Monday, 19 November 2012

Reading group report: the Great Exhibition

 ‘Joined together in love and trade, like one great family’: The Great Exhibition of 1851

Led by Beatrice Turner (Newcastle)
16 November 2012, Newcastle University

Deviating slightly from the usual format of reading groups led by individual members, this session encouraged participants to bring along and be prepared to discuss a text, artefact or other object related to the Great Exhibition of 1851. The title of this session, ‘joined together in love and trade’, placed emphasis upon the ways in which the Exhibition cultivated a sense of shared interests, both in terms of the wide-ranging implications of its commercial aims, and its impact upon national identity. The items brought to the session thus centred around these themes, as well as reflected the group’s interest in exploring intersections between the objects themselves.

The session began with an overview of the origins of the Exhibition. The brainchild of Prince Albert and rising inventor Henry Cole, it was opened on 1 May 1851 as a celebration of British invention, trade and scientific discovery. Founded partially as a response to the 1844 French Industrial Exposition, one of its key aims was to present Britain and its empire as the leader of global industrialisation, its official title being The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations. The icon of the Exhibition, the Crystal Palace assembled in Hyde Park to display the vast array of attractions, became our starting point for discussion. Opening the session with the idea that the Crystal Palace was an independent space, as well as a building that enclosed the Exhibition, members became interested in contemporary accounts of the structure. Engaging with the reactions of a range of writers, economists, industrialists and mathematicians, we considered to what extent the preoccupations of such individuals coloured their accounts of the Palace, or whether the building itself inspired a specific kind of allure.

Our first account was a letter by Sara Coleridge, daughter of the poet and by 1851 a writer herself. We were struck by Sara’s description of the Crystal Palace as transcending its connection to the Exhibition, with its ‘freshness of atmosphere’ and ‘freedom of walking about’ appearing at first inimical to other accounts of the business and compactness of the attractions. Although she acknowledges the immense crowds, it is the Palace itself that dominates her narrative. This focuses upon moving through different kinds of spaces, from the ground-floor view of the glass panes, to the galleries from which she could ‘look down’ upon the masses. It was suggested that Sara’s sickness at the time could have influenced her descriptions. At this point aware that she was dying of breast cancer, it is revealing that she focuses upon the calming effect of the Crystal Palace upon the invalid, rather than the individual’s relation to the exhibits at large. Certainly her favourable description of the structure’s openness in contrast to indoor spaces like the Royal Academy, implies that Sara prioritises the individual’s relation to their surroundings, rather than what they can discover through the Exhibition.

Developing the theme of how literary figures reacted to this celebration of industrial power, our second set of extracts were letters written by Charlotte Brontë to her father, following her visits to the Exhibition in June 1851. We were struck by her aestheticised descriptions of the Crystal Palace, ranging from a ‘mighty bazaar’ and ‘genii palace’, to more subtle allusions to Romantic poetry. For example, Charlotte’s suggestion that the multitude was ‘subdued’ by an ‘invisible influence’ recalls Shelley’s description of poetic inspiration in both ‘A Hymn to Intellectual Beauty’ (1816) and A Defence of Poetry (1821). It was remarked by some members that Charlotte’s sense of the ‘rolling’ tides of spectators also recalled Wordsworth’s vision of humanity in Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey (1798). Finally, her description of the throng of visitors as a ‘living tide’ that ‘rolls on quietly, with a deep hum like the sea’ is reminiscent of Byron’s veneration of the ocean in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Canto the Fourth (1818), specifically the lines:

                    Roll on, thou deep and dark blue Ocean— roll! 
                    Ten thousand fleets sweep over thee in vain; 
                    Man marks the earth with ruin—his control 
                    Stops with the shore (CLXXIX).

