Sunday, May 1, 2011

The Great Exhibition

Today marks the 160th anniversary of the opening, by Queen Victoria, of the Great Exhibition held in Hyde Park, London, in 1851. It was the first international expo of its type, and was notable, among other things, for being housed in the Crystal Palace. Prince Albert was much involved in planning the exhibition, and the Queen, in her diary entry for the opening day, applauds him highly for the exhibition’s success.

The Great Exhibition, officially called the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations, took place in Hyde Park, London, from 1 May to 15 October 1851. Prince Albert was heavily involved with the organisation, as was Henry Cole, a civil servant and inventor best known for introducing Christmas cards.

In the late 1840s, Cole, with Prince Albert’s backing, won a royal charter for the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, and organised several exhibitions for celebrating modern industrial technology. Soon, though, he perceived the possibility of opening a future exhibition to international participants. Queen Victoria approved a Royal Commission, under the presidency of Prince Albert, to manage such a project for 1851.

The Crystal Palace, designed by Joseph Paxton drawing on his experience of building greenhouses for the sixth Duke of Devonshire, was constructed to house the exhibition. (It was later moved to Sydenham in south London, an area which became known as Crystal Palace. The building itself, though, was destroyed by fire in 1936.) Some six million people visited the Great Exhibition and it was deemed a huge success, not least financially with the profits being used to found the now-famous Victoria and Albert Museum, the Science Museum and the Natural History Museum.

Here is an extract from Queen Victoria’s diary for the day of the opening (freely available on the Official Website of The British Monarchy). (See also The crown hurt me.)

1 May 1851
‘This day is one of the greatest and most glorious days of our lives, with which, to my pride and joy the name of my dearly beloved Albert is forever associated! It is a day which makes my heart swell with thankfulness ... The Park presented a wonderful spectacle, crowds streaming though it - carriages and troops passing, quite like the Coronation Day, and for me, the same anxiety. The day was bright, and all bustle and excitement. At half past 11, the whole procession in 9 state carriages was set in motion. Vicky and Bertie were in our carriage. Vicky was dressed in lace over white satin, with a small wreath of pink wild roses, in her hair, and looked very nice. Bertie was in full Highland dress. The Green Park and Hyde Park were one mass of densely crowded human beings, in the highest good humour and most enthusiastic. I never saw Hyde Park look as it did, being filled with crowds as far as the eye could reach. A little rain fell, just as we started; but before we neared the Crystal Palace, the sun shone and gleamed upon the gigantic edifice, upon which the flags of every nation were flying.

We drove up Rotten Row and got out of our carriages at the entrance on that side. The glimpse through the iron gates of the Transept, the moving palms and flowers, the myriads of people filling the galleries and seats around, together with the flourish of trumpets, as we entered the building, gave a sensation I shall never forget, and I felt much moved ... In a few seconds we proceeded, Albert leading me having Vicky at his hand, and Bertie holding mine. The sight as we came to the centre where the steps and chair (on which I did not sit) was placed, facing the beautiful crystal fountain was magic and impressive. The tremendous cheering, the joy expressed in every face, the vastness of the building, with all its decorations and exhibits, the sound of the organ (with 200 instruments and 600 voices, which seemed nothing), and my beloved Husband the creator of this great ‘Peace Festival’, uniting the industry and arts of all nations of the earth, all this, was indeed moving, and a day to live forever. God bless my dearest Albert, and my dear Country which has shown itself so great today ... The Nave was full of people, which had not been intended and deafening cheers and waving of handkerchiefs, continued the whole time of our long walk from one end of the building, to the other. Every face was bright, and smiling, and many even had tears in their eyes ... One could of course see nothing, but what was high up in the Nave, and nothing in the Courts. The organs were but little heard, but the Military Band, at one end, had a very fine effect ...

We returned to our place and Albert told Lord Breadalbane to declare the Exhibition opened, which he did in a loud voice saying “Her Majesty commands me to declare the Exhibition opened”, when there was a flourish of trumpets, followed by immense cheering. Everyone was astounded and delighted. The return was equally satisfactory - the crowd most enthusiastic and perfect order kept. We reached the Palace at 20 minutes past 1 and went out on the balcony, being loudly cheered. That we felt happy and thankful, - I need not say - proud of all that had passed and of my beloved one’s success. Dearest Albert’s name is for ever immortalised and the absurd reports of dangers of every kind and sort, set about by a set of people, - the ‘soi-disant’ fashionables and the most violent protectionists - are silenced. It is therefore doubly satisfactory that all should have gone off so well, and without the slightest accident or mishap.’

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