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The Crystal Palace

   
 

The crystal Palace

The Crystal Palace 1851

 

 

SOUTH KENSINGTON
THE JEWEL IN THE VICTORIAN CROWN

Introduction

The Great Exhibition and Albertopolis

Before the Great Exhibition of 1851 South Kensington did not exist. The area between Brompton and Kensington was a place of splendid villas, pleasant gardens and nurseries. Its healthy air and proximity to the pleasures of London made it an ideal area for the wealthy and the aristocratic to live. It was just a few miles away from the squalor, deprivation, and injustices of Dickensian London, in reality a different world. The presence of Kensington Palace in the vicinity added lustre. Here the Heir Apparent Princess Alexandrina Victoria - later Queen Victoria, spent her formative years. Underneath what is now the Royal Albert Hall stood Gore House - erstwhile home of William Wilberforce, and then the socialites Lady Blessington and Count D'Orsay whose famous Salon was attended by the brilliant, the fashionable and the rich - including Charles Dickens. The House overlooked Hyde Park.

The development of the area was as a result of the tremendous success of the Great Exhibition, and the vision of its organisers - in particular the Queen's husband Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg Gotha, and his right-hand man Henry Cole. Cole's career was dedicated to public service. He had worked as a recruiting officer in the army, helped Rowland Hill set up the Penny Post, worked in the public archives, dabbled in industrial design, and became the powerhouse behind the Society of Arts. He was a small, rotund ball of energy, and his portrait can be found in the Victoria and Albert Museum of which he was the first director.

Albert was President of the Society of Arts where the two men began their fruitful collaboration. Their work together was characterized by lofty ideals, imaginative proposals and intensely practical application. Under their direction they led the Society to encourage the practical application of art and design. The arts and crafts were, to them, an expression of the powers of the human spirit, created as God's crowning achievement, and human skills were designed to bring practical advantages to mankind.


Albert and Cole's campaign to improve manufactures included establishing an annual series of exhibitions. The first in 1847 drew 20,000 visitors, the next year this rose to 70,000 and, in 1849, 100,000. The 1851 show, they decided, was to be the world's first International Exhibition. In an inspiring speech about the planned Exhibition Albert gives an insight into his philosophy:

'So man is approaching a more complete fulfillment of that great and sacred mission which he has to perform in this world. His reason being created after the image of God, he has to use it to discover the laws by which the Almighty governs his creations, and, by making these laws his standard of action, to conquer Nature to his use - himself a divine instrument ... Gentlemen - the Exhibition of 1851 is to give us a true test and a living picture of the point of development at which the whole of mankind has arrived in this great task, and a new starting point from which all nations will be able to direct their further exertions. I confidently hope the first impression which the view of this vast collection will produce upon the spectator will be that of deep thankfulness to the Almighty for the blessings which He has bestowed upon us already here below; and the second, the conviction that they can only be realised in proportion to the help which we are prepared to render each other - therefore, only by peace, love and ready assistance not only between individuals but between the nations of the earth.'

The original suggested site for the exhibition was Leicester Square. But this seemed inadequate for such a grand scheme and so Cole's idea of the royal Hyde Park was adopted. The organizers were completely unprepared for the venom that this provoked. The Times thundered: 'The whole of Hyde Park ... will be turned into a bivouac of all the vagabonds of London as long as the Exhibition shall continue '. Upon hearing of plans for a substantial edifice of brick, iron and stone for the Exhibition Hall The Times continued: 'Can anyone be weak enough to suppose that a building erected on such a scale will ever be removed?' The doubts were genuine, because by 1850 the march of bricks into the fields surrounding London was already well advanced, and progress had meant the loss of many favoured country retreats.

That the exhibition went ahead at all was due to the intervention of Joseph Paxton - whose innovative design for the Exhibition Hall excited the nation. Paxton was a designer of Glass and Iron Conservatories (of which his most famous was at Chatsworth). Paxton disliked the official plans for the Exhibition Hall, and despite missing the original competition deadline worked night and day to produce the design that was to be nick-named by Punch as the Crystal Palace. The Executive Committee of the Exhibition were, at first, indecisive, as the design before them was untried and truly revolutionary. But Paxton pre-empted the Committee and published his design in the Illustrated London News. The public response was tremendous. The glass structure captured the people's imagination, and fears of an intrusive building in the Park faded, to be replaced by anticipation.

On 1st May 1851 'The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations' was opened by the Queen, who recorded in her diary:

'This day is one of the greatest and most glorious of our lives, with which to my pride and joy, the name of my dearly beloved Albert is for ever associated ... 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 up on the gigantic edifice, upon which the flags of every nation were flying... The glimpse, through the iron gates of the transept, the waving palms and flowers, the myriads of people filling the galleries, and seats around, together with the flourish of trumpets as we entered the buildings, gave a sensation I shall never forget...

