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The Great Exhibition
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The Great Exhibition The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations opened in Joseph Paxton’s magnificent glass and iron-work Crystal Palace in Hyde Park on 1 May 1851. Over the next five and half months 6,063,986 visitors came to admire Paxton’s innovative building and the over 100,000 exhibits displayed within it.

It was the biggest tourist attraction London had ever seen. Rail companies were encouraged to run special excursion trains from 2 June onwards, bringing visitors from across the country, some having their trip organised by early travel promoters like Henry Cole and Thomas Cook. Allowing for repeat visitors and those from abroad, it is estimated that one-fifth of the British population saw the exhibition.

Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, who had instigated the exhibition, said in a speech at the Mansion House on 21 March 1850 that it would have ‘a great and sacred mission’ to advance humanity, encouraging the ‘unity of mankind’ and teaching reverence for the world’s resources. It was to be both an educational and entertaining experience, where, unlike later exhibitions that had a more nationalistic slant glorifying the British Empire, the emphasis was on prosperity, progress and peace among nations.

Manufactured products and machinery were displayed in courts arranged along the sides of the main avenue while the avenue itself was filled with greenery, fountains and statues. Alongside the examples of modern industrial technology and design were novelty exhibits such as ‘living tribesmen’ – two unhappy American Indians and a group of Tunisians – and tableaux of anthropomorphic animals (no longer to modern tastes, but very popular at the time). The Art Journal’s catalogue described the scene thus:

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.

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.

Such a spectacle had never been seen before and visitors were overwhelmed by the demonstration of industrial prowess. The surplus money made from the exhibition was later used to found the Victoria & Albert, Science and Natural History museums in South Kensington.

Opening of the Great Exhibition depicting The Crystal Palace in the background, the royal coach in mid-ground and a crowd of brightly dressed people in the fore

Opening of the Great Exhibition

Machinery display showing steam and industrial contaptions from cranes to small hand tools
Machinery display

The Medieval Court showing fine tapestries and ornate religious stone carvings

The Medieval Court

The Octangonal Room depicting two large statues each side of the doorway of a lion and lioness in aggressive  stances
The Octangonal Room

The French area of the exhibition showing ornate golden metalwork on crimson tables


All images on this page from the Elton Colection: Ironbridge Gorge Trust Museum.
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