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 events of its kind.
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 events of its kind. The official aims were to promote new technology, to educate the ignorant middle classes and to elaborate a political stance.
The exhibits came from Britain and its colonies, such as Australia, India and New Zealand. Foreign countries also took part. The participating countries were Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Bremen, Chile, China, Denmark, Egypt, France, Germany, Greece, Hamburg, Hanover, Holland, Lubeck, Mexico, Mecklenburg-Strelitz, New Granada, Oldenburg, Persia, Peru, Portugal, Rome, Russia, Sardinia, Schleswig-Holstein, Society Islands, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Tunis, Turkey, Tuscany and the United States of America. Half the floor area was given over to Britain and her empire and half to participating countries and empires. Despite its international scope, the exhibition was really intended to demonstrate British superiority in design and industry.
The Great Exhibition created the four exhibiting categories later to become standard - Manufactures, Machinery, Raw Materials and Fine Arts. The products on display were immensely varied. For example, George Jennings designed the first public conveniences in the Retiring Rooms of the Crystal Palace, for which he charged one penny. The American photographer Mathew Brady was awarded a medal for his daguerreotypes.
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. It was intended as a temporary structure and after the exhibition it was moved to Sydenham in South London, and the area was renamed Crystal Palace. It was eventually destroyed by fire in 1936.
A critic using the pseudonym Helix listed what he considered its aims to be:
The grand objects of the Exhibition, as we regard them, may thus be summed up:
1. To promote brotherhood amongst mankind.
2. To make all cognisant of what we can do for others.
3. To diminish human drudgery by mechanism.
4. To promote art of the higher kind.
5. To show how clothing may best be made by machines without handicraftry.
6. New preparations for human food.
Peaceful concerns are at the top of the list. The concepts of brotherly love and understanding between nations were laboured within the exhibition diatribe, but this sentiment was ridiculed by bombastic displays of military technology, imperial conquest and abject racism.
The exhibition was publicised by the publication of a catalogue illustrated with steel engravings. The catalogue forms a vast compendium of High Victorian design. Again, the exhibition was intended to demonstrate British superiority in design and industry, but two characteristic pieces are shown below: there are two pairs of scissors that show an obsession with decoration. They have been elaborated almost beyond recognition: the ornament obscures the form. Many designers naively believed that adding more ornament made an object more beautiful. To our eyes these look hideously over-decorated and impractical. Design reformers of the late 19th and 20th centuries reacted against this over-the-top, grotesque design and established the idea that ‘less is more’.
This is a state chair designed by M. Jancowski of York. It’s executed in carved and gilded wood and upholstered with ruby silk. The design is extravagantly nationalistic. The lions’ heads on the arms are fierce symbols of national pride, as are the lions’ feet. A Royal Coat of Arms is embroidered on the back. The overall form is embellished to the point of absurdity. The chair has no elegance or finesse, but it conveys Britain’s pride and confidence. We can only imagine what sophisticated European designers must have thought of this.
Similarly, this plate displays nationalist motifs and heraldic emblems.
Decorative extravagance was even applied to modern hardware. Below is a pair of guns: these pieces of lethal technology have been ‘beautified’ by adding delicate filigree decoration to the surface. Modernist designers of the 20th century thought it was absurd to compromise a functional machine by disguising it with meaningless decoration. All of these products reveal the Victorian obsession with decorative elaboration.
The interior of the Crystal Palace was an extravaganza of exotic wares from around the world. The Canadian display featured canoes and sledges, as well as specimens of Canadian wildlife – bears and deer. Taxidermy was a grisly obsession of the Victorian period.
The Egyptian Court was a highlight, but had little to do with modern day Egypt – this was the Egypt of the popular imagination. The display consisted of pharaonic statues and sphinxes, a Victorian pastiche of Ancient Egypt. The Exhibition revealed an obsession with the exoticism of the East, but by extension it was simultaneously a display of Britain’s imperial might.
An important subtext was that of technology. Greenhalgh writes: ‘The artefacts in this lavishly orchestrated jamboree had only one thing in common, the awesome power of the technologies that had taken them there. Everything was explicable directly or indirectly in terms of technology; the prefabricated building housing the exhibition, the steam engines, the manufactured products, the colossal objects transported to the site by machinery, the imperial produce won with commercial and military technology.’ The Great Exhibition fetishised the machine, seeing it as the chance of a glorious future.
The representation of Britain was dominated by national romanticism. One of the most important displays was the Medieval Court, designed by AWN Pugin, a young architect who had a nostalgic admiration for the Middle Ages. You can see the structure of the Crystal Palace in the image and this highlights the paradoxical nature of Victorian design: the Crystal Palace was a modern glass structure, an icon of the industrial age, but it was filled with design that yearned for the Middle Ages. British tastes in design were still enraptured by romantic notions of the past.
Another example is this oak sideboard, richly carved with scenes from Sir Walter Scott’s novels. Scott was a Victorian writer who wrote medieval fantasies about chivalrous knights and princesses. This is an example of national romanticism, celebrating an imagined notion of medieval England. The form is over elaborate and impractical.
The Great Exhibition represented Victorian society at its most hypocritical, expounding universal peace but glorifying imperialism. Britain had a vested interest in promoting peace between nations - it helped maintain the status quo. A peaceful world in 1851 meant only one thing to the British, that the empire was safe. This imperialist agenda was promoted by using the narrative of trade. The rhetoric of the Exhibition proclaimed that trade could unite peoples, solve the ills of the world and generate happiness. A eulogy on the Great Exhibition explained this:
The band of commerce was designed,
To associate all the branches of mankind;
And, if a boundless plenty be the robe,
Trade is the golden girdle of the globe.
Trade was a tool of capitalism, a method of creating and controlling markets. It was also an answer to the new political force opposing capital, socialism. Trade was linked with religion, imperialism and capitalism in order to explain the 'naturalness' of world order in 1851. Ultimately, trade was a convenient way of justifying imperial exploitation since the term 'trade' is more pleasant than 'conquer'.
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.
The exhibition caused controversy: some feared that the mass of visitors might become a revolutionary mob. Indeed, Karl Marx saw the exhibition as an emblem of the capitalist fetishism of commodities. 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.
For many days before the 'shilling people' were admitted to the building,
the great topic of conversation was the probable behaviour of the people.
Would they come sober? will they destroy things? will they want to cut
their initials, or scratch their names on the panes of the glass lighthouses?
In this sense, the Exhibition served to reinforce the British class system. 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’.
Greenhalgh concludes that as cultural manifestations, these events ‘revealed an expansive West in its most flamboyant and bombastic state; baroque, overblown expressions of societies that felt they ruled the material world absolutely.’
Auerbach, Jeffrey A. (1999) The Great Exhibition of 1851: A Nation on Display, Yale University Press.
Gibbs-Smith, Charles Harvard (1981) The Great Exhibition of 1851. London: HMSO.
Greenhalgh, Paul (1988) Ephemeral Vistas: The Expositions Universelles, Great Exhibitions and World's Fairs, 1851–1939, Manchester University Press.
Leapman, Michael (2001) The World for a Shilling: How the Great Exhibition of 1851 Shaped a Nation, Headline Books.