During Autumn 2020 Invisible Palace worked with artist Dawn Pereira to develop a walking tour of the sculptures of Crystal Palace, due to lockdown 3 it has not been possible to do this walk. Instead we would like to share it virtually.
On the first part of our #SculptureSaturdays walk with Dr Dawn Pereira, we encounter the semi-draped sculpture known as the ‘Headless Woman (Nymph)’, positioned roughly where the South Nave of the Crystal Palace once stood, with the 27-foot-high glass fountain by Follett Osler, forming the centrepiece of this section.
Her original location and name are unknown, but it is likely she was always an external piece, carved in stone, rather than cast in plaster of Paris, the material used for most of the indoor sculptures.
As we'll discover, many of the surviving artworks have been through a unique journey, relocated around the site throughout their history, so frequently needing to adapt to their surroundings or be presented in new ways.
Today, the ‘Headless Woman’ sits forlornly on a representation of a wall or pile of rocks, her hands in her lap and her ankles crossed, with the bus station now as her backdrop.
Walking along the top of the park gives us a sense of the vast scale of the original cast iron and glass building - Queen Victoria stated that the sun shining through the transept gave it a fairy-like appearance and it was soon nicknamed the ‘Crystal Palace’.
It's sad that we'll never get to see that amazing structure, but if you look carefully there are reminders everywhere of its past glory, with railings and stone foundations dotted around.
Beyond these are more tangible structures. Initially the Crystal Palace Low-Level Station opened in 1854 and was linked to the south wing of the main building by a long glass corridor, the ‘Crystal Colonnade’, where there was an avenue of flowers and climbing plants.
This was joined by the High-Level Station in 1865 running parallel with the main façade. It contained an ornate Byzantine-style subway with vaulting in red and cream brick and chequered floors in alternating stone, and it was perceived as an ‘architecturally imaginative and elegant solution’ to transport visitors beneath the road.
The street-level part of the High-Level Station was demolished in the early 1960s, and the subway for a time was bricked up. At one point, it also acted as a general store, housing two wrapped up bronze nude statues, ‘Power’ and ‘Speed’, which had previously adorned the English Electric building in Aldwych. Today we can just about peep into the subway’s rich interior, but watch this film clip to see more!
With thanks to @cpsubway for letting us borrow the film clip and to Melvyn Harrison at Crystal Palace Foundation for sharing his memories and photos with the filmmakers.
Matthew Digby Wyatt and Owen Jones were responsible for the decorations of the new Crystal Palace and travelled the world making plaster casts of the most celebrated statuary, sculptures and reliefs.
Italian sculptor Raffaele Monti was hired to design and build much of the external statuary including fountain basins, urns and vases, with the Italian Terraces and English Landscape Garden laid out by Edward Milner, designed under Joseph Paxton’s supervision.
After the fire of 1936, all that remained of the structure were the two water towers, the framework of the North Nave, and ‘plaster effigies in formless confusion among the debris’.
Today in the grounds we can still see the grand terrace walls, the Sphinxes and sculpture but less obvious are the stone vases and urns. The distinctive fluted urns lined staircases, were silhouetted along the top of the balustrades or positioned around the edge of the fountains. The tall vases were more ornate with moulded decoration, some with scrolls and swags, even pairs of high relief heads that formed handles.
If you look carefully on your visit, you may spot some remnants of the cups, stems and bases dotted around - let us know what you can find!
According to the 1856 edition of the ‘Guide to the Crystal Palace and Park’ by Samuel Phillips, 26 statues were positioned along the stone balustrades, steps and projecting bastions of the upper terrace, representing what were considered the most important commercial and manufacturing countries in the world, as well as the chief cities of England and France.
The guide gave the title and initial positioning of these works, but they soon altered, with an undated colour lithograph/photo taken before the serious fire of 1866 capturing some in the order that we know today.
Now the only reasonably complete statue is the turbaned male thought to symbolise Turkey. It was created by Italian born artist Baron Carlo Marochetti (1805-1867), who was a favourite of the British Royal Family. He also sculpted the statues representing India, Egypt and Greece, and Phillips’s guide tells us these were all initially positioned on the ‘Sydenham side’ of the terrace.
As our only statue with a head, look at his face and luxuriant beard, his robes are richly embroidered, and folds of drapery form his cloak. Try and see if you can find remnants of colour, as Marochetti was said to be a fan of ‘sculptural polychromy’.
