Friday, October 8, 2021

Animate the marble

‘Oh! how I wished I had the power to petrify the living, and animate the marble.’ So wrote Gideon Mantell, a 19th century doctor and obsessive fossil hunter, one hundred and seventy years ago today, following a visit to the Great Exhibition.

Both Mantell and The Great Exhibition have been the subject of past articles in The Diary Review - see Gideon Mantell - geologist and A terrible ordeal - but I can’t resist one diary entry that combines them both. By 1851, Mantell was living in London where he enjoyed being a very active member of the city’s scientific societies and forums. He was also very enthusiastic about The Great Exhibition and visited often, recording many and various thoughts in his diary.

One visit was on 8 October 1851, and these are his thoughts, as found in The Journal of Gideon Mantell, Surgeon and Geologist, published by Oxford University Press in 1940: ‘Went again to the Exhibition; the crowd tremendous; at the time I entered 97,000 persons were in the building; in the course of the day nearly 110,000 - one hundred and ten thousand! Vulgar, ignorant, country people; many dirty women with their infants were sitting on the seats giving suck with their breasts uncovered, beneath the lovely female figures of the sculptor. Oh! how I wished I had the power to petrify the living, and animate the marble: perhaps a time will come when this fantasy will be realised, and the human breed be succeeded by finer forms and lovelier features, than the world now dreams of.’

This article is a slightly revised version of one first published on 8 October July 2011.

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