The Great Exhibition of 1851

West Entrance

The events leading up to the Great Exhibition of 1851 were prompted by the success of the French Industrial Exposition of 1844, when it was suggested to the English Government that it would be most advantageous to British industry to have a similar exhibition in London. However the Government showed no interest.

Statue at the Great Exhibition by Munro

It must be remembered that the French had already established a tradition of exhibitions - the Marquis d’Aveze had held a large one as early as 1798, in the grounds and interior of the Maison d’Orsay, Rue de Varennes. This was followed by a series of official Expositions, the first being on the Champ de Mars, through to the eleventh in 1849, all devoted to the glory of the art and industry of France, and increasingly large and successful.

However in England, few art-industry exhibitions were more than local affairs. The first building to be put up solely for the exhibition of manufactured goods was built in Birmingham in 1849, for an exhibition of the British Society. It included 10,000 square feet, and together with Bingley House, in the gardens of which it was erected, 12,800 square feet of exhibition space was available. In the same year, the first Exhibition of British Manufacturers took place, largely concentrating on precious metalwork.

Epergne by Hooper & Co, New York, at the Exhibition

Prince Albert, Victoria’s consort, was very much in favour of a self-financing Exhibition of All Nations. But even though this meant that the exchequer would have to pay no money, there was a lukewarm reception from Parliament. Albert’s plan was for a great collection of works in art and industry, ‘for the purposes of exhibition, of competition and of encouragement’, to be held in London in 1851. Such an Exhibition, he said,

would afford a true test of the point of development at which the whole of mankind has arrived in this great task, and a new starting point from which all nations would be able to direct their further exertions.

The Society of Arts pressed ahead at this point, negotiating with a building contractor to erect a suitable building, advance prize money of 20,000 pounds and pay preliminary expenses, all to be repaid from receipts at the gate of the Exhibition. Next, a deputation was sent around the country to gather support, and the Government was persuaded to set up a Royal Commission.

The Royal Commission met for the first time in January 1850, and after digesting the concept that such an exhibition could make a profit, one of its first acts was to cancel the contract with the building firm, and call for voluntary contributions nationwide. In an attempt to whip up support, all the mayors from the whole country were invited to a sumptious banquet at Mansion House, to listen to Prince Albert argue the case for an Exhibition. Other big names were present to give support - Sir Robert Peel, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Lords Russell and Stanley, and the French ambassador. The meeting was a great success.

Angel of Sleep, by Marochetti

The next stage was the setting up of ‘The Commissioners for the Exhibition of 1851’, and a total fund of 230,000 pounds was raised. The size of the Exhibition was decided at 700,000 ft - bigger than anything the French had ever managed - and the Government was persuaded to treat it as a bonded warehouse, so that goods imported for the Exhibition need not have import duties paid.

Transept interior, from South Entrance

The Commissioners set up a competition for designing the building, and 233 architects sent in designs: 38 from abroad, 51 from around England, and 128 from London. None were quite the right thing, thought the Commission’s Building Committee, who fortuitously had prepared and printed their own design. Despite much condemnation from the competing architects and others on grounds of ugliness and vast expense, the Committee proceeded to ask for building tenders for their own design. These arrived at a cost somewhat more expensive than the Commission had envisaged - 120,000 - 150,000 pounds just for the building materials.

Tudor-style chimney pots, by Doulton's of Lambeth

However, one contractor, Messrs. Fox and Henderson, presented costs for an amended design, one amended so much, in fact, that it bore no resemblance to the Building Committee’s original proposal, but with the compelling advantage of a better price. It was based on a design by Joseph Paxton, who had struck on the idea of a simple repeating structure so that one cross-section could be repeated indefinitely to make a whole building. Events moved fast - Paxton had drawn his original design on a sheet of blotting paper, yet managed to have a complete set of plans within nine days. He presented it the contractors Fox and Henderson on 22 June 1850, and the Illustrated London News published an engraving of it on 6 July. The plan was accepted by the Commissioners, after modifying it to include a domed roof, so that some rather large trees on the site in Hyde Park could be accommodated without trimming them.