'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 organs .. and my beloved husband, the creator of this peace festival "uniting the industry and art of all nations of the earth ", all this was indeed moving, and a day to live for ever. God bless my dearest Albert, and my dear Country, which has shown itself great today.'

13,937 exhibitors (British Isles and Empire, 7,381; Foreign, 6,556) displayed over 100,000 objects to 6 million spectators between 1 May and 11 October. The exhibition was arranged in six main 'divisions': raw materials; machinery; manufactures: textile fabrics; manufactures: metallic, vitreous and ceramic; miscellaneous; and fine arts. Prizes were awarded to the exhibitors on various criteria including ingenuity, novelty, economy, durability, fitness for purpose, beauty of design in form or colour or both.


The Exhibition succeeded beyond all expectations; the foreign interest was such that overseas policemen were employed. At the opening ceremony a mysterious 'Chinese Visitor ' appeared. He confounded the experts on etiquette - they did not know where to put him, but erred on the side of caution and generously placed him between the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Duke of Wellington! It was later discovered that the man was currently earning a crust by opening his junk, moored on the banks of the Thames, to the public at 1 shilling a time! Queen Victoria recorded the visit of 800 parishioners from Crowhurst, Linchfield and Langford walking in procession two a breast 'the men in smock frocks, with their wives looking so nice '. One old lady of eighty-four walked all the way from Cornwall to see the wonders of the world.

Henry Cole summed up the Exhibition in a very succinct account of victorian values:

'The History of the World, I venture to say, records no event comparable in its promotion of human industry, with that of the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations in 1851. A great people invited all civilised nations to a festival, to bring into comparison the works of human skill. It was carried out by its own private means; was self-supporting and independent of taxes and the employment of slaves, which great works had exacted in ancient days. A prince of pre-eminent wisdom, of philosophic mind, sagacity, with power of generalship and great practical ability, placed himself at the head of the enterprise, and led it to triumphant success.'

But the success of the Exhibition did not end there and it made a profit of £186,000. Many called for the retention of the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park. But this would not do for Albert, who had promised that the Park would not be spoilt by the exhibition. Also, he did not feel that the provision of a superior 'lounging place ' in Hyde Park conformed with the aim of the Exhibition to promote every branch of human industry. He preferred to purchase the land of Gore House, recently vacated by the Count D'Orsay who had fled the country to escape his debtors. In its place Albert planned '4 Institutions, corresponding to the 4 great sections of the Exhibition, Raw Materials, Machinery, Manu- factures and Plaster Art, I would devote these Institutions to the furtherance of the industrial pursuits of all nations in these 4 divisions. ' By 'plaster' art he presumably meant plastic.

Each institution was to have a library, lecture rooms, exhibition space and rooms for conversations and discussions. Although the area did not develop exactly along these lines, the Royal Commission for the 1851 Exhibition, which is still in existence, carried out Albert's general intention and turned South Kensington into an unrivalled centre for the Arts and Sciences. Raw Materials are represented by the Royal School of Mines and the Geology Museum, Machinery and Manufactures by the Science Museum and Imperial College, and Art (including Plaster!) by the Victoria and Albert Museum.

The key to the success of the endeavour is that the Commission did not undertake a vast centralized plan of development on its own, but provided land free or below cost to institutions compatible with Albert's plans. The developers were a mixture of private and public bodies, with the Commission acting to ensure that the work in the area was harmonious with Albert's vision.

One of the first institutions was the Museum of Ornamental Art, which became known as the South Kensington Museum and is now the Victoria and Albert Museum. Its theme was the application of fine art to manufactures. The first Director was Henry Cole, and the core of the collection came from objects purchased at the Great Exhibition. Cole and Prince Albert choose a Royal Engineer, Captain Francis Fowke, as the architect of the early buildings and he introduced a new style of architecture, which subsequently became known as the South Kensington Style. The influence for the style was the Lombardic Early Renaissance and the components were fine red brick, terra cotta tiles and mosaic friezes. The work was innovative, flying in the face of both the older tradition of Classical Revival, with its buildings resembling Greek temples, and the new Gothic Revival Style, championed by Pugin and Ruskin.
In 1858 Albert became President of the Royal Horticultural Society, and encouraged the establishment of a beautiful garden in South Kensington, just south of what is now the Royal Albert Hall. The gardens were, according to Albert: 'a valuable attempt.. to reunite the science and art of gardening to the sister arts of Architecture, Sculpture and Painting'. Here, amid victorian sculptures and Italian arcades, and beneath a glass conservatory designed by Fowke and Sidney Smirke, the Fellows of the Society could admire the beauty of man and nature. In his last public engagement the Prince opened the Gardens. Queen Victoria was convinced that his anxiety over them and the development of South Kensington as a whole contributed to his death 6 months later; on December 14th 1861 he died of typhoid fever.

