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The Great Exhibition of 1851

Updated on January 3, 2012
Prince Albert, Queen Victoria's consort and a force behind the organization of the Great Exhibition
Prince Albert, Queen Victoria's consort and a force behind the organization of the Great Exhibition | Source
Rocking chair made by W. Winfield that was displayed at the Great Exhibition and now at the V&A Museum. The innovative design seems ahead of its time
Rocking chair made by W. Winfield that was displayed at the Great Exhibition and now at the V&A Museum. The innovative design seems ahead of its time | Source
The Nelson Jug by Alfred Crowquil, displayed at the Great Exhibition
The Nelson Jug by Alfred Crowquil, displayed at the Great Exhibition | Source
Illustration of a crowd gathered in the Crystal Palace at the Great Exhibition
Illustration of a crowd gathered in the Crystal Palace at the Great Exhibition | Source

The Great Exhibition of 1851 was a revelation. Meant as a multi-national fair for art and industry, it was an event that sat at a crossroads between pre-modern modes of production and design and the arc of momentum of the Industrial Revolution. From the pre-fabricated iron and glass structure of which its exhibition hall was built, to the Regency interiors of John Nash, to the products on display that defined not only the effects of mass production and machine work, but also what was to become overworked, superfluous Victorian decoration, the Great Exhibition was the culmination of 19th century British progress, empire and style.

The orchestrating force behind the Great Exhibition was Prince Albert who for one accepted a design proposal for the Great Exhibition central hall by estate gardener Joseph Paxton: a conservatory type building made of iron and glass. By this time, iron as used in building was popular because of its strength, ease of construction, and low cost. Glass manufacture had improved as well and by the 1830s it was possible to fabricate large sheets of glass and plate glass (also the window tax was repealed in 1851). Furthermore, the Crystal Palace as it would be called was built using modules and prefabricated iron sections, a method of construction that glanced into the future of building. Thus, an enormous great hall (over 800,000 square feet) made of iron and glass became profoundly emblematic of the era.

Prince Albert as well as British innovator Henry Cole were members of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of the Arts and a vigorous supporter of social reform and development of the arts in Britain. Cole originated the idea of an enlarged exhibition, as an extension of the RSA, that needed to include international participants; Albert and Cole and other RSA members recognized the importance for Britain, at the fore of the Industrial Revolution, to improve quality and aesthetics of their products and inclinations of design therein to remain competitive as extension of national pride. Britain could also use the Exhibition as an opportunity to “show off” its technological ingenuity and invention. The irony is that ultimately, despite heady intentions, many of the designs and products showcased at the Great Exhibition would be critically regarded as being of questionable quality, excessively ornamented, and gaudy, ergo reflecting a lack of taste. Yet, millions of visitors to the Exhibit were able to observe novel and remarkable inventions - the Jacquard Loom, Colt pistols, daguerreotypes, household appliances – and demonstrations of processes like that were involved in cotton production and steel making.

Also on display at the Great Exhibition were a range of products that included ceramics, metal and woodcraft, tools, textiles, furniture, materials, sculpture, and objects d’art. Over 100,000 items were on display from Britain or the British Empire alone. While the RSA had hoped that the Exhibition would be a beacon for the development of refined aesthetics in Britain, the truth was that taste and style was no longer the exclusive domain of the upper classes but rather, industrialization had made them amply available to the middle classes, the slice of the populace that had less developed, discerning sensibilities for design. Decorative arts encompassed materials and products newly available to a breadth of consumers empowered by a growing British economy that dined on the spoils of empire and industrial production – because of machine production, factory owners became rich and they in turn created a flux of workers in management and other business endeavors that could afford the very products of industry that this new commercial sector of which they were a part had enabled. Axminister carpets were produced by power looms and Chinese carpets were imported. Decorative works could now be mass produced in cast iron, as could tables and chairs with cast iron supports. Fabrics like the iconic Victorian chintz were cheaply produced by machine and wood carving in furniture was revolutionized with the advent of carving machines. Paper mâché and gutta-percha were materials newly incorporated into ornamentation of chairs and other furniture pieces. The need to shove design elements and flourishes into every nook and cranny highlighted designs displayed at the Great Exhibition that came to define Victorian style.

The RSA was likely fighting a losing battle. Certainly not every object displayed at the Exhibit lacked taste but mechanization and mass production forwarded manufacture of these goods to a blindness in regards to aesthetics based in a disconnect between that which was being created and the process in which it was being produced. In pre-industrial times, craftsmen were responsible for production even if just parts of the whole – a gilder who embellished a commode crafted by carpenters, for example. Craftsmen like watchmakers, glass blowers, and wood carvers spent a lifetime in training but the practices of industrialized production meant that specialization would become largely obsolete. A design would be crafted by someone with skill but these designs would be applied to mass production in which each object was produced from a machine operated by workmen with little interest in the specifics of the items manufactured. Small imperfections in the products were common, in contrast to bygone handcraft in which minute attention was paid to each object produced. The buying public didn’t mind, they only wanted to have in their possession that which was in vogue.

The Great Exhibition of 1851 was a prescient event – a look forward to industrial and technological commercialization and the mindset of the consumerist public to come. The poignant legacy of the Great Exhibition may be the benefit to Britain itself in posterity: the funds generated from the enormously successful Exhibit came to fund the foundation of several public institutions including Albert Hall, the National Science Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum.

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