Doubts were raised early on about the stability and safety of the structure - doubts which could not be ignored, as they were expressed by Professor Airey, the Astronomer Royal, and by Richard Turner, who had constructed the Palm House at Kew Gardens. The amount of strain on the iron girders was calculated not to be a problem, as they were designed to take several times the expected weight. What was seen as a problem was resonance - the worrying idea that a large crowd, moving regularly inside the structure, could cause it to vibrate more and more until it collapsed. This had happened before on structures such as bridges.

Silver table ornament by Messrs. Gass of London

An experiment was set up, with a test construction, on which 300 workmen walked backwards and forwards, regularly, irregularly, and then jumping simultaneously in the air. Finally, to induce the most regular oscillations possible, the army sappers and miners corps were called in, and marched repeatedly in step across the structure. The maximum girder movement was 1/4 inch, and building work was continued.

The whole building was enormous - 1,848 feet long and 408 feet wide (with an extra bit sticking out on one side 936 feet x 48 feet). The central transept was 72 feet wide and 108 feet high, and a grand avenue and upstairs galleries ran the whole length of the building. Altogether, 772,784 square feet (19 acres) were roofed over, not including the 217,100 square feet of galleries. This was an area four times that of St Peter’s in Rome, or six times that of St Paul’s Cathedral. The total enclosed volume was 33 million cubic feet. Materials included 550 tons of wrought iron, 3,500 tons of cast iron, 900,000 superficial feet of glass and 600,000 feet of wooden planking to walk on. There were 202 miles of sash bars and 30 miles of gutters.

Hebe and Eagle of Jove, by Prof. Kahszmann of Vienna

Remarkably, the complete edifice was ready on time, on 1st May, 1851, for Queen Victoria to open it. Best of all, worries about covering costs had been laid to rest - by the time the building was ready to open, without any day-by-day ticket sales at all, well over 100,000 pounds had been recovered: 64,344 pounds by public subscription, 40,000 pounds from sale of season tickets, 3,200 pounds from Messrs. Spicer and Clowes for the honour of printing the catalogues, and 5,500 pounds from Messrs. Schweppes for the privilege of supplying refreshments.

The Crystal Palace, South Side

In its catalogue of the Exhibition, the Art Journal glowingly wrote:

"On entering the building for the first time, the eye is completely dazzled by the rich variety of hues which burst upon it on every side; and it is not until this partial bewilderment has subsided, that we are in a condition to appreciate as it deserves its real magnificance and the harmonious beauty of effect produced by the artistical arrangement of the glowing and varied hues which blaze along its grand and simple lines...

Forming the centre of the entire building rises the gigantic fountain, the culminating point of view from every quarter of the building; whilst at the northern end the eye is relieved by the verdure of tropical plants and the lofty and overshadowing branches of forest trees... the objects which first attract the eye are the sculptures, which are ranged on every side; some of them of colossal size and of unrivalled beauty...

We have here the Indian Court, Africa, Canada, the West Indies, the Cape of Good Hope, the Medieval Court, and the English Sculpture Court... Birmingham, the great British Furniture Court, Sheffield and its hardware, the woollen and mixed fabrics, shawls, flax, and linens, and printing and dyeing... general hardware, brass and iron-work of all kinds, locks, grates... agricultural machines and implements... the mineral products of England... the cotton fabric and carriage courts, leather, furs, and hair, minerals and machinery, cotton and woollen power-looms in motion... flax, silk, and lace, rope-making lathes, tools and minerals, marine engines, hydraulic presses, steam machinery, Jersey, Ceylon, and Malta with the Fine Arts Court behind them; Persia, Greece, Egypt, and Turkey, Spain, Portugal, Madeira and Italy, France, its tapestry, machinery, arms and instruments, occupying two large courts; Belgium, her furniture, carpets and machinery; Austria, with her gorgeous furniture courts and machinery furniture, North of Germany and Hase Towns; Russia, with its malachite doors, vases and ornaments, and the United States, with its agricultural implements, raw materials etc.

