Lewis Carrol at the Great Exhibition
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Lewis Carrol 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 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.

Beloved childrens' author Lewis Carrol visited the Great Exhibition of 1851.  An international trade fair, the Exhibition 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. Lewis Carrol, author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, visited the Great Exhibition and wrote his sister Elizabeth an account of what he had seen:

'I think the first impression produced on you when you get inside is one of bewilderment. It looks like a sort of fairyland. As far as you can look in any direction, you see nothing but pillars hung about with shawls, carpets, &c., with long avenues of statues, fountains, canopies, etc., etc., etc. The first thing to be seen on entering is the Crystal Fountain, a most elegant one about thirty feet high at a rough guess, composed entirely of glass and pouring down jets of water from basin to basin; this is in the middle of the centre nave, and from it you can look down to either end, and up both transepts. The centre of the nave mostly consists of a long line of colossal statues, some most magnificent. The one considered the finest, I believe, is the Amazon and Tiger. She is sitting on horseback, and a tiger has fastened on the neck of the horse in front. You have to go to one side to see her face, and the other to see the horse's. The horse's face is really wonderful, expressing terror and pain so exactly, that you almost expect to hear it scream.... There are some very ingenious pieces of mechanism. A tree (in the French Compartment) with birds chirping and hopping from branch to branch exactly like life. The bird jumps across, turns round on the other branch, so as to face back again, settles its head and neck, and then in a few moments jumps back again. A bird standing at the foot of the tree trying to eat a beetle is rather a failure; it never succeeds in getting its head more than a quarter of an inch down, and that in uncomfortable little jerks, as if it was choking. I have to go to the Royal Academy, so must stop: as the subject is quite inexhaustible, there is no hope of ever coming to a regular finish.'

The exhibition caused controversy: some feared that the mass of visitors might become a revolutionary mob. However, the admission fees were calculated to prevent this. The shilling fee guaranteed that the lower reaches of the working class would be absent. Those working people who did attend were regarded with a mixture of incredulity and distain:

'Vulgar, ignorant, country people: many dirty women with their infants were sitting on the seats giving suck with their breasts uncovered, beneath the lovely female figures of the sculptor. Oh! How I wish I had the power to petrify the living, and animate the marble: perhaps a time will come when this fantasy will be realised and the human breed be succeeded by finer forms and lovelier features, than the world now dreams of.'

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.

The Great Exhibition changed the cultural landscape of London. It made a profit of £186,437, which was used to found the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Science Museum and the Natural History Museum, all in Kensington. These formed a cultural complex so extensive it was known as ‘Albertopolis’.

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Comments (3)

Fascinating!

You have elegantly described this well.

Ranked #11 in Architecture

Bookmarked this Michael.

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