Great Exhibition of 1851

The Great Exhibition of 1851: People Behind the Vision

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Prince Albert has always been associated as the mastermind behind The Great Exhibition, but as with all great things, who actually were the people behind the vision of Britain’s greatest industrial showcase of 1851. We explore the minds behind the vision

What exactly is the Great Exhibition of 1851

On the 1st of May 1851, London’s Hyde Park was to host what would become ‘The Great Exhibition’, which was so spectacular in size and presentation that more than 170 years later, the event still remains fixed in the general knowledge of Britain. You may not be able to recall the British Prime Minister of the time, but you certainly would have heard of the Great Exhibition of 1851. Its purpose was simple, present to the world a showcase of British designs, inventions and progress. This was the Victorians at their best, ideas, planning and industrial design.

model of part of the Crystal Palace Structure at the V&A Museum
model of part of the Crystal Palace Structure at the V&A Museum

The Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce

The Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce was founded in 1754, with a Royal grant in 1908 to use the name Royal in the name, and would go on to become known as the Royal Society of Arts, or RSA. Henry Cole was the editor of the Journal of Design as well as a council member for the Society. In this capacity he was introduces to Price Albert and struck up a good relationship. It was Henry Coles view of the French ‘Industrial Exposition’ of 1844 that created the conversation with Albert to back the idea for a British version.

The Great Exhibition can be said, came about with the input and work of Henry Cole, George Wallis, Francis Henry, Charles Dilke and members of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce, and, of course, Prince Albert.

Who built the Great Exhibition hall?

In the mid 1800s Prince Alberts vision posed a real problem for Victorian engineers, just how do you build a structure, that can house almost 1 million square feet of exhibition space, build it on a central London park, and then after the exhibition is over, move the whole structure to South London. The solution was in the form of Architects Joseph Paxton and Owen Jones who designed the large glass greenhouse structure.

How big was the Great Exhibition Hall

The exhibition space housed over 14,000 exhibits in an area of some 990,000 square feet. In comparison the Olympia Exhibition centre in West London is 172,000 square feet. You would have to find the modern day Excel centre which offers 1.07million square feet on a 100 acre site in East London’s docklands to something of comparable capacity. Lets not forget, the Excel centre is a complex of buildings and you have a challenge to move it across London.

The miracle of the Great Exhibition glasshouse

The great glass structure was 1,848 feet long by 408 feet wide. In the centre of the hall, a fountain centrepiece was 27 feet in height, with two tons of Pink Glass and became a meeting point for visiting Victorians. The Display area extended from around 10 miles and some 100,000 objects were on show. by 15,000 or more contributors. The hall was supported by WC restrooms, refreshments, lost property and a police stand.

Kensington Palace display painting of the Crystal Palace
Kensington Palace display painting of the Crystal Palace

We can find a Great painting showing the gathering of people around the Queen at the V&A museum by artist Henry Courtenay Selous (1803-1890), Queen Victoria opened the exhibition. 

Leading lights of the time like  Charlotte Brontë, Charles Darwin, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Lewis Carroll, Tennyson

The Great Exhibition display areas explained

The British Empire section took up half the exhibition.

  1. Axminster Carpets
  2. printing machine capable of 5,000 copies in an hour.
  3. Sheffield blades
  4. textile machines & textiles
  5. steam hammer
  6. hydraulic press that had constructed bridges
  7. raised ink that the blind could feel
  8. bicycles
  9. carriages
  10. agricultural machines
  11. railway locomotive
  12. steam engines

UK Furniture

Innovation and techniques are what this table was about, materials such as mahogany, limewood gilded leather bullrushes, and flowers, cast plaster birds. They believe George J. Morant, London manufactured the base, the top may have come from Rome by Chevalier Barberi, tiny mosaic feature to the top.  

moulded leather bullrushes and flower base to table great exhibition UK
molded leather bullrushes and flower base to table great exhibition the UK

Glass, Stoneware, porcelain

Made in around 1851 Charles Meigh and Co these two vases in a delicate pink colour, which can not be seen too well because the photo has been lightened afterwards, to show the details of the work that went into it. All the items on display are in dark surroundings to protect them so one can only imagine what they must have looked like inside the crystal palace in natural daylight when they were new. 

