Charlotte Bronte at the Great Exhibition
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Charlotte Bronte at the Great Exhibition

The Great Exhibition was an international trade fair that took place in 1851. It was organised by Henry Cole and Prince Albert, the husband of Queen Victoria.

The Great Exhibition was an international trade fair that took place in 1851. It was organised by Henry Cole and Prince Albert, the husband of Queen Victoria. The most industrially advanced nations and their empires participated, making the 'Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations' the largest exhibition ever held, its scope eclipsing all previous exhibitions. The exhibits came from Britain and its colonies. Foreign countries also took part. Despite its international scope, the exhibition was really intended to demonstrate British superiority in design and industry.

The exhibition was held in a purpose-built hall called the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park, London. This was an innovative building constructed from cast iron and glass. The immense structure was large enough to encompass three elm trees that existed on the site. The Crystal Palace was designed by Joseph Paxton, who was a garden designer rather than an architect, and the pioneering design was based on greenhouses he had built. A Herculean feat of Victorian engineering, the Palace was constructed in just nine months.

The Great Exhibition drew many esteemed vistors and their written accounts provide an invaluable insight into this Victorian extravaganza. The following account was written by the novelist Charlotte Brontë (1816-55).

'Yesterday I went for the second time to the Crystal Palace. We remained in it about three hours, and I must say I was more struck with it on this occasion than at my first visit. It is a wonderful place – vast, strange, new and impossible to describe. Its grandeur does not consist in one thing, but in the unique assemblage of all things. Whatever human industry has created you find there, from the great compartments filled with railway engines and boilers, with mill machinery in full work, with splendid carriages of all kinds, with harness of every description, to the glass-covered and velvet-spread stands loaded with the most gorgeous work of the goldsmith and silversmith, and the carefully guarded caskets full of real diamonds and pearls worth hundreds of thousands of pounds. It may be called a bazaar or a fair, but it is such a bazaar or fair as Eastern genii might have created. It seems as if only magic could have gathered this mass of wealth from all the ends of the earth – as if none but supernatural hands could have arranged it this, with such a blaze and contrast of colours and marvellous power of effect. The multitude filling the great aisles seems ruled and subdued by some invisible influence. Amongst the thirty thousand souls that peopled it the day I was there not one loud noise was to be heard, not one irregular movement seen; the living tide rolls on quietly, with a deep hum like the sea heard from the distance.'

Six million people visited the exhibition: this was equivalent to a third of Britain’s population. It was one of the first mass spectacles of the modern age and established the template for today’s mass culture. Karl Marx saw the exhibition as an emblem of the capitalist fetishism of commodities, and it anticipated the consumer culture we’re now immersed in.

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Comments (7)

That's an awesome construction, and in nine months? Wow. Great article.

Ranked #1 in Architecture

Thanks for reading, Pat. Sadly it was destroyed in 1936.

Oh, what a shame!

Great article. Charlotte Bronte was definitely a romantic!

I wonder who Bronte went with. LOL

You have constructed a very interesting article for education and to enjoy as well.

Sounds like it would have been great to attend!