Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Remnants of the Great Exhibition, 1851

On this day in 1851 there was quite a scene around Hyde Park in London. With over 25,000 people in attendance,  Queen Victoria had come to open the Crystal Palace. This imposing structure of iron and glass was built at pace over several months to host the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations, more commonly known as The Great Exhibition.

Poster advertising the Great Exhibition, Museum of Domestic Design & Architecture, CH/5/7/2/3
The iconic building was not the brainchild of a trained architect, but rather that of the head gardener of Chatsworth House, Joseph Paxton. Paxton's greenhouse-inspired design triumphed over 245 other proposals. The grandeur of the structure continued through the interior with over 10 miles of exhibition space displaying over 100,000 objects in celebration of the British Empire and it's manufacturing and trade industry. The exhibition ran over six months with a purported six million visitors from around the globe.

Hand painted lithograph of the interior of the Crystal Palace from the Great Exhibition, Museum of Domestic Design & Architecture, CH/5/7/2/4
Look around London today and you still see remnants of the Great Exhibition. The profit made over the six months (£186,000) was used to purchase the surrounding land for the South Kensington Museum (later the Victoria & Albert Museum) and later still the National History Museum. The Crystal Palace itself was moved to South London where it remained until fire destroyed it in 1936. Today, the foundations of the building are preserved within parkland. Finally, the gold and glittering memorial to the champion of the Great Exhibition, Prince Albert, stands just west of the original site of the Crystal Palace. In the Prince's hand is the exhibition's catalogue.

Remnants of the Great Exhibition can also be found in museum collections like MoDA's. As I'm sure you are aware from previous blog posts, we have been undertaking conservation and documentation work on the Charles Hasler Collection to make it available online and to visitors to the study room. It should come as no surprise that Hasler also collected 1851 exhibition-related material. He had a keen interest in it because of the role he played in the centenary event: The 1951 Exhibition on the Southbank. Hasler donated the majority of his Great Exhibition material to the University of Reading in 1966. MoDA received the rest of his archive in the late 1990s, which included some Great Exhibition items like the poster and lithograph shown above and also a few souvenirs such as this jug and envelope set.

Commemorative jug from the Great Exhibition, Museum of Domestic Design & Architecture, CH/5/7/2/1


Souvenir envelope set from the Great Exhibition, Museum of Domestic Design & Architecture, CH/5/7/2/2
Do you have or know of any other interesting fragments or legacies of the Great Exhibition?  Today would be a good day to consider these, or perhaps if you are in the area, to look again at Crystal Palace Park, the V&A or the Albert Memorial. All act as reminders of a watershed event which profoundly impacted the cultural life of London, and indeed the rest of Britain.

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