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National Art Library Great Exhibition collection

The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations was held in the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park, London, from 1 May to 15 October 1851. It was the first international exhibition of manufactured products and was enormously influential on the development of many aspects of society including art and design education, international trade and relations, and even tourism. The Exhibition also set the precedent for the many international exhibitions which followed during the next hundred years.

Among the results of the Exhibition were the establishment of the pre-cursor to the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Museum of Ornamental Art, in Marlborough House in 1852; and the reorganisation of the national Schools of Design. The Museum's first objects were selected from exhibits in the Great Exhibition and one of the key organisers, Henry Cole, became the first General Superintendent of the Department of Practical Art, the government body responsible for art education including the new museum. The Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851, the body set up in 1850 to organise and administer the Exhibition under the Presidency of Prince Albert, made a number of recommendations for improving science and art education in the United Kingdom in their 'Second report of the Commissioners for the Exhibition of 1851' submitted in November 1852. The profits (£170,000) from the Exhibition were invested in land in the South Kensington area, close to the site of the Crystal Palace. A number of science and art institutions subsequently developed here, not least the V&A, which moved from Marlborough House and opened on its current site in 1857 as the South Kensington Museum.

The National Art Library's collections

The National Art Library holds a number of collections relating to the International Exhibitions and the development of the South Kensington area of London as a cultural, educational and administrative centre promoting science and the arts. These collections include documentation on the Great Exhibition of 1851, the Schools of Design and the papers of Sir Henry Cole, the first Director of the South Kensington Museum (forerunner of the V&A).

The Library holds one of the most comprehensive collections of printed material on the Great Exhibition. Charles Wentworth Dilke (1810-1869) was a member of the Executive Committee responsible for the organisation of the Exhibition, along with Henry Cole. Dilke collected as many printed items relating to the Exhibition as he could find, including books, pamphlets, official and unofficial guides and catalogues, sermons, songs and music, poetry, travel guides, trade literature, children's books and games, satirical stories and cartoons, and many illustrated works including prints on paper, gelatine and silk. Dilke gave his collection to the Museum in 1867, and most of it is held by the NAL. There is other material in the V&A's former Prints, Drawings and Paintings collection (now part of the Word & Image department) and a few items are held in other departments such as Furniture, Textiles and Fashion.

As outlined above, Henry Cole was a significant figure in the history of science and art education and occupied a key role as the first General Superintendent of the Department of Practical Art. The Library holds his diaries and correspondence as well as a collection of his published works reflecting all areas of his activity including Public Records, the Penny Post and the Great Exhibitions of 1851 and 1862. In addition to this are many official publications by the Department of Science & Art (successor of the Department of Practical Art) including a large number of reports relating to the Schools of Design.

The 1851 Project

The 1851 Project began in February 1995, with the aim of improving access to all relevant material held by the National Art Library by reorganising and recataloguing it. By February 1997 the whole of the Library's collections in these areas had been recatalogued and made accessible through the Computer Catalogue. The Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851, now based at Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine, funded the project for two years.

Catalogues of the Collections

Dilke's collection is comprehensively listed in the bibliography he published in 1855 called 'Catalogue of a Collection of Works on or Having Reference to the Exhibition of 1851 in the possession of C. Wentworth Dilke'.

Nevertheless, access to the collections was poor until the 1851 Project started because the entries in the Library's older manual Catalogues are general and sometimes incomplete. The material has now been described on the Computer Catalogue in much more detail than hitherto. Many additional access points are available including names of individuals and institutions; titles; printers, publishers and binders; subjects; dates of publication; names of former owners and many more.

To see details of items listed on the Computer Catalogue, use the Name (Author or Subject) A-Z list to search for:

  • Great Exhibition (1851: London, England)

This heading has been subdivided to make searching easier and more specific e.g.

  • Great Exhibition (1851 : London, England) - Guidebooks
  • Great Exhibition (1851 : London, England) - Poetry

There are also headings in the Name (Author or Subject) A-Z index for:

  • Crystal Palace (Hyde Park, London, England)
  • Crystal Palace (Sydenham, England)

These have been subdivided in a similar way to the Great Exhibition heading. All the books that were in the collection of Sir Charles Wentworth Dilke will also be given an entry in this index under:

  • Dilke, Charles Wentworth, Sir, 1810-1869.

A wide range of specific subject headings have also been added, with a network of cross references. Search in the Computer Catalogue's Subject A-Z index under:

  • Art education
  • Science education
  • Industrial design, etc.

Access to the collections

Most of this material is normally issued as Special and must be read at an invigilated desk. An ordinary Reader's Ticket or Temporary Ticket is adequate.

