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Industrial arts and the exhibition ideal

Industrial Arts and the Exhibition Ideal

Peter Trippi

The Victoria and Albert Museum is rooted in the extraordinary success of a single public event. Between May 1851, when it was opened in London by Queen Victoria, and October 1851, when it was closed by her consort Prince Albert, the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations attracted more than six million visitors, making it the most heavily attended event known to that date. Forerunner of many international expositions and world’s fairs, this Great Exhibition has been imprinted indelibly on the Western consciousness via the “Crystal Palace,” the name given immediately to its innovative building by the satirical magazine Punch.

Although the Exhibition displayed more than one hundred thousand objects, its most renowned exhibit was the building itself. Erected in less than nine months to the plans of the English horticulturist and conservatory designer Joseph Paxton, the Crystal Palace rose over eighteen acres of London’s Hyde Park, enclosing thirty-three million cubic feet and twenty-one acres of exhibiting space. The ironwork and glass for the building were manufactured in Birmingham, more than a hundred miles from London, making it an early—and gigantic—example of prefabricated construction. This innovative technology imparted a geometric precision and functional clarity that has led later architects to identify the Crystal Palace as one of the first truly modern buildings. Though this is a reasonable assertion in some senses, it would be wrong to underestimate the extent to which traditional forms and methods contributed to the building’s success. The central core of the Crystal Palace was, in effect, made in wood by skilled artisans, while each of the three hundred thousand sheets of glass was individually cylinder-blown.

Venturing through one of three entrances, visitors were awed by the unprecedented scale of the Crystal Palace: 1,848 feet long and 408 feet wide, the transept soaring 108 feet. The Welsh designer Owen Jones coordinated an interior scheme of alternating blue, yellow, and red pillars and girders that stretched into the distance, accented by dark red banners announcing from the upper floor’s galleries the locations of particular exhibits. Browsing among the wares of the nearly fourteen thousand exhibitors, visitors must have felt they were in a giant greenhouse as they encountered tropical plants, a glass fountain, and fully grown elms undamaged by the construction. Visitors could spend the entire day inside enjoying refreshment courts, the first public “comfort” rooms for both men and women, filtered water, the music of twenty-four pipe organs, and splendid vistas from the upper galleries.

The event was organized by a Royal Commission whose two most influential leaders were Prince Albert and Henry Cole. The commissioners had a number of interdependent motives, of which commerce was perhaps the most overt. They hoped the Exhibition would increase foreign trade and promote discerning consumption at home through elevation of the taste of producers and consumers alike. The Exhibition also had a strong social and political agenda, in that it was intended to give the nation a sense of cohesion and loyalty in a period of unrest. Planning began in earnest in 1848, a year in which Europe was wracked by revolution and Chartist reformers were active across Britain. The commissioners hoped that their vast essay on the achievements of the nation would encourage loyalty and ensure stability. Connected to these motivations was the desire to present the imperial possessions, which were good for both business and national pride, and which, if shown off effectively, would serve well as propaganda in an international environment. Thus, half of all exhibitors came from Britain and its empire, with the Indian Court at the heart of the imperial exhibits.

The non-British contingent was perhaps the most striking feature of the Great Exhibition, which can be considered the world’s first truly international cultural display because half of its total space was given over to foreign exhibitors. Numerically, these were led by France, followed by the states of northern Germany, Austria, Belgium, Russia, Turkey, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Egypt, Spain, Portugal, Brazil, Mexico, China, Arabia, and Persia.

Chosen and arranged on stands by the exhibiting manufacturers themselves, the objects shown were classified by the Commission into four exhibit categories reflecting the cycle of production: Raw Materials, Machinery and Mechanical Invention, Manufactures, and Sculpture and Plastic Art. Throughout the Crystal Palace, the air vibrated with the sounds of machines showing how products were manufactured. The latest work in virtually any medium could be found, including arms, ceramics, clocks, fountains, glass, jewelry, leatherwork, lighting, metalwork, mirrors, musical instruments, sculpture, textiles, and wallpaper. Although visitors could purchase a guide to find particular areas, exhibitors sought to attract attention by displaying what came to be known as “exhibition pieces”—oversized or highly decorated objects that often demonstrated the varied skills of a firm’s entire work force.

Coveted by exhibitors as much for advertising purposes as for personal fulfillment, 2,918 Prize Medals (fig. 57) were awarded for a “certain standard of excellence in Fig.57. The Great Exhibition Prize Medalproduction or workmanship.” In addition, 170 Council Medals were presented in recognition of some “important novelty of invention or application, either in material or process of manufacture, or originality, combined with great beauty of design.”1 Among the recipients of this more prestigious medal was A. W. N. Pugin, who designed the entire Medieval Court in which his objects appeared (fig. 58).

