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

Tanzy Ward

 The interior of the Crystal Palace in London during the Great Exhibition of 1851. McNeven, J., The Foreign Department, viewed towards the transept, colored lithograph, 1851, Ackermann (printer), V&A. The interior of the Crystal Palace in London during the Great Exhibition of 1851. Courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum Collection.

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 and 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 and cast iron and resembled the shape of a parallelogram. Designed by Joseph Paxton and built by the Fox and Henderson firm, the building was called 'the Crystal Palace with its clear ceilings and walls. 


(Joseph Paxton's first sketch for the Great Exhibition Building, c. 1850. Victoria and Albert Museum) 
The public was 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, 1851. The exhibition was organized by Queen Victoria's husband, Prince Albert, and British inventor Henry Cole.  Only seasoned ticket holders were allowed on opening day, estimated at least 25,000. Afterward, the general public visited, and the average daily attendance was more than 40,000. 
Although the most significant section was dedicated to machinery, the jewelry section became a top-rated attraction. The Victorians were fascinated and inspired by the Medieval Era, represented in the designs of many 19th-century jewelry pieces. At the Great Exhibition, a section called Englishmen A.W.N Pugin designed the Medieval Court. Pugin showcased bracelets, necklaces, and earrings designed with intricately encrusted gems like turquoise and garnets. The garnets were set in a cabochon-cut style, popular during the Medieval period. The pieces at the exhibition also featured beautiful green and blue enamel, natural pearl inlays, and turquoise stones. The collection made a great impression on Victorians, who loved the 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 Victorian Era's Romantic Period ((1837-60). This period was significantly inspired 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 inspired other jewelry makers, and the group 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 1850s. This technique was mass produced by Birmingham firms and means 'saving cut' in French. The method included designs formed by engraved lines incised into the metal, usually filled with black opaque enamel. 

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


Nature and architecturally-themed designs were very prevalent at the convention. Flower ornaments such as enameled leaves and floret foils were used for sparkling stones. The jewelry was elegant and romantic, reflecting the Victorians' inspiration at the time. Precious stones were a great attraction at the Great Exhibition. A two hundred and eighty carats 'Kah-i-Norr' diamond and Adrian Hop's one hundred and seventy-seven-carat diamond were on display. Standard 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 also inspired a series of others. The Crystal Palace Exposition of 1853 in the United States and the International Exhibition of 1853 in Paris were successful conventions 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 way 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, its legacy and namesake live on. Many 20th-century and modernly designed buildings have chosen the name 'Crystal Palace. The Great Exhibition of 1851 showcased the innovative designs of the Industrial Revolution Era and left an impressive mark historically significant in today's arts and industry markets.       


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