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Great Exhibition

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Opened with great pomp and ceremony by Queen Victoria this seminal international exhibition was held in what the periodical Punch dubbed ‘the Crystal Palace’, a prefabricated structure of iron and glass designed by Joseph Paxton and erected in Hyde Park, London. It attracted more than 6 million visitors, involved more than 15,000 exhibitors, and had more than 10 miles (16 km) of display frontage. Fifty per cent of the exhibiting space was devoted to 7,351 British and Empire products and the rest to 6,556 products from overseas. Although it had been hoped that the Great Exhibition would bring together positively the fields of art, science, and manufacture, in the event it attracted considerable critical debate. Many of the highly ornamented and decorative designs exhibited technical ingenuity for its own sake and, as a result, attracted the antipathy of leading Victorian design critics. These included Richard Redgrave, Ralph Nicholson Wornum, Owen Jones, and others opposed to what Augustus Welby Pugin and John Ruskin saw as morally decadent and constructionally dishonest products. The 17‐year‐old William Morris was also horrified by what he saw. However, it should also be remembered that many of the designs that featured on such an important international stage were especially made to win prestige and were therefore by nature more decorative and deliberately eye‐catching than many more functional and ornamentally restrained designs for everyday mass production. International exhibitions, by their very nature, were designed to explore new markets, to consolidate existing ones, or to establish leadership in particular fields, thus providing important platforms for national economic and industrial policy initiatives.

The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations had its generic roots in a series of French National Exhibitions that had begun in Paris in 1798 where manufacturers from many branches of industry showed a wide range of products including ceramics, glass, furniture, and textiles. Just as the French National Exhibitions had been intended to restore French manufacturing industry to its former position of dominance in the wake of the political upheavals of the Revolution, so the Great Exhibition of 1851 was the culmination of a number of initiatives in the 1830s and 1840s to re‐establish the position of British industry as the ‘workshop of the world’ after a period of decline following the Napoleonic Wars. These included the establishment in 1935 of a Parliamentary Select Committee on The Arts and their Connection with Manufacturers and the subsequent institution of a national framework for design education. By 1849, the 11th French National Exhibition attracted 4,500 exhibitors and its scale and ambition resulted in key British design propagandists Henry Cole and Digby Wyatt being asked to report back on it to the Royal Society of Arts (RSA). In Britain, during the 1840s, the Royal Society of Arts had itself mounted a series of small‐scale competitions promoting British industrial products that embraced the principles of artistic design. Such initiatives had brought Cole into the Society and, from 1847, developed into a series of annual exhibitions of industrial products culminating in the show of 1849, which attracted 73,000 visitors over a period of seven weeks. With the support of Prince Albert, the president of the RSA, and spurred on by Cole and Wyatt's 1849 report that the French were themselves considering an international exhibition, British ambitions were raised to do the same and a Royal Commission was swiftly established early in 1850 to oversee its development. Although the RSA severed its formal connections with the exhibition as a result, a number of its key members continued to serve on the commission.


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