Sunday, March 08, 2009

The Dinosaurs of Crystal Palace

Languishing around the lake at Crystal Palace park, in Sydenham, formerly Kent, now eaten up by SE London (borough of Bromley), are the world's first life-size models of dinosaurs (middle two pictures). Created in 1854, and pre-dating Darwin's Origin of the Species by some six years, in Victorian times this was the visual equivalent of watching Jurassic Park for the first time.

Though some of the impact has inevitably diminished, they are still fabulous (though apparently largely inaccurate). They were upgraded to Grade I listed in 2007. My daughter was somewhat underwhelmed by the concrete beasts, and preferred the bright red plastic play dinosaur in the nearby playground. Some weeks later we visited Wookey Hole which also has dinosaurs - alas, the lurid colours and 'realistic' dinosaur noises made more of an impression on her (picture top left).

The great exhibition of 1851 moved to Sydenham the following year (reopening in 1854) and hence the area became known as Crystal Palace after the great iron building containing over a million feet of glass. Unfortunately it was destroyed in a fire in 1936. The only remnants of former times are grand steps now leading nowhere, colonnades and archways, headless sculptures and several sphinxes (see photo top right) who presumably feel quite at home in the desert-like wasteland of the park.

Crystal Palace town itself also feels somewhat rundown but has some hidden charms. There are several intriguing markets well worth a visit. The Crystal Palace Antiques Warehouse is four floors stacked full of retro/vintage 20th century 'antiques' including furniture, paintings, mirrors, ceramics, and a nice collection of Polish film posters - all quite expensive. Round the corner is Haynes Lane Warehouse Market - last of the flea markets, positively over-flowing with retro rubbish, records, clothes, old toys, books and bric-a-brac - all absolutely fascinating. Best buys: Sylvac bunnies £5 each; Barney Bubbles designed Elvis Costello LPs £1 each. The Alma pub also has a market and an art exhibition (though we didn't make it there); another pub across the road had a fashion shop in it. A further bizarre bric-a-brac shop along the way has a range of electric blue mannequins, leather jackets and E.T. toys.

A couple of decent charity shops - oh yes, and a good CD sale at the library - rounded off a great morning of treasure hunting. We stopped off at the Blackbird bakery for a well earned coffee and carrot cake.

A short bus ride away is the fantastic refurbished Horniman museum from where it's a fifteen minute walk to the Dulwich Picture Gallery - two more of South East London's hidden gems. Frederick Horniman, Victorian tea merchant and collector, founded the Horniman museum in 1904 to house his huge collection of objects - masks, butterflies, spears, mummies, skeletons - amassed whilst travelling the world as a tea merchant. Putting aside any ethical considerations, it is a fantastic collection (but do-able in a day, unlike, say, the British Museum where one needs weeks). The museum is divided into anthropology, natural history and musical instruments. The new wing houses an aquarium, musical room, temporary art exhibitions and research library - with a grass lawn roof.

Designed by Sir John Soane (and you simply must see his house at 13 Lincoln's Inn Fields, London), Dulwich Picture Gallery is England's first purpose-built art gallery (I found this hard to believe too, but the National Gallery, say, wasn't built until 13 years later, in 1824). The collection is mainly old stuff, but good stuff: Rembrandt's gorgeous A Girl at a Window is the jewel in its crown but paintings by Hogarth, Gainsborough, Reynolds, Raphael, Veronese, Poussin, Claude, Rubens, Van Dyck and Canaletto aren't bad either.

We ran for a 37 bus from near Dulwich Village and were back in time for tea.

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