They were often used as advertising pieces that could showcase the manufacture, and as an image for people writing and drawing about the exhibition.  A perfect way to artistically sum up the art and design and tribute the masters behind the exhibition, in the way of their painted portraits on the vases and Crystal Palace itself

Materials used stoneware and enamel and gilding.

Charles Meigh & Co Victoria & Albert Vases with lids
Charles Meigh & Co Victoria & Albert Vases with Lids

Copeland & Co

From around 1850 painted with gilt metal, to emulate pearls and jewels

British bottle Porcelain to look like jewel encrusted blue glazing
British bottle Porcelain to look like jewel-encrusted blue glazing

Fire engine from Canada

India section at the Great Exhibition

  • Throne of Ivory carved, adorned pearls and rubies

Koh-i-Noor diamond. pre-cut and placed in the Crown Jewels.

Varanasi India coloured woven silk with gold
Varanasi India coloured woven silk with gold

Rose Water Sprinkler Indian enamel, silver, engraved blue bottle
Rose Water Sprinkler Indian enamel, silver, engraved a blue  colour bottle

They made this shrine for the exhibition, from West Bengal India. Thought to be depicting Durga the 10 armed goddess version of Hindu Devi. Being a warrior here defeating the Buffalo Mahishasura. 

Carved Ivory Shrine Hindu theme Indian Exhibition piece
Carved Ivory Shrine Hindu theme Indian Exhibition piece

How America presented at the Great Exhibition

  1. Eagle
  2. colt firearms from the Colt gun company
  3. Hiram Powers’s Statue of a Greek slave in white marble in a red velvet tent, one of the most looked at items and historic sculptures by an American artist. 

France at the Great Exhibition

  1. Sevres porcelain
  2. silk
  3. enamels
  4. tapestries
  5. textile machinery

They made this item below in 1850 in the UK to emulate the French style of the Sèvres porcelain factory. Fine Gilt delicate pink colour was fine ground, a delicate landscape enamel painting and gilded. This item also took on a Greek design as the French found that fashionable. British Copeland and Co who showed a lot of their pieces at the exhibition made this item  they were one of the Stoke-on-Trent Staffordshire’s finest

Ewer by Copeland & Co in the French style vase urn jug shape
Ewer by Copeland & Co in the French style vase urn jug shape

Russia on show at the Great Exhibition

  1. Huge urns and vases
  2. porcelain and malachite
  3. furs and sledges
  4. cossack and armour

Chile at the Great Exhibition

  1. Gold 50kg

Switzerland in the Great Hall

  1. Gold watches

Germany in attendants at the Great Exhibition 

  1. Stuffed animals

Where did the Great Exhibition Glass House move to?

Transparent building bricks to build Crystal Palace V&A Museum
Transparent building bricks to build Crystal Palace V&A Museum

After the exhibition ended in October of the same year there were plans to move the whole structure to another location. 

Paxton had a colleague who owned Penge Place, now Crystal Palace Park in Sydenham.  it A winter park and garden under glass. Work started in 1852 on the transition, Queen Victoria opened Crystal Palace on completion in 1854

During this era, designers placed model dinosaurs in the swamp area landscaped to look like it had come from prehistoric times. It is only in modern times have the dinosaurs returned to the parkland area as part of the regeneration plan.

Legacy of the Great Exhibition

The money generated by the Great Exhibition was reinvested into London by way of funding 3 of the great museums of the Victoria and Albert Museum, Natural History and the Science Museum. It is surprise to reflect that in modern times, the public are more used to single use projects, projects that go into debt and projects sold at a loss.

Disasters and end of the Great Exhibition Hall in 1936

The Palace suffered disasters in 1861 strong storms caused some disruption.  As December drew to a close in 1866 a large fire destroyed a lot, but not all. Financial struggles led to bankruptcy in 1911. A new owner came to manage the situation, H. Buckland. 1936 ended its life as a huge fire broke out that spread and destroyed Crystal Palace. A few artefacts of the structure remain, sphinxes, the part statue of Sir Joseph Paxton and some walkways, they are Grade II listed.

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