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The Great Exhibition

Updated on January 31, 2011

The Great Exhibition of 1851

The first World's Fair was originally called The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations or the Great Exhibition. It took place in Hyde Park, London in 1851 and was intended to demonstrate the greatness of Victorian Britain. A monumental building of iron and glass was constructed to house exhibitors from all over the world which is why its sometimes referred to as the Crystal Palace Exhibition. The building's unique construction aroused fierce controversy. Some condemned the structure “as the very model of mechanical dehumanization in design” and yet it would come to be known as the prototype for Modern Architecture.

Upheaval & Progress

In 1837 Queen Victoria (1819 –1901) ascended the throne in England beginning the Victorian era. Although this period is known as a time when great strides were made in the areas industry, politics, science and the military within the Britain, it didn't start out that way. It began just as the Chartist Movement (1838-1850) was gaining strength.

By 1848 revolution had erupted across Europe striking fear into the hearts of the politically elite and transforming the thinking of the more socially aware. On this new political landscape the inclusive nature of the event was conceived. The founders were Henry Cole (1808 -82) Prince Albert (1819–61) and Charles Dilke (1810-69) all members of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of the Arts and strong proponents of social reform. They believed that though Britain led the industrial revolution, their products were inferior to products from other parts
of the world. They hoped that by inviting international exhibitors to showcase their most exquisite items that their British counterparts would learn from them and so by improve their own goods.

Nearly 14,000 exhibitors from 34 different countries took them up on their offer. These would be housed in the Crystal Palace. An innovative and visually impressive building designed by Joseph Paxton (1803-65) who, though not an architect, came up with his proposal in just ten days. There were many challenges to building the structure, among them small budget , extraordinary size and rapid execution were paramount. Paxton's design met these challenges by incorporating all prefabricated materials. In record time an iron framework, exactly 1,851 feet long, was completely covered in factory made glass.

Nearly six million people, one quarter the population of Britain, viewed the vast array of items on display. Among them, the Jacquard loom, an envelope machine, paintings, sculptures, tools, kitchen appliances, steel-making displays, a reaping machine, and furniture. Of the decorative items a considerable amount of superfluous decoration having nothing to do with design proliferated although they were in sync with the tastes of the time.

An Important Legacy

Prince Albert proclaimed it “a new starting point from which all nations would be able to direct their further exertions”. The real achievements of the Great Exhibition were not the exhibits but the building itself and the socially aware manner in which it was held. Its method of construction revolutionized building assembly taking control it out of the hands of craftsman on site and putting it back into the hands of the designer. Its legacy however wasn't just about construction or even social reform because profits from the event allowed for the foundation of public works such as the Albert Hall, the Science Museum, the National History Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum that people can still tangibly enjoy today.

Article by Anne Alexander Sieder all rights reserved. For hardcore interior design fans, check out my blog


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