Victorian style is easy to describe: one imagines highly decorative objects, elaborate detailed wallpapers, intricately carved furniture, and beautiful paintings and sculpture. Every day objects were valued for their decoration rather than their utility. The picture is of wealth, opulence, quality, intricacy, and imperialism. Where did this image come from? Could the Great Exhibition be said to have influenced the art of the decades that followed, even up to the decades of the early twentieth century?
The Great Exhibition of the Works of all Nations (or the Crystal Palace Exhibition) took place in the newly constructed Crystal Palace in Hyde Park, London from 1 May to 15 October 1851. It consisted of around 100,000 objects that spanned a distance of around 10 miles. Over 15,000 contributors took part in the exhibition, around half of which were British. Six million people visited the exhibition, including, notably Charles Darwin, Samuel Colt, Charlotte Brontë, Charles Dickens, Lewis Caroll, George Eliot and Alfred Lord Tennyson.
The exhibition, described by Sir Gill Hornby as “a walloping great glass thing in a park filled with luxury goods”, took just nine months to come to fruition from initial plans to grand opening.
Exhibitors came mainly from Britain and her imperial colonies such as New Zealand, Australia, and India. Other countries took part such as the United States, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, France and Switzerland.
Exhibits included Stevenson’s hydraulic press for lifting metal tubes over a bridge in Bangor, carpets from Axminster, a printing machine that could produce 5,000 copies of a pamphlet an hour, a folding piano, ‘tangible ink’ for the blind and early bicycles. Also on show were the Jacquard loom, an envelope machine, tools, kitchen appliances and steel-making displays. In addition visitors could view the Koh-i-Noor, the world’s biggest diamond of the time, which ironically was regarded as a bit of a disappointment despite drawing great crowds.
The exhibition was divided into a number of areas depicting the history of art and architecture which ranged from ancient Egypt to the Renaissance, as well as exhibits from industry and the natural world. Large-scale concerts were held in the building’s massive arched Centre Transept, which also contained the world’s biggest organ. Within the Centre Transept a circus was held and this was the scene of amazing feats by well-known artists such as the tightrope walker Blondin. National exhibitions were also staged within the Palace, including the world’s first aeronautical exhibition (held in 1868) and the first national motor show, in addition to cat, dog and pigeon shows; and honey, flower and other shows.
Prince Albert, with the help of Henry Cole and members of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufacturers and Commerce, came up with the idea of the Great Exhibition (sometimes referred to as the Crystal Palace Exhibition) to celebrate Britain’s achievements in innovation and triumphs of engineering. On many counts, however, contrary to popular belief, the exhibition’s planners saw the event rather than as a way to show off Britain’s achievements, but to help identify and remedy Britain’s shortcomings. It was the end of the Industrial Revolution and the era of greater empirical expansion. While Britain stood as the world’s foremost industrial power by 1850, the foundations of this strength were not always obvious. The idea was to show the world the fruits of Britain’s expanded economic power at the end of the industrial age in the hope that it would encourage further expansion and development in the new era of free trade and liberalism. It was to be the first in a series of World’s Fairs that ran throughout the century. At that time Britain was going through a period of relative peace and austerity. The exhibition was to be a display of grandeur on a massive scale. The culture of the Victorian middle classes connected manufactured goods in abundance with ideas about progress, both intellectual and social, and industry was seen as the key to the success of a civilization. The exhibition was a way to focus the nation’s eyes on the decorative and industrial arts. It fired the popular imagination and had repercussions for the art and craft world.
‘It is a wonderful place – vast, strange, new and impossible to describe’ Charlotte Brontë The Brontes’ Life and Letters, by Clement Shorter (1907).
The Great Exhibition is regarded now as the epitome of the grandeur of the Victorian Age and High Victorian design. It was the first international exhibition of manufactured products of its size and was hugely influential on the development of a multitude of different areas of society including art and design, education, international trade and relations, and tourism.
The building itself, designed by Joseph Paxton, attracted a lot of attention with its use of great expanses of glass and its unique use of wrought iron and cast iron. It epitomised industry and progress, as well as grandeur. It was a metaphor for Britain’s hopes for the maintenance of her leading role in the industrial world. The building was moved after the exhibition to an area in London renamed Crystal Palace. It was, however, destroyed by fire in 1936.
Many areas of culture were influenced by the Great Exhibition, including fiction. Charles Dickens and Lewis Carroll were most certainly affected by what they saw there and the culture of the time, as seen in their later work. For example with Lewis Carroll it is reasonable to conclude some of his later work might have been influenced by exposure to oriental culture.
It could be argued that the association the Great Exhibition fostered in the popular imagination of progress and wealth with vast open spaces gave birth to the concept of the modern department store. This started in Paris with the opening of Bon Marché in 1869, which was followed soon by Wanamakers in Philadelphia, Macy’s in New York, and eventually Selfridges in London.
The influence the Great Exhibition had on design was multifaceted. The Great Exhibition demonstrated the transformation of ordinary ‘goods’ to a state beyond mere utility. For example the iron rocking chair designed possibly by Peter Cooper, produced by R.W. Winfield & Co., Birmingham.
Many of London’s greatest designers were influenced by the things they saw at the Great Exhibition. Christopher Dresser, who was later to become a very influential British household designer of the era, was very much impressed by the huge array of oriental designs he found at the exhibition. Dresser designed wall coverings and fabric and he was one of the first designers to design stylish patterns not only for the wealthy but also for the new middle classes of society. These designs included exotic influences from China, India and southeast Asia
Edward William Godwin, another British designer, took much from the Great Exhibition. Godwin was interested in Japanese prints and he developed an Anglo-Japanese style of interior design that was to become extremely popular. These designs were very sought after by homeowners in Britain, and the trend for intricate exotic patterning lasted throughout much of the 20th century.
The work of artists such as Godwin show how British design standards could incorporate influences from overseas and still remain British in their cultural identity.
The influence of the Great Exhibition on the design and art of printed matter was enormous and can be seen by the
proliferation of illustrated catalogues, colour illustrations in series form, and sheet music, Christmas cards, note cards and the like after the early 1850s.
However, despite this the organizers expressed disappointment in the result claiming that public taste had in fact been little improved or that new standards of design had been adopted. Charles Dickens actually poked fun at government efforts to impose standards of taste in Hard Times which was serialised in 1854. In this work he defends freedom of choice as something that is more important than issues of ‘good taste’ as regarded by the majority.
Could it be said that the exhibition fostered a rather narrow set of values in terms of Victorian design, one based on imperialism, opulence and austerity, which contravened in some ways the organisers’ liberal and freedom of thought beliefs? In fact British creativity and individuality in art and design flourished despite, rather than because of, the Great Exhibition of the Work of all Nations.
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