The popularity of the Great Exhibition was extraordinary by standards of the era, welcoming, on average, forty-two thousand visitors a day. On Tuesday, 7 October 1851, almost one hundred ten thousand people came to enjoy the Exhibition over the course of twelve hours; at one point that day ninety-three thousand people were in the building simultaneously.

Although the Crystal Palace was ostensibly open to all, a basic charge of a shilling prevented a considerable section of British society from attending. Fear of the mob also led to a Hyde Park ban on the vendors who were typically associated with festivals and popular events. Alcohol was Fig.58. The Medieval Courtforbidden on the site, and police had strategic vantage points from which they could monitor the crowds. Nonetheless, the Exhibition enjoyed a richer social mix than any previous event of such a high cultural order. Contemporary reports tell of trains packed with agricultural laborers in quaint attire led to Hyde Park by their clergymen, Midlands factory workers given leave to glimpse the products of their manufacture displayed in glory, and even peasants who walked across the country to visit the Great Exhibition. The entrepreneur Thomas Cook enhanced his reputation by coordinating group visits—an early form of “Cook’s tours”—to the Crystal Palace.

After Queen Victoria opened the Great Exhibition with much pomp on 1 May 1851 (cat. 1), she wrote: “The Green Park and Hyde Park were one mass of densely crowded human beings, in the highest good humour. . . .”2 Later in May the queen reported: “We went up to the Gallery on the south side and stood at the end of the Transept, to watch the people coming in, in streams. . . . all so civil and well behaved, that it was quite a pleasure to see them.”3 Only three years after revolutions had shaken the royal foundations of their Continental counterparts, Victoria and Albert had special reason to be satisfied with the public’s decorum.

The Great Exhibition was a turning point in the history of public spectacles because it blended an array of presentation techniques borrowed from other media: Britain’s few public museums; the for-profit public entertainment of panoramas (theaterlike rooms decorated to evoke other times and places); attractions at London venues such as the Egyptian Hall; the Mechanics Institute exhibitions visited by English artisans; the oversized samples displayed by retailers; commercial art galleries; and the elegant arcades where the well-to-do shopped and socialized. By blending these techniques, the Commission “translated these into exhibitionary forms which, in simultaneously ordering objects for public inspection and ordering the public that inspected, were to have a profound and lasting influence on the subsequent development of museums, art galleries, expositions, and department stores.” 4

The Great Exhibition was the first event in what was to become a spectacular sequence. During the second half of the nineteenth century some forty international exhibitions were staged worldwide, in cities such as Dublin, Paris, New York, Vienna, Philadelphia, Sydney, Atlanta, Amsterdam, Boston, New Orleans, Calcutta, Antwerp, Barcelona, Chicago, Nashville, Stockholm, and Guatemala City. These expositions expanded the scope of the original concept to embrace every aspect of human activity.5 The successful revival of the Olympic Games in 1896, for example, can be traced to this source. Indeed, the second, third, and fourth Olympiads were all held in conjunction with expositions—in Paris, St. Louis, and London, respectively. The two nations to take up the exhibition idea most competitively were France and the United States, which, between them, staged some fourteen major events before 1900.

The Great Exhibition had several direct forebears. First, and perhaps most important, were the activities of the Society of Arts (later decreed the Royal Society of Arts) which, from its founding in 1754, promoted British industry through the use of artistry and invention. Debates, publications, and awards were among the tactics the Society employed to encourage every aspect of art and manufacture. In 1760, the Society held what one British historian has called “the first specially organized exhibition of art in this country.” 6 Prince Albert (fig. 59)Fig.59.  Francis Xavier Winterhalter was later to become the Society’s president, while Henry Cole and many other commissioners were members. The Society’s exhibitions in 1847, 1848, and 1849 focused on what might be called industrial arts by showing “Specimens of British Manufactures and Decorative Art,” particularly in precious metals.

While the Society of Arts developed an intellectual and pragmatic agenda that joined art with industry, the French government provided another model in the form of large-scale National Exhibitions of industrial arts, ten of which were held between 1797 and 1849. 7 Consisting of juried displays by manufacturers of their currently available products, the scale, sales-oriented agenda, and cultural ambition of the French events clearly anticipated the Crystal Palace, and all expositions after it. (Cole was tremendously impressed by what he saw at the Paris exhibition in 1849, the same year he launched the Journal of Design and Manufactures.)

