All 2 entries tagged Great Exhibition

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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".

January 06, 2008

'Watercolours of the Great Exhibition' at the V&A

Whilst at home over Christmas I took the opportunity of being near London to visit two exhibitions at the Victoria and Albert Museum that had caught my attention recently.

The first of these, "Watercolours of the Great Exhibition", is a small collection of paintings depicting scenes from the Great Exhibition of 1851. This was the first international exhibition of its kind, bringing together over 13,000 exhibits from all over the world, ranging from arts, textiles, and statues to industrial and scientific objects. Henry Clarke Pidgeon's painting of the Russian court captures some of the variety of items on display:

'Part of the Russian Court', by Henry Clarke Pidgeon, 1851

The watercolours were actually painted before it opened to the public, and therefore don't quite convey how busy the halls would have been: over 6 million visitors came to the exhibition over the 5 months it was open - that's about a third of the population of Britain at the time, and although many people would have come from overseas, the exhibition nonetheless figures as a hugely important event of the Victorian period. The impressive scale of the exhibits and size of the building is hinted at in the painting of the Russian court, and more obviously seen in John Absolon's watercolour of the centrepiece of the Belgian display:

'View in the East Nave (Godfrey of Bouillon, by Simonis)' by John Absolon, 1851

In the background above the statue, part of the building that housed the exhibition can be seen: the 'Crystal Palace' designed by Joseph Paxton especially for the exhibition. The Crystal Palace, initially built in Hyde Park and later moved to Sydenham after the exhibition, was the first large-scale building composed of glass and iron: its 300,000 panes of glass covered nine acres of land, even encompassing parts of the park within it- at its greatest height, an entire elm tree was enclosed within the structure. This was a revolutionary piece of architecture: Marshall Berman regards it as "the most visionary and adventurous building of the whole nineteenth-century", expressing the potentialities of the industial age (see All That is Solid Melts Into Air, p. 237). The building provoked a great deal of controversy, many condemning it whilst others wrote of the great impression made by the structure. It is perhaps hard to imagine now why the building should prompt such a response- after all, it's basically a giant greenhouse, which is what Paxton was intially famous for. However, this new type of glass architecture produced a new spatial experience; Wolfgang Schivelbusch gives a fascinating account of how the glass walls provided a different, uniform, quality of light that, without the light-shadow contrasts that ordinarily organised spatial experience, disoriented traditional perceptions of space (see The Railway Journey: The Industrialization of Time and Space in the 19th Century pp. 45-51). Accounts of the time certainly support this idea, such as that of Lothar Bucher who wrote of the "delicate network of lines" that give no clue as to how "we might judge their distance from the eye or their real size":

we cannot tell if this structure towers a hundred or a thousand feet above us, or whether the roof is a flat strucutre or built up from a succession of ridges, for there is no play of shadows to enable our optic nerves to gauge the measurements. (in Berman, p. 239).

'View in the West Nave', by Henry Clarke Pidgeon, 1851

To return to the watercolours, however, the Crystal Palace itself remains a background feature, drawing attention away from the controversy of the building to focus on the objects themselves- Henry Clarke Pidgeon's above painting offers the only view of the ceiling structure that comes close to Bucher's description. Whilst the paintings are rather hidden away in the V&A museum- located in a dark back-corridor that few visitors pass through on their way around the main exhibition rooms- many of the items from the exhibition are now on display throughout the V&A; the profits from the Great Exhibition funded the establishment of several arts and science initiatives such as the V&A, and the museum became home to many of the objects that were first displayed at the exhibition. The watercolours are therefore provide a nice starting-point for visiting other collections at the V&A, giving a new perspective on the more familiar items the museum has on display.

The paintings remain on display for a couple more weeks, after which they'll be in the Paintings and Drawings room, but they can also be viewed on this page on the V&A website- the enlarged versions are about half the size of the originals but still a good alternative to visiting the exhibition.

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