Sketchbook: Crystal gazing

Does history repeat itself? In the 1850s the press was describing Crystal Palace as `a huge vulgarity'. But this - Millennium Dome planners will be pleased to hear - didn't stop it from being an enormous success. Words by John McKean

Any builders of the Millennium Dome who are feeling a bit despondent, should take solace from the tale of Crystal Palace, which opened on 1 May 1851. The Palace was similarly slated as a waste of public money.

The Great Exhibition was initially a project of the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (which would later become the Royal Society of Arts) and was intended as a celebration of peace, education, progress and trade. But the scheme, which had the patronage of Prince Albert, was mired by indecision and in-fighting.

A competition was staged in March 1850 to find a building that would house the show in Hyde Park, and cost no more than pounds 100,000. There were 233 entries but no clear winner. So the Society's Building Committee came up with its own plan, a hotch-potch of ideas for a building that resembled a vast brick warehouse. At this point, June 1850, Joseph Paxton, a gardener, engineering expert and man of culture, intervened. He persuaded the Illustrated London News to publish his designs - by September the first columns were raised. That November, Punch named the construction the "Crystal Palace". The project cost pounds 169,988 (receipts would be in excess of pounds 450,000).

At noon on 1 May Queen Victoria declared the Great Exhibition open. Over the next six months, Crystal Palace captured the imagination of a public desperate to see over 100,000 exhibits from around the world. The doors closed on 11 October 1851 and the Palace was dismantled and re-erected on Sydenham Hill, south London, where it stood until 30 November 1936 when a fire reduced it to ashes. Let's hope the Dome will have a happier ending.

Extracted from `Lost Masterpieces', which is published on 26 August by Phaidon at pounds 12.95

Moving Machinery Hall

This luminous lithograph (English School, 19th century) of the single-storey machine shop, shows its blue girders under the warm glow filtered through the calico blinds outside the roof glazing. The picture gives an inkling of the experience of colour and space that visitors contemplated. Much of the quality of Crystal Palace was due to Owen Jones, who devised the celebrated interior colour scheme.

The finished Palace

This is perhaps the finest rendering of the whole building as it stood in Hyde Park. The structure is depicted (by Charles Burton) in the early morning sunlight with the distant Cities of London and Westminster towards the south-east. There was some lobbying for the building to remain in Hyde Park - Paxton even suggested enlarging it. Parliament, however, voted for it to be dismantled and sold it off for pounds 70,000.

Eat and shop

Countries from around the world sent exhibits to the Great Exhibition. At the centre of this illustration (by T Picken) of the great shed are the casts of two Arabian horses owned by the King of Wurtemburg. This picture also shows the enormous size of the exhibition: there was too much to see in one day, and many people bought season tickets. If you needed a rest there were vast food and drink franchises and ices frozen by steam machines. The show also created a new market for souvenirs.

International exhibitors

Despite being a celebration of industry, many non-industrialised nations supplied the most eye-catching displays (as shown in this illustration by Joseph Nash). India had one of the largest stands but had trouble locating a stuffed elephant on which to display its howdah (the seat for riding on an elephant's back). It eventually begged Saffron Waldon Museum for the use of its specimen. Despite the obvious educational benefits of the show, there were still doubters. "Whether the show will ever be of any use may be questioned," wrote the Duke of Wellington, after the exhibition had been open for a week; "but of this I am certain: nothing can be more successful."

The sparrow problem

The Crystal Palace enclosed some of the large elm trees in Hyde Park which, along with the iron girders holding up the roof (shown in this illustration, English School, 19th century), provided perches for sparrows. Shortly before the opening, somebody has the terrible thought that these sparrows might, well, shit, on Queen Victoria's head. The story reached the Palace. Prince Albert became moody and unhappy. The Queen called the Prime Minister, Lord John Russell, who suggested shooting them. But wouldn't this break the glass? Lord Palmerston suggested killing them with birdlime. Then the Duke of Wellington was called in and, after first declaring that he was no bird-catcher, recommended "Sparrow-hawks, ma'am".

The exhibition closes

This image (English School, 19th century) is of the packed formal closing ceremony on 15 October 1850. "I grieved not to be able to be present and yet I think Albert was right that I could hardly have been there as a spectator," wrote Queen Victoria (she had made eight visits to inspect work at the site and had been to see the exhibition an extraordinary 34 times). There had been an equally large crowd three days earlier, when the exhibition was closed to the public. The Times ran an obituary, detailing how "50,000 assembled under one roof in a fairy palace within wall of iron and glass". The crowd seemed unable to leave the building that had so entranced them, and it was evening before people finally dispersed into the winter night. n

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