Until the Great Exhibition, so diverse a public had never before participated in so large a spectacle. Although many visitors paid more attention to the Exhibition’s sensuous pleasures than to its intended lessons, the success of this ambitious project validated the commissioners’ belief (and that of the government that had commissioned them) in displaying objects as a “means” of “promoting Arts, Manufactures and Industry.” 8 In 1852 they acted to continue the teaching of taste to manufacturers, artisans, and consumers by establishing the Museum of Manufactures through Cole’s leadership of a new government department under the Board of Trade. Here Cole intended to carry on his lifelong quest for rationalization and classification by creating a systematic collection of manufactures for nationwide reference.

The commissioners used the Exhibition’s profits to purchase a large tract of land south of the Crystal Palace. This area of South Kensington, now home to a range of educational and cultural institutions, including the V&A, is still legally owned by the successors to the commissioners of the Great Exhibition. (The Crystal Palace was moved in 1853 to the London suburb of Sydenham, where it was destroyed in a fire in 1936 [fig. 60].)Fig.60. The Crystal Palace

South Kensington sustained the Crystal Palace spirit of technology and accessibility, becoming the world’s first museum with artificial lighting—which made evening visits possible—and with a permanent restaurant situated at the entrance to encourage dining before viewing. More than 6.5 million of the more than 15 million visits to South Kensington between 1857 and 1883 were made in the evenings, when working-class people could come. 9 In contrast to the forbidding, neoclassical porticoes of the British Museum and National Gallery, South Kensington’s 1869 facade of warmly colored brick and terra cotta beckoned visitors. Approaching the Museum, no one could ignore the pediment’s monochrome mosaic depicting Queen Victoria distributing Exhibition medals, surrounded by a silhouette of the Crystal Palace, the names of participating nations, and a railway locomotive (fig. 61). Attendance at the British Museum—where visitors’ credentials were still being inspected as late as the 1830s—soared during and after 1851, another indication that the Great Exhibition had generated a broader arts-aware public. (The British Museum did not, however, inaugurate evening hours until 1883.)10 The patronizing mistrust of the mob evidenced by the commissioners of the Great Exhibition lived on at South Kensington, too: always aware that he was competing with easier pleasures for workers’ attention, Cole hoped that “Perhaps the evening opening of Public Museums may furnish a powerful antidote to the gin palace.”11Fig.61. The mosaic pediment

In 1851, French exhibitors advancing the “Louis” styles carried away more medals than any other nation. After two decades of growing anxiety about France’s apparent superiority in industrial manufacture, this acknowledgment—pointedly reported and critiqued by British commentators—spurred a determination to compete with the French for dominance in this arena.

A central concern was the perceived gap between technical and aesthetic excellence in native manufactures, particularly luxury goods. The 1857 Guide to the South Kensington Museum noted that English products at the Great Exhibition “were fully equal to those sent over to compete with them, as regarded workmanship and material . . . ,” but “the public felt that much for the improvement of public taste was still to be accomplished.”12 (Whether the public really felt this is debatable, but the argument was convenient to Cole and other Museum administrators.)

Operated under the patronage of Prince Albert and closely associated with his circle of design reformers, the Art Journal conveyed the commissioners’ optimism late in 1851: “The results of the Great Exhibition are pregnant with incalculable benefits to all classes of the community. . . . [A]mong the eager thousands whose interest was excited and whose curiosity was gratified, were many who obtained profitable suggestions at every visit: the manufacturer and the artisan have thus learned the most valuable of all lessons—the disadvantages under which they had laboured, the deficiencies they had to remedy, and the prejudices they had to overcome.”13

More than anything else, the Great Exhibition ushered in a new age of art and design criticism. From 1851, design reform grew steadily in Britain as a professionalized activity, with exhibitions and publications on the subject proliferating. After the Great Exhibition, the Art Journal predicted that “when His Royal Highness Prince Albert issues his summons to another competition, British supremacy will be manifested in every branch of Industrial Art.”14 In fact, Albert died the year before London’s International Exhibition of 1862, but the prediction was correct: the medal count revealed British design standards to have risen to the point where they rivaled those of the French.

