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Home Medieval court, Great Exhibition (Elton Collection: Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust)

  Medieval court, Great Exhibition
  (Elton Collection: Ironbridge Gorge
  Museum Trust)
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The Industrial Revolution

Art and Industry

In 1851, six million people visited The Great Exhibition of the Works of Science and Industry of all Nations held in the Crystal Palace, a magnificent purpose-built construction of glass and iron designed by Joseph Paxton. Brunel was on the organising committee for the exhibition. All 245 entries in a competition to design an exhibition space were rejected and Brunel joined the building sub-committee, which came up with an extraordinarily ugly brick-built structure with a squat, sheet-iron dome. The public outcry that broke out when pictures of the design were released led to calls to move the exhibition site further out of London, a proposal only narrowly beaten in the Commons. Promoter Henry Cole encouraged Paxton, who had not entered the original competition, to submit his own design. A ‘sneak preview’ was shown in the Illustrated London News of 6 July and a week later was formally approved by the committee.

The exhibition was said to have been originally proposed by Prince Albert and aimed to promote and celebrate the achievements of the Industrial Revolution. More than 100,000 exhibits were on show, organised into four categories: raw materials, machinery, manufactured goods, and fine arts. In addition to the international collection on display there were organised events, including the popular organ concerts, and the fountains in and around the Crystal Palace created a spectacular water feature, with the jets reaching heights of 250 feet. Special excursion trains were organised to bring in visitors from outside the city. The exhibition and the extraordinary Palace constructed to house it symbolised for many the triumph of the industrial age, a marker of the rise of technological innovation and of globalisation. Furthermore, the exhibition profits supported the foundation of new public museums, such as the Science Museum, Natural History Museum and V&A in Kensington.

Prince Albert had wanted to demonstrate through the exhibition that industrialisation could produce beautiful as well as useful goods, and the exhibits included a considerable variety of arts and crafts. For many, the most beautiful work of art on view was the Crystal Palace itself. However, some remained unconvinced that the artistic could co-exist with the industrialised. Key among these were the members of the Arts and Crafts movement and in particular its founder Williams Morris. Morris, a socialist and member of the pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, rejected mass production in the same way he rejected social injustice, feeling the two were inextricably linked. In 1861, he founded a design company that created a range of products (wallpaper, furniture, tiles, stain glass, silver work, fabrics) using traditional techniques and handcrafting. Ironically, the designs proved so popular they were copied by manufacturers and mass-produced.

With the closing of the Great Exhibition, the Crystal Palace was dismantled and re-erected at Sydenham Hill. It was reopened on 10 June 1854 by Queen Victoria and became what might be termed a Victorian theme-park, popularly known as the Palace of the People. Brunel designed two water towers, each carrying 3,000 tons of water, for the new site.

Russian displays, Great Exhibition: Dickinson Brothers lithograph (Elton Collection: Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust)

Russian displays, Great Exhibition: Dickinson Brothers lithograph

(Elton Collection: Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust)

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