaur sculptures as an example of this, it's evident that Hawkins was anticipating the sort of anatomy that giant, somewhat mammal-like giant reptiles might have had to support their vast frames, and was moving well beyond the brief lifestyle and functional commentary provided by Owen and Mantell. He predicted, for instance, that the large heads of dinosaurs would need additional support from their shoulder regions, leading to the portrayal of both Megalosaurus and Iguanodon with shoulder humps of varying size (this is especially obvious in the Megalosaurus, but a shoulder prominence is also discernable in the reclined Iguanodon, while the shoulders of the standing animal bulge into a voluminous, rhino-like neck). This was an entirely sensible prediction that mirrors how we approach reconstructing fossil animals today: when we see robust and large osteological features, we assume they had correspondingly developed soft tissues for support and motion. In this respect Hawkins was ahead of some later artists who essentially ignored aspects of functional morphology and biomechanics in their work, leading to emaciated, peculiarly proportioned animals, such as the emaciated Stout and Kish dinosaur reconstructions from the 1970s and 1980s. Moreover, Hawkins was proved correct in assuming dinosaurs with large heads needed additional neck support, once (as it would turn out, erroneously) during his lifetime when Owen referred the tall-spined dorsal vertebrae of Altispinax dunkeri to the shoulder of Megalosaurus, specifically commenting on their use to support the head (Owen 1856) and, later, by the genuine shoulder and skull anatomy of ceratopsids and certain theropods, which bear augmented anatomy related to skull support.

Hawkins also predicted that dinosaur torsos may differ markedly depending on diet and habits, moreso than they do in conventional reptiles. The herbivorous Iguanodon has a vast belly that spreads in the reclined sculpture, simulating the weight of a large animal resting on a voluminous gut. In contrast, the Megalosaurus has a taut, narrow torso without a significant gut region, more in line with that of a carnivore. At this point in history virtually nothing concrete was known about dinosaur toro dimensions, so these reconstruction choices - also borne out by later discoveries - were sensible predictions of the functional properties of dinosaur guts. A third example concerns his dinosaur musculature, which was modelled after a mammalian, rather than lizard-like fashion. Though mammals are not the best reference for dinosaur myology, Hawkins was right in assuming that large, powerful animals needed large, powerful limbs, and realised that mammals were a more appropriate model than modern reptiles. In this regard, Hawkins was more insightful than some of his successors, who would restore dinosaurs with skinny, lizard-like limbs ill-suited to their (by then well-known and obvious) limb girdles (see artwork by Cope, Knight, Smit etc.). He also went so far as to add features in his art that we associate with especially thorough extinct animal reconstructions today, such as skin webs linking limbs and body, tissue deformation, pose-based muscle bulges and so on.

It's been said before, but it's worth saying again: the reclining Crystal Palace Iguanodon is an amazing work of animal reconstruction. This 30-tonne concrete and brick model captures minutiae of superficial musculature and other nuanced features of anatomy. The world had not seen anything like this in 1854, and even today it knocks the stuffing out of the detailing seen on many dinosaur sculptures.

These points demonstrate how excellent Hawkins was at solving anatomical 'problems' thrown up by fossil remains with an appropriate and sensible corresponding morphology. They belie an experience and instinct with anatomy and biological functionality that remains essential to high-quality palaeoart today, and this was undoubtedly a major factor in how these largely speculative creatures look so realistic. Hawkins' predictions were not always correct of course, but his decisions were logical given the material available to him - the best we can aim for in any palaeoartwork, regardless of its vintage. Needless to say, plenty of people were amazed by his work, and both its popularity and seeming scientific authenticity saw it referenced and replicated by artists for decades to come.

