The Great Exhibition of 1851

One of the landmark events of 19th century Victorian England was the Great Exhibition of 1851. It was one of the most successful cultural events of the century and was an attempt to showcase Britain’s progress and superiority to the rest of the world. Following two decades of political and social upheaval in Europe, Great Britain sought to provide the world with the hope for a better future through the aid of technology.

The Great Exhibition, also known as the ‘The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations, was held from 1st May to 15th October 1851 at the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park, London. It was a celebration of modern technology and design of the Industrial Revolution and was a platform where countries could flaunt their achievements. It was the first-ever exhibition held for manufactured products.

Although its conception is famously associated with Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s husband, the idea was initially proposed by Henry Cole, a civil servant. When Albert became the president of the ‘Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce’ in 1943, he backed Cole’s idea for an international fair. They were impressed in particular by the scale of the Paris Exposition of 1849, but they proposed an even larger event, which would be international in scope, where Britain’s engineering and manufactured goods could be compared with those of its international competitors.

Initially there was little interest in the concept of an exhibition by the government of the day, but Henry and Albert continued to develop their idea. They wanted it to be for All Nations, the greatest collection of art in industry, ‘for the purpose of exhibition of competition and encouragement’, and most significantly it was to be self-financing. The government was finally persuaded to form the Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851 to establish the viability of hosting such an exhibition.

Dickinson’s Comprehensive Pictures of the Great Exhibition of 1851

Designing and constructing a large enough building in 12 months was one of the biggest challenges. A design competition was staged, which received a total of 245 entries, but none of the proposed structures were suitable – partly because they would be difficult to remove once the event had ended. However, a landscape gardener, Joseph Paxton, who had previously designed greenhouses for the Duke of Devonshire, came up with the idea of the Crystal Palace. 

The Crystal Palace, made entirely of glass and iron, was created exclusively at Hyde Park for the Great Exhibition by Joseph Paxton. It was a temporary structure that was built in 8 months and could be easily assembled and dismantled. The Crystal Palace was created with 294,000 glass panes and was 1,851 feet long, with an interior height of 128 feet, about three times the size of St Paul’s Cathedral. The name resulted from a piece that playwright Douglas Jerrold wrote for Punch magazine, where he referred to it as a “palace of very crystal.” 

William Makepeace Thackeray, one of the leading novelists of the Victorian era, was moved to write a poem about the opening of the Crystal Palace:

“As though ’twere by a wizard’s rod

 Leaps like a fountain from the grass

As blazing arch of lucid glass

 To meet the sun.”

Dickinson’s Comprehensive Pictures of the Great Exhibition of 1851

Queen Victoria officially opened The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations with an elaborate ceremony at noon on May 1, 1851. Famous people of the time attended the Great Exhibition, including Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, Michael Faraday (who assisted with the planning and judging of exhibits), Samuel Colt, members of the Orléanist Royal Family and the writers Charlotte Brontë, Charles Dickens, Lewis Carroll, George Eliot, Alfred Tennyson and William Makepeace Thackeray. 

The exhibition featured objects from the host country, Britain and its colonies, and foreign states. More than 100,000 objects were displayed by over 14,000 exhibitors from around the world. The exhibits displayed were divided into four themes: Machinery, Manufactures, Fine Arts, and Raw Materials. The objects displayed included almost every marvel of the Victorian age, including pottery, porcelain, ironwork, furniture, perfumes, pianos, firearms, fabrics, steam hammers, hydraulic presses, and even the odd house or two. Many more ordinary items were displayed by manufacturers and merchants. Inventors and manufacturers from Britain displayed tools, household items, farm implements, and food products.

Dickinson’s Comprehensive Pictures of the Great Exhibition of 1851

India contributed an elaborate throne of carved ivory, a coat embroidered with pearls, emeralds and rubies, and a magnificent howdah and trappings for a rajah’s elephant. The most anticipated artifact from the Indian subcontinent was “The Great Diamond of Runjeet Singh called the Koh-i-Noor or the Mountain of Light”, the world’s largest known diamond. It was of priceless value, but visitors found it underwhelming, owing to its lack of sparkle. Another diamond was the Daria-i-Noor, a pale pink diamond, one of the rarest in the world.

The Russian exhibits arrived late, having been delayed by ice in the Baltic. When they did arrive, they were breathtaking: huge vases and urns made of porcelain and malachite more than 10ft tall; furs; sledges and Cossack armour. Canada sent a fire engine with painted panels showing Canadian scenes, and a trophy of furs. Chile sent a single lump of gold weighing 50kg, Switzerland sent gold watches. C C Hornung of Copenhagen, Denmark, showed his single-cast iron frame for a pianoforte, the first made in Europe. The American display was headed by a massive eagle, wings outstretched, holding a drapery of the Stars and Stripes, all poised over one of the organs scattered throughout the building. The largest foreign contributor was France, with its sumptuous tapestries, Sevres porcelain and silks from Lyons, enamels from Limoges and furniture. 

Dickinson’s Comprehensive Pictures of the Great Exhibition of 1851

The opening of the Great Exhibition coincided with one of the greatest innovations of the Industrial Revolution, the railways. Visiting London had become feasible and accessible for the masses, thanks to the new railway lines spread across the country. About 6 million people flocked to witness the exhibition between May and October. The ticket was initially priced at £1 each and reduced to one shilling each, which proved much more popular. However, the tickets were still expensive on peak days – Friday and Saturday. The fair brought in an enormous profit of £186,000, which funded the construction of well-known cultural centers in South Kensington like the Science Museum, the Natural History Museum, and the Victoria & Albert Museum.

Shortly after the exhibition, the whole structure of the Crystal Palace was removed from the Hyde Park site and re-erected at Sydenham, in the Kent countryside, now a part of South East London. The structure was transformed into a permanent attraction, and was in use for 85 years until it was destroyed in a fire in 1936.

The Great Exhibition of 1851 has become one of the most defining cultural events of Victorian England and is an enduring symbol of the 19th century. The exhibition set a precedent for the many international exhibitions which followed, inspiring a long succession of international fairs in other cities, including Paris, Dublin, New York, Vienna, and Chicago – almost one a year for the rest of the 19th century. The Great Exhibition was enormously influential in developing many aspects of society, like art and design education, international trade and relations, and tourism.