By Robert M. Peck
The Academy recently was given an extraordinary collection of original drawings, paintings, and sketchbooks made by a figure who revolutionized the way people thought about prehistoric life in the 19th century: Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins.
Hawkins (1807-1894) was a British artist and naturalist who made scientific illustrations for such important biologists as Richard Owen, Charles Darwin, and Thomas Henry Huxley.
He also made the first life-size reconstructions of dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures ever attempted. In 1854 his dinosaur sculptures at the Crystal Palace in Sydenham (South London) captured the attention of hundreds of thousands of people and introduced the world to “dinosauromania.”
Hawkins traveled to America in 1868 and to the Academy of Natural Sciences, where he worked closely with paleontologists Joseph Leidy and Edward Drinker Cope to create an articulated mount of Hadrosaurus foulkii, the first nearly complete dinosaur skeleton ever found. The display of that skeleton at the Academy’s (then) Broad Street headquarters drew hundreds of thousands of visitors to the museum in the years immediately following the Civil War.
An Ill-Fated Museum for New York
While he was in the U.S., Hawkins was commissioned to create a “Palaeozoic Museum” in Central Park, but the project ended in tragedy when the corrupt New York City politician “Boss Tweed” had Hawkins’ studio and all of its contents destroyed. The story of Hawkins’ ill-fated museum is the subject of the popular children’s book “The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins” by Barbara Kerley and Brian Selznick (Scholastic Press, 2001).
An Exhibition in Philadelphia
Because of its important relationship with Hawkins and to commemorate the bicentennial of his birth, the Academy in 2007 mounted an exhibition entitled Fleshing Out the Bones in the Academy’s Stewart Library. This first extensive exhibition ever organized on Hawkins featured books, manuscripts, and artifacts from the Academy’s collection.
As impressive as these were, the highlight of the show was a large collection of original drawings loaned to the Academy by the artist’s great, great, grand-daughter, Valery Bramwell, who hand-carried many of them from her home in England. Prior to the exhibition, none of this work had ever been seen or reproduced.
A Book Is Born
As the organizer of the exhibit, I had the pleasure of getting to know Valery and her husband Alan while working on the project. Soon our shared enthusiasm for Hawkins began to take on a life of its own.
After much discussion, we concluded that Hawkins’ story was such an important one that it deserved to be told in a way that would be more permanent and reach a larger audience than an exhibition. And so we began to collaborate on the first full-length biography of this remarkable figure.
It was a wonderful joint project to which Valerie contributed a section on the family history, and I wrote about Hawkins’ contributions to science and art. In 2008 “All in the Bones: A Biography of Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins” was published by the Academy with the financial backing of a long-time friend of the institution.
Happily, thanks to the generosity of the Bramwells, that primary source material has now come to take a permanent place in the archives of the Academy.
An Artist of Remarkable Scope and Talent
As one of the most versatile and prolific natural history artists of the Victorian age, Hawkins played a central role in the popularization of 19th-century science. His knowledge of comparative anatomy and versatility at painting enabled him to create beautiful and scientifically accurate illustrations of fish, reptiles, amphibians, birds, mammals, insects, and the fossils of long-extinct creatures, all of which are represented in the Bramwell gift.
Hawkins’ illustrations graced the pages of some of the most influential books of his day, from Charles Darwin’s “Zoology of the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle” (1839-1843) to Thomas Henry Huxley’s “Evidence as to Man’s Place in Nature” (1863).
By combining their unique collection of Hawkins’ original drawings with the significant archival collection of Hawkins material that was already at the Academy, the Bramwells have created an international center for the study of Hawkins and his art.
Robert M. Peck is Curator of Art and Artifacts and Senior Fellow of the Academy.
All illustrations courtesy of The Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University.
*Hawkins portrait – gift of Valerie Bramwell ANS-2014.018