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GREAT EXHIBITIONS – Trevor May
“On 1 May, over half a million people crowded into Hyde Park, London, as Queen Victoria drove by in a carriage to the recently erected Crystal Palace…The Great Exhibition, said Benjamin Disraeli, leader of the Protectionist Wing of the Conservative Party, was ‘a godsend to the Government…diverting public attention from their blunders.’”
The Great Exhibitions covers a period in Britain from 1851 to 2000, and while much of its information is outside of the immediate interest of the Steam and neo-Victorian communities, it does shed light on a series of events that influenced the artists, scientists and explorers that in turn influence those movements today.
The first, and truest, great exhibition at the Crystal Palace (which would remain open to host displays and entertainments for decades afterwards) was the apotheosis of an English tradition going back to huge medieval fairs such as St. Bartholomew’s. Like these fairs there was an emphasis on commerce and entertainment to which the Victorians added on of their great concerns, education and self-improvement.
The three forces behind the Crystal Palace were Henry Cole (a civil servant with a passion for design), Prince Albert (who was interested in bringing an international scope to Britain), and Joseph Paxton (a self-made man, gardener and the designer of the Palace).
In traditional English fashion the London public were appalled by the thought of foreigners and large scale construction in their midst. It took a careful public campaign and the vocal support of the Queen to gain acceptance. Even then the wealthy and privileged were horrified that Papists and off-duty maids would be consorting in what used to be one their exclusive enclaves, Hyde Park.
The building of the Crystal Palace was a marvel of the age, as was the structure itself. Prefabricated design, for good and ill, was here to stay after Paxton’s achievement was completed. Its influence on the building of factories and homes was felt immediately, changing the way Victorians lived and consumed.
May does an excellent job of concisely describing the build, and should be of interest to anyone studying the mechanics of the day.
The completed building housed 13,937 exhibitors with over 100,000 exhibits amongst them. Heavy machinery was popular, the Queen returned to the hall several times. Taxidermied animals in human poses from Germany drew such huge crowds (no doubt leading to many unfortunate gifts and design choices) they needed extra police to handle them. And while the American hall was mocked in the press it proved to be one of the most popular, sharing sewing machines, vulcanized rubber and the Colt revolver with a world that wasn’t quite ready.
Also significantly the Great Exhibition was one of the first places where many Britons of different classes mingled with both each other and with foreigners. The working class was actually courted as visitors by those putting on the exhibition, and much was made of their roles in making it possible. Still prices were kept just high enough that only the deserving poor could afford them.
During the Edwardian era the Crystal Palace began to fall out of popular interest. A new idea was needed to bring the world to Britain, and to show Britain to the world. Strangely, these new exhibitions would be the brainchild of a Hungarian dancer who lived in Paris, Berlin and the U.S. before becoming a British citizen.
Imne Kiralfy is almost forgotten today, but at the time he was one of the great impresarios, and the White City exhibitions (Franco-British, Japanese-British, etc.) were his.
Inspired by the wildly successful Chicago World’s Fair of 1891 (if you haven’t read either Devil in the White City or City of the Century you owe them to yourself), the grand, pale cities within the city could host an entire Irish town (Disneyfied long before Disney), a Japanese village complete with a meandering stream, many giant, frankly terrifying looking rides, and a Grand Court on a man-made lake.
World War I did not end the exhibitions, but did change their nature, becoming a showplace for the soon to be vanished Empire, and then, after WWII, to show the British were unbowed after years of wartime hardships.
“…it is an interesting thought that, in architectural terms, one of the significant spin-offs from the Crystal Palace is the shopping mall…”