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Beasts in the Walls

April 23, 2014

Relief Sculptures at the Natural History Museum, London

1 main doors

When I was a boy in the 1960s, I was very fortunate that my family spent a year living in London. We visited the museums in South Kensington many times; I particularly loved the Science Museum and the Natural History Museum. In hindsight, it seems strange that I never noticed the spectacular details on the exterior of the latter institution, but I attribute this oversight to two factors. First of all, like most London buildings at that time it was still cloaked with a layer of coal grime, received courtesy of the age of steam (a huge amount of coal was burned in London until the practice was banned after the killing “pea souper” fogs of the 1950s). Second, and perhaps most importantly, my seven-year-old self was desperate to get inside to see the dinosaurs and ichthyosaurs, and would not take the time to look at anything else.

During a visit in the summer of 2010, my fiftysomething-year-old self was able to consider the building’s architecture at leisure, between attending sessions of the International Palaeontological Congress. The museum, designed by Alfred Waterhouse, was opened in 1881; its exterior and interior are clad in terracotta tiles produced in Staffordshire, and among the tiles are a tremendous number and variety of relief sculptures of creatures and plants. These decorations would make the building worth visiting even if it contained no dinosaurs. Which, fortunately, is not the case.

2 outside wall 1

It seems that every window features a different creature and a different variation on the columns.

3 pterosaur

A pterosaur on its perch, surrounded by tree trunks and foliage

4 columns 2

These columns appear to represent a stylized Carboniferous Lepidodendron (or maybe a related genus?).

5 window1

A diverse biota of invertebrates inhabits the space between windows.

6 eurypterid

This eurypterid swims across a tile on an interior wall.

7 placoderm

A placoderm, an early armoured fish from the Paleozoic Era

8 fish 2

Two fishes of mid Paleozoic aspect

9 fish1

10 dinosaur

The central hall, with Diplodicus in the foreground and the statue of Charles Darwin on the stairs




10 Comments leave one →
  1. Steve Brandy permalink
    April 24, 2014 8:00 am

    It is truly touching to see the total enthusiasm that the stonemasons and carvers brought to their work in these 19th century buildings. Their creations were labours of love…. a contrast to the drier, strictly practical buildings that are constructed now. It is more than obvious by your knowledgeable comments Graham, that they also knew a great deal of paleontology!

    • Graham permalink*
      April 24, 2014 10:31 am

      Thank you, Steve. The sculptures at the NHM are actually cast terracotta rather than carved (I think this was a new technique at the time), but yes, they are truly marvellous and skilful decoration.

  2. April 24, 2014 9:40 am

    I visited the museum in 1997 and spent the entire day wandering around. It is just an amazing place, a national treasure for sure. The attention to detail in the relief sculptures is inspiring. Thanks for your comments , Graham.

    • Graham permalink*
      April 24, 2014 10:31 am

      Many thanks for your comment also!

  3. April 24, 2014 2:48 pm

    What a fantastic building! I wonder how many people have enjoyed it as much as you, and now us. Thank you!

  4. Gary David Bell permalink
    April 24, 2014 4:23 pm

    Hi Graham et al… A wonderful building! No competition for the NHM of course is the ROM in Toronto with low-relief sculptures around the old main entrance. Real (well fossilized) beasts in walls can be seen in several Canadian cities. These buildings are clad in the so called Tyndall limestone and are full of invertebrates; cephalopods, corals receptaculetes, and snails, some quite large. The Museum of Civilization in Gatineau, the former CPR North Toronto station (nicely restored by the liquor store owner) the former Eaton’s College Street building are other examples. The Parliament in Ottawa is finished inside with the non-fossiliferous version of this stone. There are numerous buildings in the West, Manitoba and Alberta have many examples. Hunting them all up would be a challenging task. Interesting to think of how much of what we have is founded on the life of the past, coal, oil, natural gas, concrete (processed limestone), iron…

    Gary Bell Toronto Canada

    Date: Thu, 24 Apr 2014 02:58:13 +0000 To:

    • Graham permalink*
      April 25, 2014 9:45 am

      Thank you Gary! That reminds me that I keep meaning to write some longer blog posts about Tyndall Stone. For those who are interested, a summary of Tyndall Stone usage, its deposition, and fossils can be found in our field trip guidebook “Geology of the Manitoba Legislative Building” (by Jeff Young, Graham Young and William C. Brisbin). This can be downloaded as a pdf from

  5. Christine Koch permalink
    April 25, 2014 8:46 am

    What a spectacular facade, inside and out! Thanks for sharing!

    • Graham permalink*
      April 25, 2014 9:41 am

      Christine, many thanks for your visit.

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