The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations was the first international exhibition of manufactured goods, and it had an incalculable effect on the course of art and design throughout the Victorian Age and beyond. It was modelled on successful French national exhibitions, but it was the first to open its doors to the world.

Prince Albert's Project
The Exhibition's chief proponent and cheerleader was Prince Albert. The Prince Consort envisaged a self-financing event, and encouraged a reluctant government to set up a Royal Commission to oversee the exhibition, to be held in Hyde Park, London.

The Commission called for architectural submissions for the exhibition hall, which was to cover an area of over 700,000 square feet. Over 200 submissions were received, but the Commission rejected them all in favour of its own plan, which was universally reviled as ugly and expensive. This latter objection proved all too true, for when the Commission called for tenders for the materials alone, they were appalled to learn it would cost up to £150,000.

Paxton's Crystal Palace
Then another plan surfaced, by Joseph Paxton. Initially, the Commission rejected Paxton's plan, but he took out newspaper ads to raise public support, and the Commissioners were forced to bow to public pressure. Paxton's innovative design called for a glass and steel structure, essentially a giant greenhouse, made of identical, interchangeable pieces, thus lowering materials cost considerably. Paxton's design was adopted, with the addition of a dome to allow space for some very tall trees in Hyde Park.

Jump testing
Rival architects claimed that the building was unsafe, and would collapse from the resonance set up by the feet of large crowds. So an experiment was set up. A model structure was built, and workmen walked back and forth in time and then haphazardly. Then they jumped up in the air together. No problem. As a final test, army troops were called in to march about. The test building passed the trial, so work proceeded on the real thing.

The numbers. Some quick facts and figures about Paxton's amazing creation:

  • The main building was 1848 feet long and 408 wide, enclosing 772,784 square feet (19 acres), an area six times that of St. Paul's Cathedral
  • The structure contained 4000 tons of iron, 900,000 feet of glass, and 202 miles of sash bars to hold it all together.

The Exhibition
Amazingly, the building, dubbed the "Crystal Palace", was ready on time and on budget. In fact, due to the presale of tickets, the exhibition was ensured a profit before it even opened on May 1, 1851. There were 17,000 exhibitors from as far away as China, and over 6 million visitors viewed goods ranging from silks to clocks, and furniture to farm machinery. The French were the big winners in terms of awards, a fact which did not go unnoticed by the British press.

The profit from the exhibition was used to purchase land in Kensington, where several museums were built, including the forerunner of the Victoria and Albert Museum, which carries on the spirit of the exhibition in its displays devoted to art and design. In fact, the road where several of these museums were built was called Exhibition Road.

As for the Crystal Palace itself, it was dismantled at the end of the exhibition and reassembled in Sydenham, South London. There it stayed as a tourist attraction until it burned down in 1936. If you want to get a sense of what this amazing building was like, visit the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, and take a look at the Palm House.

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