Beasts in the Walls
Relief Sculptures at the Natural History Museum, London
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.