In the British Pathé newsreel ‘Crystal Palace’ (1967) the narrator describes the four remaining upper terrace sculptures as ‘remnants of bygone times’. Firstly, we see a close-up of Carlo Marochetti’s ‘Turkey’ freshly painted white, joined by a bare-chested male which represented ‘India’. The film cuts to the ‘Hollow Lady’ with a refined face and crown, modestly draped but just her hands missing. By 1981, she is headless, surrounded by strewn masonry with the hollow back we see today, the hole in this case causes the wind to blow through, the sound described 'like people talking'; let us know what you can hear.
The camera pans across to a male figure wearing a hat and heavy tunic, leading a Llama, thought to represent South America and created by Raffaelle Monti, but now all that remains is a mass of stone and metal. Protruding parts of figures could be vulnerable so supports were added to connect arms and legs to the main sculpture, often aided by tree trunks or columns to give extra stability, if you look closely at the edge you can just make out a two-toed foot.
As the visitors came out of the Crystal Palace, they were greeted by the twelve Sphinxes, placed at key positions along the Upper Terrace. These were similar to those housed inside the Tropical transept at the north end of the Palace, the two 72ft seated figures of Egyptian pharaoh Rameses II, joined by an avenue of at least eighteen sphinxes that were cast from one held in the Louvre.
A hand tinted lithograph c.1860 depicted them in terracotta red, on one side of their shoulders written in hieroglyphics was the name of the King Shishak I, and on the other ‘Pthalomen Miotph’.
In the early 1960s the Sphinxes were badly marked, but by 1967 the ‘Crystal Palace’ Pathé film revealed one painted cream with bright red lips, the narrator considering that these ‘Egyptian imitations were symbols of this costly façade’.
Of the six remaining sphinxes, until recently, their cement surfaces were discoloured and brick cores exposed in places. However, during this latest repair and conservation, terracotta red has been chosen as their new colour, based on the samples of paint layers added over the years.
The photogenic Sphinxes have provided a great backdrop to Park life across many generations - do share with us your memories and images too!
Along the lower terrace, we find the statue of ‘Dante’ the Italian poet, writer and philosopher, looking out from what is thought to be the location of the original Penge Place house.
He is dressed in a long robe, grasping a scroll and is another headless figure! A Historic England photo from 1981 shows the figure with head still intact, although the nose is slightly chiselled off.
Prominent behind Dante is the 'Phoenix Tower', which featured in a film made to chart the planning and construction of the mast in 1957.
Another film the 'Pleasure Garden' is an ‘ode to desire’, a daydream directed by the avant-garde American poet James Broughton. This captures a snapshot of the Park in 1953, filmed amongst the standing and fallen statues, with the actors responding to the environment. One young lady recreates a statue’s pose; a male artist contemplates the aesthetics of his abstract sculpture set next to the original works and further players exercise on and around the sculptures.
Although a fantasy interpretation, people today paint, read, run, and practise martial arts and weight training. How do you respond to the park and its sculpture?
As a child looking up at the giant head with its flowing locks and heroic stare, there was a mix of fear and wonder. Yet this was never meant to be viewed so close to. Press reports tell us that the 8 ft Carrara marble bust initially rose 31 feet above the ground.
In 1873, the commemorative work had been unveiled on the lower terrace, the bust carved by William Frederick Woodington and considered a good likeness of Paxton. It stood on a grand Portland stone base, with the upper part in red Portland cement in imitation of porphyry. Incised into one of the attached slabs was the Latin phrase ‘Si monumentum queris circumspice,’ meaning: ‘If you seek his monument look around.’
By the 1930s, the memorial had moved further down the terrace with Paxton’s bust facing the Palace, the ornate base retained but on a shorter plain middle section and this can be viewed in the ‘Pleasure Garden’ film (1953). See also this image from 1930.
By 1967 the ‘Crystal Palace’ newsreel captured the gigantic head just peeping over the Ledrington entrance gates, now placed on a square brick plinth turned to face the futuristic structure of the Recreation Centre, linking what remained of Paxton’s legacy with the new. Here's an image from 1961.
Affectionately known as Stone Penge the board marked concrete area behind the Paxton Memorial has a curious origins.
