Curiosities of the International Exhibitions 1855-1874: Part One

This post is by guest blogger Beatrice Ashton-Lelliott. Beatrice is on a student placement in the National Art Library from the Royal Holloway MA in Victorian Studies.

During my time at the V&A I have been primarily working with the NAL’s collection of material relating to Victorian International Exhibitions post-1851. My main task has been updating the catalogue entries for this collection ranging from the 1855 Exposition Universelle in Paris to the London International Exhibition of 1874, and also keeping an eye out for any items of interest, of which there have been many! In this post I’ve chosen mainly to pick out some highlights from the wide variety of advertisements which I’ve come across, as these ephemeral attachments give us a real snapshot into the daily lives of the average Victorian. They range from the beautiful to the bizarre, but also evolve across the years, as advertisers become keen to boast about their increasingly award winning products.

Whilst some adverts crop up again and again (Bennett’s watches clearly did well out of the exhibitions!), more unusual items also feature several times. Diving equipment first jumped out at me when browsing ‘L’Esposizione universale di Vienna del 1873 illustrata’, an Italian illustrated periodical of the 1873 exhibition in Vienna, where it was represented through a seemingly sci-fi figure in full diving apparatus. Expecting never to see this niche item again in the material, I was delighted to see an advert in an official catalogue for London’s 1874 exhibition for a similar suit!

L'Esposizione universale di Vienna del 1873 illustrata (Milan: Eduoardo Sonzogno, 1873-1874).

L’Esposizione universale di Vienna del 1873 illustrata (Milan: Eduoardo Sonzogno, 1873-1874). Museum No.: 38041800948135.



Popular Edition of the Official Catalogue. Fine Arts and Industrial Departments. In One Volume. (London: J. M. Johnson & Sons, 1874). Museum No.: 38041800949760.

The later advert for a specific brand of diving apparatus, produced by Siebe & Gorman, appears to have won only a medal for merit in 1873 and is clearly of a different construction to the outfit featured in L’Esposizione, but to have two instances of deep sea diving equipment crop up caught me by surprise, and shows that this gear was clearly in higher demand in the late nineteenth-century than I would have expected.


Popular Edition of the Official Catalogue. Fine Arts and Industrial Departments. In One Volume. (London: J. M. Johnson & Sons, 1874). Museum No.: 38041800949760.

These adverts also provide an interesting insight into the staying power of the big names in Victorian manufacturing. Some, such as the image above, again from the 1874 Popular Catalogue, bank on consumers remembering their deceased predecessor! The marking ink in question here is ‘prepared by the daughter of the late John Bond’, with no mention of the daughter’s own name.  John Bond’s posthumous influence highlights the importance of family ties in business during the Victorian period, which we still see today, and is also seen in many of the publishers present in the NAL’s collection. The ubiquitous J. M. Johnson & Sons were clearly keen to exhibit their father-son relationship, whilst international publishers such as F. Vieweg und Sohn of Germany and the unnamed ‘Carl Gerold’s sohn’ from Austria, both of whom published reports and catalogues of the 1873 Vienna Exhibition, also kept their businesses family orientated.

The whole range of exhibitions produced some often incredibly colourful guidebooks aside from their monotone adverts, such as ‘Nelson’s Oil Colour Views’ of the London International Exhibition 1871, which provides some incredibly detailed colour images of the exhibition and its surrounding locale:


The International Exhibition, 1871. (London: T. Nelson and Sons, [1871]). Museum No.: 38041800591414.

These smaller, popular guidebooks also anticipate their visitors being short of time and not necessarily wanting to see everything described in the hefty official catalogues. Many provide prescribed routes around the exhibitions or, as Walter Wood’s Hand Book of 1871 puts it, ‘how to see the London International Exhibition in one visit’.

Whilst J. M. Johnson & Sons seem to have had a monopoly on the publishing rights for the official guides to the London exhibitions (the NAL collection holds at least 25 items published by them for the 1871 London exhibition alone), later exhibitions such as the Vienna Weltausstellung in 1873 attracted more international coverage. The 1873 exhibition was covered by publications originating from a huge variety of locations, including Milan, Washington, Berlin, St Petersburg, Philadelphia and Melbourne. Some, particularly those from America and Australia, seem to have been seeking advice and inspiration for their own forthcoming exhibitions, which they appear to have found in spades judging from the scope of Vienna’s event.

In my second blog post, I’ll be looking at some of the more humorous incidents which took place at the exhibitions and the periodicals which kept the public informed about them.

One thought on “Curiosities of the International Exhibitions 1855-1874: Part One


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