The Great Exhibition Of 1851
The great exhibition of 1851, in London England was the produced by the labours and passions of several men, Prince Albert, Henry Cole, Francis Fuller, Charles Dilke and other members of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce. They sought to create a greater climate of creativity in the British Isles, and promote the use of of good design in manufacturing. The onset of the industrial revolution had changed the way goods were designed and manufactured forever, making luxury objects far more accessible to the middle classes, and consequently design had become not only an important industry sector but where taste was concerned, a matter of national pride.
At this time a similar event had previously been organised in France- the Industrial Exposition of 1844, where taste was considered to be at its most refined, and it cannot be said that the long standing rivalry between both nations had no part in the crowns decision to support such an event. Although the exhibition was intended to support itself financially upon its launch, a great deal of capital would have to have been put forward in order to secure the exhibits and to construct the dramatic environment of the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park. Due to the involvement of Queen Elizabeth’s consort Prince Albert and a number of other wealthy investors and Society members this was achievable.
The building was intended to have a very special design, to reflect its purpose and Joseph Paxton was invited to design the structure following a call for submissions throughout the country. Paxton had considerable experience designing greenhouses for the wealthy and used this knowledge to create a unique design almost entirely constructed from cast iron and glass sheets, which could be assembled and also deconstructed with ease. Following the final presentation of the plans, the Crystal Palace took only nine months to construct due to Paxton’s revolutionary technique.
Commissioned to design the interior of the building was Owen Jones. Although he trained as an architect Jones was known more for his writings and theories on design, and his passion for interiors. Having travelled widely Jones brought his knowledge of colour theory from ancient cultures to England, choosing bright blues, reds, and yellows on the metal structures with measures of white to seperate them. Jones’ theory was based on how he believed that we percieve colour, suggesting that some would cause objects to recede whereas others would cause them to advance. Jones himself did not approve of much of the overly elaborate and impractical exhibits which were displayed, and he was one of the many who believed that the Great Exhibition highlighted the desperate state of British tastes and the erosion of same by the Industrial Revolution.
The exhibition was intended to create considerable influence on the face of design in the British Isles, but due to its wide appeal and accessibility to the general public, there were fears that it could cause a riot amongst the lower classes. These fears probably stemmed from the upper classes distate at the now affordable prices of designer goods. The machine age and mass production had not only made the heavy, gaudy ornamentation of the period easier to achieve but it also made the goods themselves cheaper and more available. Such devaluation of status symbols would not have been welcomed, and the Great Exhibition only served to increase their popularity. The most conservative of the upper classes even feared that the sheer volume of visitors might spark a revolution. In contrast to the vain fears of the bourgeois, radicals saw the exhibition as a feast of the capitalist fetishism of commodities. Amongst the six million people to pass through the Crystal Palace were Karl Marx, and William Morris, who was later to become one of Britain’s first socialists and a great designer and writer.
“A man at work, making something which he feels will exist because he is working at it and wills it, is exercising the energies of his mind and soul as well as of his body. Memory and imagination help him as he works.”
– William Morris
Along with several fellow designers and crafts people Morris was to found the Pre Raphaelite Brotherhood. The brotherhood was founded as an auto evolutionary response to the age of mass production, and their beliefs and practices ideals which are still upheld by contemporary designers the world over. The Pre Raphaelite Brotherhood idealized ‘cottage’ style industry over mass production, preferring handcrafts and the connection between designer and materials over the new, faster, less involved methods of production, which they believed led to poor taste and a drastic absence of quality and artistry in the workmanship of goods. The four doctorines of the Brotherhood were as follows:
1. To have genuine ideas to express;
2. To study Nature attentively, so as to know how to express them;
3. To sympathise with what is direct and serious and heartfelt in previous art, to the exclusion of what is conventional and self-parodying and learned by rote;
4. And, most indispensable of all, to produce thoroughly good pictures and statues.
The doctrines of the Brotherhood seem almost naive in their idealism but by todays standards their basic message is more important than ever. It runs almost parallel to the First Things First manifesto written by Ken Garland in 1964 and backed by four hundred designers, and repeated again in 2000. It seems that from the very beginning of the machine age there were people who saw how capitalism and mass production threatened to destroy the principals and artistry of design and the fine arts and sought to challenge it.
Today the Great exhibition is a symbol of the Victorian era, but also of the beginnings of capitalisms greatest triumph. This major event in the history of visual arts in the British Isles had a paradoxical effect, unnerving the wealthy classes and social revolutionaries alike.