Made for exhibition
Most of the things made around the middle of the 19th century in the Victoria and Albert Museum's collections are of 'exhibition quality'. They are the crowning achievement of manufacturers trying to outdo the opposition in sumptuous decoration, craftsmanship, technical skill and often simply in sheer size. None of these products was intended for or would have been seen in ordinary or even middle-class homes.
Henry Cole Tea Service, made by Minton. Museum no. 2741:2746-1901
Designed by Henry Cole (1808 - 1882)
Manufactured by Minton, Felix Summerly's Art Manufactures
1844 - 1846
Museum nos. 2741:2746-1901
Cole's determination to improve the quality of British design in the 1840s led him to design a tea service without applied decoration at a time when pattern was generally thought to increase an object's beauty and therefore its value. In 1846 Cole was awarded a prize medal by the Society of Arts for this comparatively simple design. Cole was made a committee member of the Society, and joined forces with the Society's President, Prince Albert, who shared his convictions about design.
Micro-mosaic inlaid table, made by George J. Morant
Micro-mosaic inlaid table
Manufactured by George J. Morant, London
Painted and gilt wood, micro-mosaic top
Museum no. W.34-1980
Although the skill shown by Morants and Barberi in inlaying tiny chips of coloured stone to make the surface of this table look like a painted picture would have impressed visitors to many a Victorian drawing room, Henry Cole would not have been pleased by it. This table is an example of exactly the type of design against which he was campaigning. The flowers on the surface and the supporting birds beneath have no relation to the function of the table. Cole and the committee of the Society of Arts hoped that when people saw such objects at the Exhibition, they would compare them with the graceful simplicity of the cast-iron rocker, or with foreign exhibits that showed similar artistic self-control, and from then on they would demand more aesthetic restraint. Not only did he misunderstand the crowds who came to wonder at the spectacle of the building and its contents, Cole also did not allow for the determination of exhibitors to attract the attention of those visitors. Makers were convinced that their product must be bigger, brighter and better than the competition to be worthy of notice.
Armoire Bookcase Cabinet, designed by AWN Pugin
Armoire Bookcase Cabinet
Designed by A W N Pugin (1812 - 1852)
Made by John Gregory Crace (1809 - 1889)
Carved and painted oak
Museum no. 25-1852
The architect and designer A W N Pugin arranged the Medieval Court in the Great Exhibition entirely in the Gothic style. There are some ceramic pieces and metalwork that were shown in the Exhibition in this room, but the most impressive is the enormous oak cabinet that he designed. It appears that even Pugin was not immune to the desire to show off in a public setting. Despite looking more like a chancel screen than a cabinet, this is a secular piece of furniture. It demonstrates Pugin's mastery of ornamental detail as well as the immense skill of the woodworkers employed by the maker, J. Crace. It is the quality of the workmanship in the exhibition objects, rather than the frequently ostentatious designs, that is most likely to impress us today.
A.W.N. Pugin was also trying to influence British taste. In books such as 'Contrasts', first published in 1836, Pugin gave vent to his intense dislike of the paganism of classical design and described his admiration for what he felt were the pure Christian qualities of the Gothic style. Although his writing was influential, it was the work Pugin was commissioned to do for the Houses of Parliament that makes him the father of Victorian Gothic style. He was responsible for all the interiors at Westminster and the decoration of the exterior.
Cabinet, designed by Designed by Alexandre Eugène Prignot
Designed by Alexandre Eugène Prignot,
Made by Jackson and Graham, London
Carved, gilded and painted wood, marquetry, porcelain plaques, marble inlay
Museum no. 7247-1860
Although this cabinet was designed, not for the Great Exhibition, but for the following international exhibition held in Paris in 1855, it is included here as an extreme example of `exhibition style'. It was made by the British firm of Jackson Graham to demonstrate the varied skills of the entire workforce of more than 300 in one dazzling exhibition piece. A French designer, A.E. Prignot, was commissioned to design a cabinet in a style that would impress the mainly French audience. The medals awarded to prize-winning pieces were greatly valued and used in advertising. The size of this piece, intended to catch attention at the exhibition, was copied by other, less skilled manufacturers. Much of the overweight, oversize furniture of the later nineteenth century can be blamed on international exhibitions.
The Nelson Jug, designed by Alfred Crowquil
The Nelson Jug
Designed by Alfred Crowquill
Manufactured by Samuel Alcock & Co
Museum no. CIRC.645-1962
Nelson jug, made by Alcock of Burslem from parian porcelain and exhibited in the Great Exhibition. Part of the decoration reproduces a relief on Nelson's Column. Alcock of Burslem chose to depict a national hero on the jug displayed on their stand. Alcock was a small company in competition not only with British firms such as Wedgwood and Minton, but also with foreign potteries. So, who better to uphold the traditions of Britain and the Staffordshire potteries, and capture the attention of passing visitors, than a national hero such as Nelson? Scenes from Nelson's life are sculpted in low relief on the side panels and the surrounding symbolism is also nautical: dolphins on the base, and the handle in the form of Neptune. That the Society of Arts would have considered such storytelling to be inappropriate ornament for a vase would probably not have occurred to nor concerned the maker.
Rocking chair, made by made by W. Winfield. Museum no. CIRC.20-1961
Manufactured by R. W. Winfield, Birmingham
1840 - 1850
Iron, japanned and gilt
Museum no. CIRC.20-1961
The cast-iron rocking chair is a reflection of the Crystal Palace in which the Great Exhibition was held. Made of the same structural material, it too is of a practical, thoughtful design, without excess decoration. It mirrors the functional quality of the building in which it was seen and demonstrates nineteenth-century mastery of this material. This chair is a domestic example of the technical achievements of the Victorians. It also represents a particularly Victorian desire for conspicuous modernity, without sacrificing an equal devotion to comfort. Upholstered chairs with coil springs were being developed at this time, but the slung hammock effect of this chair would have been a comfortable alternative.