Pressing the Natural History Museum Beasts

I passed the Natural History Museum recently and, once again, was struck by its confident decorative grandeur. Whilst aware of the massive size of the animal characters that sit every few metres along the roofline; some peering down at us, some gazing dismissively off to the distance;  I also enjoy the scale of the building, allowing the detail of these mutliple mascots to be visible and enjoyed from ground level as we walk on by…

I am reminded of the many towering 20, 40… 60 storey buildings  that  I’ve marvelled at over my Fellowship in the States. Skyscrapers which go to no less effort to addorn their soaring facades with wonder and characterful figures. With the help of an asset such as binoculars, however, I felt I was glimpsing a secret world. Its a strange feeling; exploring an otherwise private world, when stood on a large sidewalk surrounded by people and cars busying by.

I promised a colleague, who I enjoyed a coffee contemplating terracotta in Chicago with, a few images of the massive and mystical beasts that line the Natural History Museum and how they came to be:

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These pictures give an idea of the scale of these giant terracotta figures.

The original moulds were made by Gibbs & Canning at Tamworth when the Natural History Museum was built between 1860 and 1880. The figures were restored by Hathernware and the picture is of me, reaching right inside the mould as a fellow craftsman would have first done many a year ago to press these monumental beasts the first time round.

The mould for the head was made up of smaller pieces on the inside to create the detail and undercuts, this detailed mould was then encased within a larger mould to hold it all together. This is a good way of creating the strength required within a complex mould. Where possible two people would press the clay into the moulds, to try and get the huge moulds filled as quickly as possible, to prevent the clay first applied from drying out much before the last clay pressed. After several days we released the mould and, testament to the clay used, found few signs of cracking even on such a large press.

Having looked more closly at the figures on site, it seems that the bodies of the animals are all one of two types (the male is larger and bulkier and the female slightly more slight and muscley) They are incredibly well sculpted with the tense muscle tone sculpted into the clay and the moulds. Alongside the lion and lioness there are other other strange and mythical animals. Perhaps pause when you’re next at South Kensington and see what you can pick out.

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