The Great Exhibition of 1851
The Great Exhibition of the Works of All Nations was also called the Crystal Palace Exhibition, so named for the massive temporary glass structure in which it was held. Britain’s monumental project was fashioned after the successful French Industrial Exposition of 1844. From 1798 to the mid-1800s, France hosted eleven such Expositions in an effort to promote its own advanced technological and agricultural practices. During Europe’s age ofimperialism (from 1850 – 1914), European nations viewed the acquisition of colonies, mostly in Africa, as a top priority in expressing strength and superiority at the peak of the Industrial Revolution (1760 – 1850). Having colonies also meant access to a steady supply of materials that enhanced industry and influenced the arts.
Prior to the Great Exhibition of 1851, England held the Exhibition of Art Manufactures, which took place in the late 1840s and which were organized by Henry Cole, a civil servant and inventor in England also known for producing the first commercial Christmas card. In 1946 Henry met Prince Albert, the consort of Queen Victoria, and broached the idea to Albert of holding a grand exhibit in London similar to France’s successful 1944 Exposition. Albert was very involved with the Royal Society for the Encouragement of the Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (founded in 1754 and still in operation today as RSA). Henry supervised the organization of a Birmingham exhibit in a building totaling nearly 13,000 feet of exhibit space for manufactured show items. That year, there was also an Exhibition of British Manufacturers, devoted to precious metalwork. Albert and Henry appealed to the government, emphasizing that a grand-scale exhibit would be self-financing and show works from around the world in an Exhibit of All Nations. At first there was disinterest, till the case for profit was made. The Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851 was set up, and convened at the beginning of 1850. Mayors from all over Britain attended a meeting held by Albert to garner their support in raising money.
The Crystal Palace
Funds were raised—230,000 pounds. The British government allowed a bonded warehouse order to cover goods imported from other countries, so they didn’t have to pay import duties. A competition was set up for the building design, and over 230 submissions were received by the Commission, who selected that of Joseph Paxton. According to a biography on Water Gardeners International, Paxton developed his architectural skill through his employment as a manager of the Duke of Devonshire’s garden estates. He sketched his idea for the Great Exhibition building on a piece of blotting paper and finished the whole design nine days later. Amazingly, the entire building was completed in Hyde Park in only nine months.
At 1,851 feet long and 456 feet wide, and with a transept 108 feet high, the Crystal Palace was gigantic. The exhibit space totaled 700,000 square feet (much bigger than France’s Expositions), and covered 19 acres. Close to 150,000 pounds were spent on the materials, which consisted mainly of iron (550 tons) and glass (nearly a million feet). The enormous size concerned engineers, as such big ventures had been known to collapse from the resonance created by large numbers of people walking about. To mitigate these fears, an entire army was brought in to march up and down beneath an experimental construction. Once this test was passed, the building continued. On May 1, 1851, Queen Victoria opened the bedecked Crystal Palace to the crowds.
Over 17,000 exhibitors from around the globe presented works in the fields of art and industry. An Official Descriptive and Illustrated Catalogue listed the Exhibition’s works; the second volume of the catalogue was made a gift by William Everett to the Harvard College Library, and can be viewed online. In the south transept, for example, “woollen and worsted” pieces were found on display, according to the document.
The exhibit halls were sectioned into courts that depicted art history, beginning with ancient Egypt and continuing through the Renaissance, as noted by Victorian Station. Many of the works on display in 1851 are now housed at the Victoria and Albert Museum, part of the National Art Library in South Kensington. In addition to art and industrial examples of the day, a wide array of entertainment kept visitors enthralled. Concerts were given in the high-ceilinged transept, with the world’s largest organ. Other staged features included a circus, famous tightrope-walker Charles Blondin, and firsts for aeronautical, motor, pet, and horticultural shows. Fountains outside the enormous Palace spouted 250-foot jets, and the 120,000 gallons of cycled water was housed in tall towers at either end of the long glass edifice. Statues and sculptures dotted the outside grounds. Famous personas of the day were part of the six million tourists, including Lewis Carroll, Charlotte Bronte, Charles Darwin, and George Eliot (a woman—Mary Ann Evans—who wrote Middlemarch).
Remarkable for people in this day and age are the accounts of how peaceful the Great Exhibition of 1851 was, considering how many thousands of highly valued objects were in the keeping of the program.
Less than 100 policemen, carrying only wooden batons, roamed the crowded galleries. The Exhibition generated a surplus of 186,000 pounds, equivalent to over 16 million pounds by today’s standards. Some view the success of the Exhibition as one of the greatest turning points of the 19th century. It launched the era of the World’s Fair exhibitions (see the ExpoMuseum , the online World’s Fair Museum), which had a great impact on the promotion of tourism, the arts, and international trade. The Crystal Palace has come to be seen as the epitome of the Victorian age. Historians recognize that controversy surrounded the huge endeavor in London in 1851, on many levels. Karl Marx felt it exemplified the frivolity of society; other opponents of the day saw the glass Palace as a monstrosity, such as in an account in 1874’s The Country, found in Google Books online. Most agree that it was a feat of engineering.
In 1852, the Crystal Palace was disassembled and then reconstructed—under Joseph Paxton’s direction—at Sydenham in the south part of London. Albert’s aim was to create a place for all citizens to be introduced to and appreciate the arts. While well intentioned, the ensuing museum never quite lived up to this ideal. The building stood for decades in increasing decline until 1936, when it was destroyed by fire. Today, the park in Sydenham is still known as Crystal Palace.