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The Crystal Palace: The Historic Arts Exhibition That Left An Ongoing Legacy

Tanzy Ward


During the Victorian era, there were many innovative changes in the industry and the arts. Under Queen Victoria's reign (1837-1901), Britain staged the first International Exposition of Arts & Industry in 1851. The exposition provided a spacious arena for different nations to showcase their newest creative arts and industrial inventions. Prizes were awarded in four categories: sculpture, raw materials, machinery inventions, and plastic. The exhibition was located in a building constructed with glass & cast iron, and resembled the shape of an parallelogram. Designed by Joseph Paxton and built by the Fox & Henderson firm, the building was called 'the Crystal Palace' in reference to it's clear ceilings and walls. 


(Joseph Paxton's first sketch for the Great Exhibition Building, c. 1850. Victoria & Albert Museum) 

The public were excited and anxious for the official opening day of The Crystal Palace in Hyde, Park London. After several safety tests, the glasshouse wonder was opened to the public on May 1st in 1851. The exhibition was organized by Queen's Victoria's husband, Prince Albert and British inventor Henry Cole.  On opening day, only seasoned ticket holders were allowed, which was an estimate of at least 25,000, Afterwards, the general public came to visit, and the average daily attendance was more than 40,000. 

Although the largest section was dedicated to machinery, the jewelry section became a very popular attraction. The Victorians were fascinated and inspired by the Medieval Era, which was represented in the designs of many 19th century jewelry pieces. At the Great Exhibition, there was a section called the Medieval Court, designed by Englishmen A.W.N Pugin. Pugin showcased bracelets, necklaces, and earrings designed with intricately encrusted gems like turquoise and garnets. The garnets were set in a cabochon-cut style, which were popular during the Medieval period. The pieces at the exhibition also featured beautiful green and blue enameling, natural pearl inlays, and turquoise stones. The collection made a great impression on Victorians, who loved romance and were inspired by the love stories in Medieval books written by Sir Walter Scott. Pugin's display at the exhibition was held during the Romantic Period ((1837-60) of the Victorian Era. This period was inspired greatly by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert's marriage years, which emphasized the ideal of romanticism during the time. 

(Painting of A.W.G Pugin's acclaimed 'Medieval Court' section at the Great Exhibition by Louis Haghe. 1851) 


Pugin's collection at the Great Exhibition was very inspiring to other jewelry makers, and the collection revitalized several interests within the industry. Enameling techniques became trendier and highly sought after, which included the popular trend of 'taille d'Epargne' in the 1850's. This technique was mass produced by Birmingham firms, and means 'saving cut' in French. The method included designs formed by engraved lines that are incised into the metal, which are usually filled with black opaque enamel. 

(Antique taille d'Epargne design example. Zanathia Collection)


Nature and architectural themed designs were very prevalent at the convention. A variety of flower ornaments such as enameled leaf & floret foils were used for sparkling stones. The jewelry was very elegant and romantic in nature, which reflected the Victorians' inspiration at the time. Precious stones were a great attraction at the Great Exhibition. A two hundred and eighty carat 'Kah-i-Norr' diamond and Adrian Hop's one hundred and seventy-seven carat diamond were on display. Common everyday accessories such as watches, brooches, chatelaines, crosses, and necklaces were present. 

The Great Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations in 1851 was not only a very successful convention, but it inspired a series of others as well. The Crystal Palace Exposition of 1853 in the United States and the International Exhibition of 1853 in Paris were both successful conventions that were both inspired by the first 1851 original convention. The Great Exhibition was a main attraction and incentive for the public. Queen Victoria and her children enjoyed the convention and visited several times. Many Victorians and international visitors were introduced to a variety of innovative and artistic creations across the world. 


Although the original Crystal Palace was destroyed in 1936 by a massive fire, it's legacy and namesake lives on. Many 20th century and modernly designed buildings have chosen the name 'Crystal Palace'. The Great Exhibition of 1851 not only showcased the innovative designs of the Industrial Revolution Era, but also left an impressive mark that is historically significant in today's arts & industry markets.       


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