"It is my anxious desire to promote among nations the cultivation of all those arts which are fostered by peace, and which in their turn contribute to maintain the peace of the world." –Queen Victoria
The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations was held in the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park, London, from May 1 to October 15, 1851. It was the first international exhibition of manufactured products and was enormously influential on the development of many aspects of society including art and design education, international trade relations, and the advent of tourism. The Exhibition also set a precedent for the many international exhibitions which followed during the next century.
The Great Exhibition was organized by Prince Albert, Henry Cole, Francis Fuller, Charles Dilke and other members of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce as a celebration of modern industrial technology and design. It can be argued that the Great Exhibition was mounted in response to the highly successful national French Industrial Exposition held in Paris, on the Champs Élysées, in 1844.
A special building, nicknamed The Crystal Palace, was designed by Joseph Paxton and Charles Fox to house the show. Spanning 19 acres, the architecturally adventurous building was based on Paxton's experience designing the great greenhouses at Chatsworth House for the sixth Duke of Devonshire. It was constructed from cast-iron frame components and glass made almost exclusively in Birmingham and Smethwick. The massive glass house was 1848 feet long by 454 feet wide, and went from plans to grand opening in just nine months.
The building was later moved and re-erected in an enlarged form at Sydenham in south London, an area that was renamed Crystal Palace. Tragically, it was destroyed by fire in 1936.
Six million people, equivalent to a third of the entire population of Great Britain, visited the Great Exhibition. In the great glass halls the public could admire the works designed and created to embrace the interlinked fields of art, design, science, and manufacture. There were 13,937 exhibitors from all corners of the world. Upon entering the vast, two-storied pavillion one could find such diverse displays as ornamental ironwork from the Coalbrooke Dale Iron Works of England, elaborately inlaid furniture by Michael Thonet of Austria, decorative sadlery from Lacey & Phillips of Philadelphia, as well as delicate porcelain from Villeroy & Boch of Germany.
Of considerable public interest were the machine tools and other exhibits that reflected the advances made in civil and mechanical engineering. Sir Daniel Gooch's railway steam locomotives, James Nasmyth's steam hammer, marine engines by Henry Maudslay, and the crowd pleasing envelope-making machine by Thomas De La Rue, all the marvels of 19th century technology. Such attention reflected the considerable esteem that the public held for Victorian engineers.
The profits (£186,000) from the Exhibition were invested in property in the South Kensington area, close to the site of the Crystal Palace. Proceeds from the Exhibition were used to fund the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Science Museum and the Natural History Museum, all built in South Kensington, London. This area was nicknamed "Albertopolis" owing to the large number of cultural and educational institutions constructed under the patronage of Prince Albert. Today these same institutions remain free and open to the public.
Though a great success, the Exhibition caused considerable controversy at the time. Some conservatives feared that the mass of visitors might become a revolutionary mob, while radicals such as Karl Marx saw the Exhibition as an "emblem of the capitalist fetishism of commodities". Today the Great Exhibition of 1851 has become a symbol of the Victorian Age, and its thick catalogue, illustrated with steel engravings, remains a primary source and standard for High Victorian design.