Because Hawkins is mainly known for the Crystal Palace models few people realise that he enjoyed a significant post-Crystal Palace career revolving around reconstructing extinct life. His skills were sought out by various bodies for use in museums, posters and other artworks. During lengthy visits to the United States, he almost re-realised the grandeur of the Crystal Palace models (first in Central Park, later the Smithsonian), but circumstances were never on his side and these projects never materialised or - in the case of the Central Park Paleozoic museum - were sabotaged. Hawkins continued to produce palaeoart until at least the 1870s where he completed what could be considered as his second most substantial set of palaeoartworks: 17 paintings of different geological periods for the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University). These artworks capture the evolution of Hawkins' personal ideas on prehistoric life and are also worth tracking down as exemplary takes on prehistory from the late 19th century. Among the most interesting is the 1877 painting Jurassic Life of Europe where Hawkins revisited his Crystal Palace subjects for (so far as I know) the final time. Hawkins got a lot of professional mileage from the Crystal Palace project and many of his subsequent artworks referenced his sculptures in detail, down to their posing, but by 1877 he must have realised that many of his reconstruction choices were no longer tenable. Both the now-hornless Iguanodon and Megalosaurus bear visibly short forelimbs, long, bird-like hindlimbs, and relatively slender necks with somewhat smaller, less bulky heads. Although still quadrupedal, these restorations indicate the influence of new dinosaur discoveries on Hawkins' classic dinosaur interpretations. This 1877 work might be criticised for his animals not having attained the status of true bipeds, as Hawkins realised was appropriate for both Hadrosaurus and "Laelaps", but consider that Megalosaurus was still considered to have powerful, bulky shoulders at this time (a holdover from Owen's interpretations) and that, while Iguanodon was considered by Mantell (1848) to have relatively gracile limbs capable of non-supportive functions (e.g. grasping vegetation), an explicit case for Iguanodon bipedality had not yet been made - the famous Bernissart Iguanodon skeletons would not be found until a year after Hawkins completed his painting, in 1878. Jurassic Life of Europe is surely among the last palaeoartworks where overtly Mantellian and Owenian interpretations of dinosaurs could be said to have some validity.

Hawkins' 1877 painting Jurassic Life of Europe, produced for the College of New Jersey (from Princeton University Art Museum).

Jurassic Life of Europe and its sister paintings demonstrate Hawkins' adaptability and humility as a palaeoartist. Much of Hawkins fame came from the Crystal Palace Company promoting their dinosaurs as authentic, wholly accurate creations, so their adaption to fit more modern ideals was an admission that his most revered work was not without some significant errors, and that the predictive principle at the heart of the geological court was not infallible. Concerns that the Crystal Palace sculptures were flawed were not new at this point (Dawson 2016) but, by the late 19th century, they were subject to increasing vicious comments from detractors. Othniel Marsh, speaking in 1895, remarked
The dinosaurs seem... to have suffered much from both their enemies and their friends. Many of them were destroyed and dismembered long ago by their natural enemies, but, more recently, their friends have done them a further injustice by putting together their scattered remains, and restoring them to supposed lifelike forms... So far as I can judge, there is nothing like unto them in the heavens, or on the earth, or in the waters under the earth. We now know from good evidence that both Megalosaurus and Iguanodon were bipedal, and to represent them as creeping, expect in their extreme youth, would be almost as incongruous as to do this by the genus Homo.
Othniel C. Marsh, 1895 (quoted in Desmond 1976)

Marsh and other late 19th century critics were, of course, not being entirely fair to Hawkins by comparing his work to their contemporary knowledge of prehistory, and not judging it by the standards of decades prior. Perhaps, for those living through the rapid paleontological advancements of the late 19th century, Hawkins' attempts to reconstruct fossil animals from fragmentary remains, and the genuine belief that they were credible takes on their true form, seemed premature, arrogant and foolish. There may be some truth to this: the 19th century acceptance of anatomical correlation is surely a major case of Dunning-Kruger effect, where scholars had yet to be humbled by the bewildering anatomical diversity present in Deep Time and believed their mastery of modern natural history equipped them to make bold, confident predictions about the past. But it's surely also the case that, while the science of his time was flawed, Hawkins' work was as true to that science as could realistically be expected. Like the kids say, don't hate the player.