Where there are duplicate copies of publications these will be held in the General Collections. There are also reference copies of the 'Official descriptive and illustrated catalogue of the Great Exhibition 1851' and of the 'Reports by the Juries', both of which are available in the Library's Centre Room.

For more information, see using the National Art Library.

Related collections

The Word and Image department also holds prints, watercolours and paintings including a number of colour printed items, such as humorous cartoons and peep-shows, given by Charles Wentworth Dilke with his collection of books.

A number of other institutions also hold relevant documents. The archive of the Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851 holds a collection of related correspondence. The Royal Society of Arts' archive holds key manuscripts of the Society, which began the preparation for the Exhibition, and also the John Scott Russell (Secretary of the Royal Commission) papers. Other significant collections are held by the Royal Collection at Windsor, the Science Museum Library, the British Library and the Royal College of Art.

Reading list

The following is a brief list of some of the key documents published at the time of the Exhibition plus a list of more recent books, some of which were published in the centenary year of 1951:

Key Contemporary Documents

  • Dickinson's comprehensive pictures of the Great Exhibition of 1851. 2nd ed. London : Dickinson, Brothers ..., 1854. 2 v. : col. ill. ; 60 cm.
  • Great Exhibition (1851 : London, England). Collection of printed documents and forms used in carrying on the business of the Exhibition of 1851 ... [London, 1849-1853]. 8v. : ill. ; 36 cm.
  • Great Exhibition(1851 : London, England). Official descriptive and illustrated catalogue of the Great Exhibition 1851. In various editions. London : Spicer Brothers, Wholesale Stationers ; W. Clowes & Sons, Printers, 1851. 3 v. : ill. (some col.) ; 27 cm.
  • Great Exhibition(1851 : London, England). Official descriptive and illustrated catalogue : supplementary volume. London : Spicer Brothers, Wholesale Stationers ; W. Clowes & Sons, Printers, [1852]. 1 v. : ill. ; 27 cm.
  • Great Exhibition (1851 : London, England). Reports by the juries on the subjects in the thirty classes into which the Exhibition was divided. Presentation copy. London : Printed for the Royal Commission by W. Clowes & Sons, ... 1852. cxx, 867 p., 3 leaves of plates : ill. (some col.) ; 27 cm.
  • Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851. First report of the Commissioners for the Exhibition of 1851. London : [s.n.],1852 (W. Clowes & Sons, printers). liv, 211 p., [4] leaves of plates (folded) : plans (1 col.) ; 25 cm.
  • Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851. Second report of the Commissioners for the Exhibition of 1851. London : [s.n.], 1852 (W. Clowes & Sons, printers). 76 p. ; 25 cm.
  • Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851. Prospectuses of exhibitors / collected under the auspices of the Royal Commission. [S.l. : s.n., 1851?]. 16 v. : ill. ; 22 cm.
  • Tallis, John, 1815 or 16-1876. Tallis's history and description of the Crystal Palace ... London ; New York : J. Tallis and Co., [1852?] 3 v. : ill. ; 28 cm.

Later publications

  • Cole, Henry, Sir, 1808–82.Fifty years of public work of Sir Henry Cole accounted for in his deeds, speeches and writings. In two volumes. London : Bell and Sons, 1884. Completed by Henrietta and Alan S. Cole after Henry Cole's death.
  • Dilke, Charles Wentworth, Sir, 1810–69. Catalogue of a collection of works on or having reference to the Exhibition of 1851 in the possession of C. Wentworth Dilke. [London?] : printed for private circulation
  • Downes, Charles.The building erected in Hyde Park for the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations, 1851[facsimile]. [London?: H.M.S.O., 1972]. Facsimile of original ed. published London : John Weale, 1852.
  • French, Yvonne.The Great Exhibition, 1851. London : Harvill Press, [1950].
  • Gibbs-Smith, Charles Harvard, 1909–82.The Great Exhibition of 1851. 2nd ed. London : H.M.S.O., 1981.
  • Greenhalgh, Paul. Ephemeral vistas : the expositions universelles, Great Exhibitions and world's fairs, 1851-1939. Manchester : Manchester University Press, c.1988.
  • Hobhouse, Christopher. 1851 and the Crystal Palace; being an account of the Great Exhibition and its contents ... Rev. ed. London: J. Murray, 1950.
  • Pevsner, Nikolaus, Sir, 1902–83.High Victorian design: a study of the exhibits of 1851. London: Architectural Press, [1951].

Further information

For more information about access to the Great Exhibition collection, please contact:

National Art Library
Victoria and Albert Museum
South Kensington
London SW7 2RL

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