Despite her deep mourning, Victoria felt it her duty to 'visit and watch over South Kensington', helped by 'the Good Mr Cole '. Together they sought a fitting memorial. On Albert's birthday in 1864 they opened the Gardens free to the public and the Queen noted 'that there were nearly two hundred thousand persons there & not one flower picked, or bed trodden upon. How gratifying & how it speaks of the respect & love for my dearest one!'. In memory of Albert, Cole favoured the completion of a project dear to the Prince's heart - the building of a Hall of Arts and Sciences, where concerts, lectures and exhibitions could be held to advance learning. The Queen wished for a memorial and eventually it was decided to build both. Victoria chose a design by George Gilbert-Scott. He was a champion of the Gothic Revival - a style that Albert studiously avoided using in South Kensington! One suspects that Albert would have preferred a memorial built in the South Kensington Style, and as his life was dedicated to practical works, we can only surmise how he would have reacted to the expenditure of vast sums of money on a memorial with no practical purpose. In its favour however The Albert Memorial, does have its sculpture which invokes Albert's themes of art, industry, the unity of Mankind, and the inspiration of God.

The £120,000 that it cost to build the memorial left little for the hall, but Henry Cole would not rest until it was built. He mortgaged the future of the building and sold off seats at £100 for a 999 year lease. The Queen bought two boxes of eight seats each and enough money was raised to complete the building. On the day of the opening, the statue of Albert on the Memorial was covered over to avoid upsetting the Queen. Inside, she was too overcome by emotion to deliver the opening speech and pushed forward the Prince of Wales instead. At the last moment she insisted that the hall should be named the Royal Albert Hall. If any one building should be Albert's memorial this is it, as it was built in his South Kensington style, has been a useful and inspiring centre for the Arts, and was an innovative structure using the latest technology to surmount the vast span of the dome.

The juxta position of the Hall and the Memorial established a central axis to South Kensington which subsequent developments followed. The Gardens were soon closed. South of the Albert Hall stood the Royal College of Music, and behind that the beautiful Imperial Institute, with its Bell Tower, coloured white with red brick horizontal courses. Beyond the Institute was the Royal College of Science, and at the far end the British Museum of Natural History, the magnificent cathedral to Science built by Alfred Waterhouse.

Development was not restricted to public Institutes and the new roads of Queen's Gate, Cromwell Road and Exhibition Road, were lined with dignified houses for the middle classes, built in an elegant Italianate stuccoed style made popular in the Regency period by John Nash. The style was by now somewhat old-fashioned and in certain quarters even derided, partly on account of the 'dishonest ' use of stucco to cover up jerry-built walls underneath. It was still popular enough though with the lawyers, doctors, MP's and Civil Servants who purchased these residences. The rows of identical stuccoed houses were relieved by the occasional more discerning buyer who chose the new so-called Queen Anne Style which proudly displayed its bright red-orange bricks and combined the elegance of a Queen Anne brick building with the adventure and ornamentation made popular by the Gothic Revival. The greatest exponent of this new style was Richard Norman Shaw who built several houses in Queen's Gate, as well as two of his urban masterpieces, Lowther Lodge, now the Royal Geographic Society, and the innovative Albert Mansions, one of the first successful blocks of flats built for the
As the years went by the Commissioners encouraged more and more Royal Societies and Colleges into the area on preferential terms, and the Institutions already on the site expanded. The architectural integrity of the site was preserved, although the new foundations of the Science and the Geological Museums were built in the twentieth Century version of the Classical Revival Style. The Science Museum was founded as a result of the division of the South Kensington Museum Collections into the technical and the artistic. The South Kensington Museum itself was renamed the Victoria and Albert Museum by Queen Victoria without any consultation when she laid the foundation stone on her very last public appearance. This division of the Collections anticipating the problems of British design in the twentieth Century, with , on the one side of the road, pretty objects with little reference to functionality, and, on the other, manufactures with little concern for beauty.

Albert's centre for the arts and science survived bombing of two world wars and only met real catastrophe in the 1960s. Imperial College (incorporating the Royal College of Science, Royal School of Mines and the City and Guilds Engineering College) decided that the Imperial Institute, built as it was in a supposedly retrograde historicist style, could be demolished to make way for a rag-bag of sixties' concrete and glass structures. The modern architects had not the wit to make use of the grand vista along the main axis and all that public opinion could salvage of the Institute was the Bell Tower. Albert may have turned in his grave but he would at least have been consoled that Imperial College has become one of Britain's leading scientific institutions.

   
 

by Kevin Flude and Paul Herbert from 'Citisights Guide to the History of London'

   
 
   

Lecture by Kevin Flude - prepared for 'Creative Practice in Narrative Environments'

MA course at Central Saint Martins College of Art & Design & developed for University College Worcester

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