It is hardly surprising that among the Museum’s early acquisitions were modern manufactures from the Crystal Palace. Of a £5,000 Parliamentary grant allocated to Cole upon the Museum’s founding, more than £2,000 was spent on foreign exhibits, £1,500 on objects from the Indian Court, and less than £1,000 on those from the British displays. This allocation and the items to be purchased were determined by a Museum committee of men pivotal in the reform of mid-Victorian design: Henry Cole, John Rogers Herbert, Owen Jones, A. W. N. Pugin, and Richard Redgrave.15 In their catalogue, the committee members expressed their general disapproval of most exhibits before explaining that “each specimen has been selected for its merits in exemplifying some right principle of construction or of ornament.”16 The moralistic certitude of such phrases as “right principle” reflects the zealousness of these reformers, particularly Pugin, who had published The True Principles of Pointed or Christian Architecture in 1841. The committee selected “Elkington electrotypes, china from Minton and Sevres, oriental arms and armour, Belgian gold and silver, and other striking objects, including—perhaps from politeness—a few of Pugin’s chalices.”17

Like the Museum collection that grew from them, the Great Exhibition’s displays presented both familiar and exotic lands from a confident Western perspective. Thus the Crystal Palace—and by inference the movement it spawned—has been critiqued as “classically imperialist in conception and construction” and its contents as “the material culture of an industrial, commercial empire, with an emphasis on manufactured goods from colonial raw materials.”18

Lessons to be taught by at least one colonial people were not ignored by “the Cole group,” however: Jones felt that the Indian exhibits provided “most valuable hints for arriving at a true knowledge of those principles both of Ornament and Colour in the Decorative Arts.”19 In his Supplementary Report on Design for the commissioners (1852), Redgrave observed that “ornament is merely the decoration of a thing constructed . . . and must not usurp a principal place.”20 Praising the Indian synthesis of utility and beauty through ornament—the making beautiful of useful objects—Jones favorably contrasted Indian art with English abuses of naturalism and historical styles (see cats. 19–20): “There are no carpets worked with flowers whereon the feet would fear to tread, no furniture the hand would fear to grasp, no superfluous and useless ornament which caprice has added and which accident might remove.”21 The point was demonstrated explicitly in the new Museum’s short-lived display of “Examples of False Principles in Decoration,” and through Jones’s enduring The Grammar of Ornament (1856).

Between 1852 and 1900, the Museum’s curators came to see the international exhibitions as keyopportunities for acquiring contemporary manufactures. Items purchased from British and foreign stands at the 1862 exhibition in London included jewelry, cast iron, mosaics, sideboards, carved frames, silver, tapestries, glass, and ceramics (fig. 62).Fig.62. The International Exhibition Acquisitions from the London exhibition in 1871 were still more diverse: French curtain fabrics, Moorish ceramics, Portuguese tile panels, Indian furniture and marble pillars, Hungarian and Moravian earthenware vases, Spanish pigskin bottles, and Venetian glass, with many examples of Indian and European jewelry.22 The collections of ceramics and glass, having grown by seven objects in 1851, were enhanced with seventy-five more from the exhibition of 1862. Curators of ceramics and glass then went on to buy ninety-nine items from the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1867, and a total of one hundred items from the three Paris shows of 1878, 1889, and 1900.23 They also satisfied their desire for things Japanese by commissioning the purchase of 216 Japanese ceramics that were then featured in the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition of 1876 (fig. 63 [see cats. 114–116]).24Fig.63. The Philadelphia Centennial Exposition

Curators of other collections used the expositions in much the same way, though the motives for purchase could vary dramatically. The Fourdinois cabinet—awarded first prize at the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1867 and widely seen as the era’s premier exhibition piece (see cat. 7)—clearly satisfied multiple sets of criteria. Many of the glass objects purchased from the same show, however, were obtained only because of their “cheapness of manufacture.”25 Although these objects were often wonderful in their own right, their acquisition was originally intended to ful-fill the commercial objectives Cole had been preaching since the 1840s. While testifying before the 1860 Parliamentary Select Com-mittee, he was asked how “the manufacturer of china is affected by the exhibition of the South Kensington Museum.” Cole responded:

I think that the first result of this kind of exhibition is to make the public hunger after the objects; I think they go to the china shops and say, “We do not like this or that; we have seen something prettier at the South Kensington Museum”; and the shopkeeper, who knows his own interest, repeats that to the manufacturer, and the manufacturer, instigated by that demand, produces the article.26

Regardless of which country was hosting, the international exhibitions validated the nineteenth-century progressivist view that the Western way of life was superior to any known by earlier peoples. The Crystal Palace and its dazzling contents were widely perceived by Victorians as triumphant evidence of Britain’s apotheosis, reflecting her rapid advances in science and technology, prowess in railroads and navigation, enormous empire, and political stability. In 1851 Cole observed:

