August 18, 2011

"What connection can there be?": the Great Exhibition of 1851

All the World Going to the Great Exhibition

I took a short research trip to the British Library last weekend, doing some work on the Great Exhibition of 1851 as context for current writing on Dickens's Bleak House, and while I was there I took the time to look at the originals of these pictures which I've come across in a couple of articles on the subject. They're illustrations from Henry Mayhew's comic novel 1851: or, The Adventures of Mr and Mrs Sandboys and Family, who came up to London to "enjoy themselves" and to see the Great Exhibition. I haven't yet read 1851 (the title doesn't exactly leave much to the imagination, but I do know that the Sandboys never actually make it to the Exhibition...) but these images are wonderful depictions of the anxieties surrounding the Exhibition. The opening image, above, shows "All the World going to see the Great Exhibition of 1851"; with the Crystal Palace standing on top of the world as the triumphant, celebrated achievement of the modern era, people of all nations encroach in to see it. Cultures are identified through stereotypical tropes typical of the period, but whilst people are visibly different in the bottom half of the picture - there's a clear sense of a scale of "civilization" operating across this globe - closer to the Palace the crowd becomes a homogenous, undistinguishable mass of people. This visibly depicts Prince Albert's words that the Exhibition signalled “that great end, to which, indeed, all history points – the realisation of the unity of mankind". It's notable, too, that this is a boundariless and borderless world; people are different, but the space in which they move is one.dispersion

The final image of the book, titled "The Dispersion of the Works of All Nations from the Great Exhibition of 1851”, is suggestive of the uncertainty of such unity: the objects of the Exhibition burst out from the Crystal Palace, dispersing into random confusion. Whilst the Exhibition attempted to impose neat systems of categorisation and re-asserted national borders by arranging objects by country, this image shows the complete disruption of organising systems; bringing all the world together does not result in a harmonious unity, but rather a descent into chaos that resists all containment. Notably, it's only objects that are dispersing, not the people of the previous image; things overrun the globe, highlighting the move into global capitalism that the Exhibition space stands as representative of. The Palace itself is in the centre of the picture, obscured by flying objects, yet in tact and unharmed - I can't decide, looking at it now, if it's suggesting a spontaneous explosion of objects out of the building that can't contain all this chaos, or rather an active expulsion of things away from British shores (as implied in the title "dispersion"). Both readings work, I think, and stand to assert the problems inherent in the Exhibition's global project and the counter-response of national introspection that we find in a novel like Bleak House.

Finally, these two images bring to mind one of the central questions of Bleak House: “what connexion can there be […] What connexion can there have been between many people in the innumerable histories of this world, who, from opposite sides of great gulfs, have, nonetheless, been very curiously brought together!” (256). We might easily substitute "things" in place of "people" and read the Exhibition as an attempt to form the connections between the diverse places and cultures of the world but which, as Cruikshank's second image suggests, simultaneously signalled the impossibility of such understanding. The question lingers through Dickens's text as another element of the novel's anti-Exhibition project, never giving us the totalizing view but rather revealing the impossibility of knowing the whole in a world in which everything is "moving on and moving on".


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