The Fountain, by Messrs. Osler of Birmingham

We pass from the United States to Sweden, part of Russia, Denmark, a division of the Zollverein, Russian cloths, hats and carpets, Prussian fabrics, Saxony, and the Austrian sculpture court, another division of France with its splendid frontage of articles of vertu and ornamental furniture, its magnificient court for plate, bronzes and china; its tasteful furniture, and carpets, its jewels, including those of the Queen of Spain; its laces, gloves and rich embroideries; Switzerland, China and Tunis...

In the British half are the silks and shawls, lace and embrodieries, jewellery and clocks and watches, behind them military arms and models, chemicals, naval architecture, philosophical instruments, civil engineering, musical instruments, anatomical models, glass chandeliers, china, cutlery, and animal and vegetable manufactures, china and pottery... on the opposite side perfumery, toys, fishing materials, wax flowers, stained glass, British, French, Austrian, Belgian, Prussian, Bavarian and American products."

Bohemian Glass, manufactury of Count Harbach

A total of six million people visited the Great Exhibition, and the whole event was a great success. It may fairly be described as having fulfilled its aims of 'exhibition, competition and encouragement'. It was also remarkably peaceful. As noted the following year in a contemporary magazine:

"Seventeen thousand exhibitors, who like the visitors were of almost every nation and kindred under heaven, entrusted the most valuable evidences of their wealth, their skill, their industry, and their enterprise to the guardianship of some fifty policemen, armed with no better weapon than a wooden baton. Day after day and night after night passed on, and no added force was requisite for the safety of the almost countless wealth deposited within these fragile walls. In no other country of the world could such an exhibition of the industrial arts have taken place."

Silver bowl by Marrel Freres, Paris

The most successful competitors were the French, in terms of numbers of medals won. This was commented upon with mingled admiration and envy. However, by the time of the Exhibition of 1862, the mood had changed, and looking back, the Art Journal was moved to comment:

"Nationally that Exhibition startled England, chiefly by showing how much its artificers had to learn and its designers to unlearn. Generation after generation had gone on plundering from the French, until what was called French taste came to be considered as the highest standard in all that produced beauty in industrial art. It was but poetic justice to find that in the world's competition the glitter by which cupidity had been tempted was anything rather than pure gold.

...In many departments in the French section the naturalistic element was as rampant as in the English, but in a more unhealthy form. In the one case it was nature ignorantly followed and imperfectly appreciated; in the other it was nature rendered gross through form, and the grossness made endurable through manipulative skill. With Englishmen, destitute of conventional knowledge, the convulvulus was turned into a gas bracket, with a desire to render it as elegant as his imperfect knowledge of the outline of a Venus would permit. Frenchmen, full of conventional experience, formed enormous natural roses on the basis of the Silenus, and adapted these monstrosities in form as ornamentation for carpets, paper hangings and silk dresses. English design displayed the imperfections of ignorance, French design the perversion of knowledge; and while the Exhibition of 1851 taught Englishmen their own shortcomings, it with equal eloquence pronounced much they had learned from France to be vicious in principle and false in practice."

However, from our point of view, there was no exhibition that ever matched the Great Exhibition of 1851, and it was one of the defining points of the 19th Century. Or as Prince Albert had said, 'a new starting point from which all nations would be able to direct their further exertions'.

Bacchanalian drinking cup by Charles Meigh, Staffordshire

What happened after the Exhibition finished? The Crystal Palace was disassembled and taken to Sydenham in 1852. The architect, Paxton, oversaw the re-erection of the building and it reopened in 1854 and was destroyed by fire in 1936. The park at Sydenham is still known as Crystal Palace, and there are still reminders of the great building, including the dinosaurs on an island in the ornamental lake. Some idea of how the huge building looked can be gained from the more-or-less contemporary iron and glass structures at Kew Gardens. The Great Exhibition made a vast profit, and this was invested in land at South Kensington, on which the fine museums that still exist today were built.

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