The activity of the present day chiefly develops itself in commercial industry, and it is in accordance with the spirit of the age that the nations of the world have now collected together their choicest productions. It may be said without presumption, that an event like this Exhibition could not have taken place at any earlier period, and perhaps not among any other people than ourselves. The friendly confidence reposed by other nations in our institutions; the perfect security for property; the commercial freedom, and the facility of transport which England pre-eminently possesses, may all be brought forward as causes which have operated in establishing the Exhibition in London.27 Imbued with this optimistic outlook, exhibition organizers of all nations from 1851 onward identified their work with industrial capitalism, conspicuous modernity, and constant growth. From one international exhibition to the next, each nation sought to exceed the scale and impact of its previous displays or pavilions, always with an eye toward boosting national prestige and economic vitality (fig 64).Fig.64. The Exposition Universelle

The ethos of technology and progress fueled the processes of modernization that transformed Britain in the nineteenth century. The Great Exhibition was, in this sense, a microcosm of the society that gave rise to it. By the end of the century, however, new forms of cultural modernity were arousing fear and suspicion. A gift to the Museum of Art Nouveau furniture from the 1900 Paris exhibition (see cats. 165–167) provoked in England an antimodern outcry that undermined the already weakening policy of acquiring objects directly from the exhibit stands. Those of the V&A’s modern manufactures that had not already been transferred to the branch facility at Bethnal Green in East London were hastily transferred thereafter. Only beginning in 1952, when the Museum mounted an exhibition of Victorian and Edwardian decorative arts, did these objects (the ones not deaccessioned since 1900) enjoy new attention from staff and scholars. By the 1980s, it became clear that the many pieces acquired by the V&A from the international exhibitions had played a pivotal role in the Museum’s original work. These objects have returned to prominence as the Museum continues to reaffirm its relationship with industrial manufacture and design.

Fig.56. Detail of cat.5
I am grateful for the assistance of Paul Greenhalgh, Head of Research at the V&A, and of Geoff Opie.
Durbin, 1994, p. 16.
Fay, 1951, p. 47.
Ibid., p. 56.
Bennett, 1996, p. 83.
Findling, 1990.
Luckhurst, 1951 p. 23.
Greenhalgh, 1988, pp. 3-6.
Official, Descriptive and Illustrated Catalogue of the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations, London, 1851 [hereafter, Official...].
Bennett, op. cit., p. 92.
Ibid., p. 93.
Alexander, 1983, p. 163.
South Kensington Museum, Guide to the South Kensington Museum, 1857b.
Art Journal, facsimile version of the Great Exhibition catalogue, 1995, p. viii.
Herbert is occasionally omitted from accounts of this committee's membership (see Frayling, 1987, p. 38; MacCarthy, 1972, p. 20).
"First Report of the Department of Practical Art,” in British Parliamentary Papers [hereafter BPP] , Reports and Papers Relating to the State of the Head and Branch Schools of Design, 1850-53, Irish University Press, Industrial Revolution, Design, IV, p. 229, cited in Purbrick, 1994, p. 79.
MacCarthy, op. cit., p. 20.
Hinsley, in Karp and Lavine, 1991, p. 345.
"Catalogue of the Museum of Manufactures,” in BPP, op. cit., p. 481.
Richard Redgrave, Reports by the Juries on the Subjects in the Thirty Classes into
Which the Exhibition Was Divided, London, 1852, pp. 708-49, as cited in Boe, 1957, p.59.
“Catalogue of the Museum of Manufactures,” in BPP, op. cit., p. 481.
Department of Science and Art, List of Objects in the Art Division, South
Kensington Museum, Acquired During the Year 1871, 1872.
List of Objects... [for years 1878,1889, and 1900] (see note 22).
Jackson, A., 1992, pp. 245-56.
List of Objects... [for the year 1867] (see note 22).
Report from the Select Committee on the South Kensington Museum, 1860, pp. 10-11, cited in Purbrick, 1994, p. 84.
Official..., op.cit.,p.1.
Catalogue Images
cat.1. The Opening of The Great Exhibition by Queen Victoria cat.2. Flagon cat.3. Chalice cat.4. Silk and Gold Thread
cat.5. Vase cat.6. Alhambra Vase cat.7. Cabinet on Stand cat.8. Prometheus on Captive Vase
cat.9. Cabinet cat.9. (Detail) Cabinet cat.10. Tray in the From of Mount Fuji cat.10. (Detail) Tray in the From of Mount Fuji
cat.11. Dish cat.12. Portrait of Queen Victoria cat.13. Jug