In 1952, the London County Council had taken over the derelict grounds of the park with plans for a new £2,700,000 Recreation Centre to stand where the great fountain basins had originally flowed.
As part of the LCC's Patronage of the Arts’ programme in 1962, the committee decided to purchase a copy of Reg Butler’s sculpture ‘Girl on a Wheel’, to be placed on a mound in the ‘general layout by the architects with seats, planting, etc.’
Butler’s female figures suspended in space evolved during the 1960s into more sensual forms that created a feeling of unease. By 1966, the commission had still not materialised and the sculptor later admitted that his work had become ‘too intimate and personal’ for public sites.
This situation possibly enabled the landscape architecture to take on a more prominent role and in 1967 the British Pathé newsreel revealed a fleeting shot of the pristine concrete seating, the central tall panels contained information boards and the outer edge finished with wooden planks to form seatbacks.
Who can resist touching the smooth Belgian fossil marble surface of David Wynne’s Gorilla’, the sculpture modelled on Guy (1946-78), London Zoo’s star attraction? The sculptor was fascinated with animal forms and studied this Western Lowland gorilla for months in his zoo setting, gaining trust by bringing offerings of food.
Wynne then created the sculpture in his Putney studio with the assistance of stone masons, taking nine months to drill carve and polish the flinty stone.
'Gorilla' had initially been destined for Foxborough Gardens Estate in Lewisham, commissioned as part of the LCC’s Patronage of the Arts Scheme. Yet possibly this wasa too unusual concept for an intimate housing estate. In 1962 the Council’s Parks Committee agreed to its siting at Crystal Palace Park, positioned by the lower lake on a simply inscribed, roughly finished granite plinth.
Wynne wanted to capture the love felt for ‘gentle giant’ Guy and the sculpture has proved popular as a tactile form for small children to play on.
The sculptor however also strove to capture the essence of the 'mighty beast’ - look carefully to see how Wynne implied the weight-bearing strength of Guy’s long fore limbs and sensitively observed the knuckles which pressed into the marble base below.
Visitors to the south-east corner of the newly designed park would have seen an extraordinary tidal lake display, designed to demonstrate the mineral deposits that had supported Britain’s economic growth, and the now-extinct animals that had roamed the land in pre-historic times.
Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins’ iconic creations are now collectively known as the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs, although just four of the sculptures depict dinosaurs - the rest are mammals, amphibians and marine reptiles. Working with eminent scientists to ensure the best possible anatomical accuracy, Waterhouse Hawkins and his team built realistic sculptures using various materials.
Walking down to the Dinosaurs today from Crystal Palace railway station, you will encounter the layout as intended by the artist. The sculptures are set out chronologically, from the Labyrinthodons 235 million years ago, to the Irish Elk 8000 years ago. You will see islands, separated by water. This was a deliberate design feature, demonstrating periods in geological time where no fossils had yet been found.
The sculptures are today listed on the ‘At Risk Register’. Although they have had conservation work completed since they were built, this has been restricted to a select few in recent years. A new project seeks your help in tracking damage to the sculptures - send your old photos of the Dinosaurs to email@example.com and help with their conservation.
Thanks to the Friends of Crystal Palace Dinosaurs for preparing the above information as part of the sculpture series.
In the last part of our Sculpture Saturday series, we come back to our mystery sculpture ‘Headless Woman’.
Looking through a 1909 inventory reveals that a marble statuary figure on a stone pedestal called ‘Psyche’ was positioned around one of six basins that stood on the top terrace and joined by five further marble sculptures Apollo, Italian Dancing Girl, Discobolus, Venus with the Apple and Dancing Girl.
When we compare ‘Psyche Abandoned’ (1817) by Italian artist Pietro Tenerani with our ‘Headless Woman’ we see the same intricate folds of drapery and position of hands.
Psyche was the Greek term for soul or spirit and often depicted with wings, as one meaning for the word was butterfly. The rectangular squares indicate where the wings would have been attached and we finally see how her gracefully sculpted head would have originally looked.
Tenerani was inspired by the ‘feeling of melancholic meditation on the loss of those dear to us’, an apt sentiment for current times. Our ‘Psyche’ is alone now, but this sculpture symbolises a sign of hope because in the last part of this story obstacles are overcome, and she and Cupid are reunited.
Photo of Pietro Tenerani's Psiche abbandonata in the Gallerie d'Italia di Milano by Paolobon140