This Byronic reference is interesting when one considers that Charlotte’s awe towards the aesthetic value of the Crystal Palace contrasts with her distaste for the ‘ruinous’ industrial aspects of the Exhibition itself. Although she admires the infinite potential of the Palace in its resemblance to a train station, a church and a temple, Charlotte distrusts the secular rationale behind the Exhibition and its appeal to the masses. In particular she seems to fear the universalisation of knowledge, a popular concern amongst the middle-classes of that time, which embodies the themes of unity and fragmentation that the Exhibition inspired. We noted that, notwithstanding her admiration for the beauty of the Palace, Charlotte remarks that she much preferred attending Thackeray’s lectures on eighteenth-century literature around the same time. We considered what this reveals about contemporary anxiety, as well as excitement, about industrialisation and national growth.

Our third item was an it-narrative from Dickens' magazine Household Words in which an Exhibition catalogue relates the history of its construction and composition. We discussed to what extent this tendency to ‘collect’ industrial developments embodied the growing belief that objects themselves had both a history and an identity. It was also suggested that this method of cataloguing was a means to accumulate knowledge in a ‘safe’ and methodical way, and that this was a trend specific to the mid nineteenth century. An interesting contrast was made between this household-friendly mode of cataloguing and the attempts to catalogue scientific knowledge during the 1790s, which in the hands of Rousseau and Diderot became a means to subvert political institutions.

We then discussed how the Great Exhibition could be compared to similar events concerned with national identity that took place during the nineteenth century. Our fourth item, for example, was a photograph of ‘The Greek Slave’, a statue that was lambasted by British critics for the artist's apparently unconscious gesture to the slave trade in America. We also considered whether its classical style undermined the desire to portray American identity during this period. Finally, we remarked upon the contrast between this derivative style of art and the innovations in firearms and technology displayed in America at this time.

Our fifth area of focus was John Stuart Mill, the famous Victorian political economist and friend of the organiser Henry Cole. We considered to what extent the reaction against utilitarianism in the 1840s shaped the Exhibition’s attitudes towards industrial and artistic innovations. Educated according to the systematic precepts of Jeremy Bentham, who sought to transform economics into a narrow discipline based upon calculation, Mill experienced a nervous breakdown at the age of twenty-one brought about by his reaction against such values. In his recovery phase, he turned increasingly to Wordsworth’s poetry, and as a result began to redefine utilitarian ideology in a way that encompassed more cultural concerns. We considered whether this more nuanced approach to art and industrialisation shaped the way the Exhibition was publicised. In particular, the focus upon art as quantifiable and labour as morally and philosophically useful can be seen to have shaped many of Cole’s objectives.

Developing this theme of redefining what was ‘useful’ in a cultural, as well as commercial context, we considered our sixth item, which was an extract from Charles Babbage’s essay on the limitations of a purely industrial society from 1851. Notwithstanding his characteristically mathematical thought processes and writing style, Babbage engages with this idea of redefining utility, particularly in relation to his belief that the ‘fine arts’ and the ‘industrial arts’ could be seen as interrelated. Most revealing is his comment that the ‘union’ of both arts would enlarge ‘the utility of both’. This was due to the fact that the mass-production of art would allow its positive effects to be wide-ranging, whilst the industrialist would be able to regard his advances as products of ‘the highest beauty’. We found these comments to be fascinating in relation to Mill’s determination to redefine Bentham’s narrow assessment of pleasure and pain, and refute the latter’s rejection of the utility of art.

Our final item was a recent postcard from the South Kensington Museum, which took for its design a contemporary steam engine motif from an exhibition of 1922. This object shared parallels with several charming designs that we looked at from Punch magazine, which reinforced a sense of shifting gender, social and class identities. We considered that the Great Exhibition can thus be seen as sparking the museum phenomenon in Britain and beyond. In later decades this can be seen as taking a more sinister turn, with the increasing rise of colonialism in Africa and Asia, and the desire to accumulate increasingly exotic objects. Nevertheless, we concluded that the Exhibition’s effects can be regarded as largely positive, prizing invention, intellectual inquiry and a certain kind of egalitarianism in an age of empire and Victorian patriarchy.

Leanne Stokoe, Newcastle University.


  1. For any Hardy fans out there- after the session I came across this funny story, with plenty of Exhibition references:

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