Mark Witton on Twitter: "Yes, they seem to linger on in mainland ...
The final extinction of Hawkinsian dinosaurs: the frontispiece to Camille Flammarion's Le monde avant la création de l'homme& (1886). In this (possibly) last use of Hawkins' restorations in a non-historic, non-ironic context, a Crystal Palace Iguanodon (right) meets an early interpretation of Stegosaurus (left) - a representation of New World dinosaurs coming into focus. By this time, new European fossils had already made Hawkins' reconstructions long in the tooth, and American specimens were showing how wide of the mark his predictions were.

Hawkins' death in 1894 occurred without note, despite his significant contributions to science, public outreach, and education. Thankfully, his legacy has not gone neglected and increasing research into his life and work has seen his stock as an artist and intellect grow considerably, at least among academics. But it remains the case that showcasing Hawkins' work to even palaeoart fans sees it quickly dismissed, as by Marsh, as inaccurate and thus now worthless takes on prehistory. It's surely the case, however, that drawing attention to the inaccuracies of Hawkins' palaeoart is the most superficial and least interesting observation one can make of it, and defies the obvious fact that palaeoart of any kind must be evaluated in an appropriate historic context. Of course Hawkins' work is inaccurate, and pointing it out does not make one look smart or insightful. Rather, look closely and we see the work of someone who, with no prior experience in prehistoric animal restoration, took early palaeaort into a different league of quality and popularity; pioneered principles of soft-tissue restoration and attention to detail that we consider essential today; and demonstrated that even the most unusual extinct animals, with sufficient knowledge of living species, could be restored to plausible, life-like forms. The outdated science underlying Hawkins' work may make not it the most accessible of vintage palaeoart, but it's quality, the knowledge that informed it, and historic significance leaves little doubt that Hawkins was a true master of the genre, and worthy of deeper study and appreciation by palaeoart enthusiasts.


In June 2020 the face of the Crystal Palace Megalosaurus, surely one of the most iconic works of Victorian palaeoart on the planet, was significantly damaged. The survival of these works, and Hawkins' legacy, is a continued fight against the elements and the thoughtless people who routinely clamber over them. Image from the Friends of Crystal Palace Dinosaurs website.

Having just written about Hawkins at length, it would be remiss not to mention the terrible damage that recently occurred to the iconic Crystal Palace Megalosaurus, where the front of the face was broken off through suspected vandalism. The Friends of Crystal Palace Dinosaurs charity is now working to repair the damage with Historic England, Bromley Council and specialist conservators, as well as to address issues with the security of the island that houses most of Hawkins' sculptures. Note that this incident has nothing to do with the new bridge to the island, which has not yet been installed and, in any case, will be a rotating structure inaccessible to the public most of the time. Instead, the chief security issue is the low water level around the island, making it easy to access. As you can imagine, fixing this damage and ensuring the security of the Crystal Palace models is an expensive undertaking, so please support the charity if you can. If you really think Hawkins' work is worth preserving long-term, you can set up a recurring monthly donation - a small amount each month can quickly build into a substantial contribution, and gives the FCPD more reliable income over time.


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  • Bramwell, V., & Peck, R. M. (2008). All in the bones: a biography of Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. Academy of Natural Sciences.
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  • Desmond, A. J. (1976). The hot-blooded dinosaurs: a revolution in palaeontology. Dial Press.
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  • Owen, R. (1894). The Life of Richard Owen by His Grandson the Rev. Richard Owen,... with the Scientific Portions: An Essay on Owen's Position in Anatomical Science by the Right. John Murray.
  • Phillips, S. (1854). Guide to the Crystal Palace and park. Crystal Palace Library.
  • Secord, J. A. (2004). Monsters at the crystal palace. In: de Chadarevian, S, & Hopwood, N. (eds). Models: the third dimension of science, Stanford University Press. 138-69.