Thursday, 7 April 2011

The Crystal Palace

You know those lists of contingency options we all keep? You know, what music to play at your funeral? What you would do if you won the lottery (despite not even playing)? If you absolutely, absolutely had to kill someone, who would it be? and, of course, what to say when Doctor Who eventually turns up and wants to whisk you off through time and space?

Oh, it’s just me then...?

Come on, If you could get the TARDIS to drop you anywhere in the world at a culturally significant point in history, what would you ask for? For me, there is only one option: Thursday 1 May 1851, to see the opening of the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations at the Crystal Palace.

The Crystal Palace from the northeast from Dickinson's Comprehensive Pictures of the Great Exhibition of 1851, published 1854.

Characteristic of the finest Victoriana, the Great Exhibition was both an anomaly and typical of the time. What we understand as the “Victorian” style is actually a massive spectrum of appropriated and hybrid historical styles in modern techniques. The fact that the 1851 Exhibition included an “Engine in the Egyptian taste” (I shit you not) is almost too perfect to be true. This is what I find most fascinating about the Victorian world, the way it defiantly leapt forward, all the time anxiously looking to the past.

When we think of the Crystal Palace you probably think of faded grey prints in neglected corners. With a little imagination perhaps you could introduced some sparkling monochrome to the picture. But just think, as the exhibition opened, of the 293,655 panes of glass that comprised the structure glittering in the spring sunlight.

It’s easy to imagine the Victorian world with a muted palette of monochrome, supplemented by muddy ruby reds and holly greens, and apply this thinking to the Crystal Palace. What colour do you think the structure was? Grey metal or perhaps white like a tasteful conservatory? In fact, it was painted in the full range of primary colours. It was red on the undersides of girders and behind the gallery railings; yellow on the diagonal faces of the columns and on certain projections; blue on the concave parts of the columns. Positively, and gloriously, gaudy!

Within it must have been utterly and overwhelmingly dazzling, with the glass ceiling letting in so much light a canvas barrier had to be constructed to keep the reflected light from blinding visitors. Among the 100,000 objects on display there was a giant fountain made entirely out of glass, large chandeliers hung throughout the building, stained glass hanging up in sheets in their very own gallery... and not to forget the bloody Koh-i-nor! Doesn’t it sound fabulous?

The Crystal Palace persisted for many years, falling into disrepair, until burning down in 1936. In that period it was used again for the Great Exhibition of 1863 (we don’t talk about that one), as well as the world’s first cat show in 1897. However, I’d most dearly like to see it on that spring day in 1851, when it was opened by Queen Victoria herself.

So Doctor, if you are reading, pick me up tomorrow, about 12.30, and get me back in time to pop down to Matta's for some herbal tea and be back at my desk before my lunch break is over. Deal?


watercolouristanbul said...

Great historical trivia, thanks..

watercolouristanbul said...

I love the imagination and sense of wonder that you express here...History is all about imagination and wonder and you provide some really interesting historical detail along with it all..