The Great Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations (aka ‘The Crystal Palace Exhibition’) opened on May 1st in 1851. It was the first and most well known of many subsequent world fairs. It showcased the peak of achievement and modern technology from the British Empire as well as many other countries. It was considered a celebration of industry, arts and culture and was one of the most colourful events of the Victorian Romantic Era.
The exhibition took place in a purposefully designed building in the Hyde Park area of London. The building was made of glass and iron and resembled a giant greenhouse. Although some doubted its safety, it was considered by most to be an architectural marvel. It became known as ‘The Crystal Palace’ and had an area of about 19 acres or 772,284 square feet.
The exhibition itself must have been a true wonder to behold. It brought sights normally reserved for the elites to the average person. There were literally miles of amazing things to see – from manufacturing machinery to engines and steam hammers and boilers. There were inventions and discoveries, musical instruments, furniture, fine textiles, pottery, laces, clocks, toys, colourful glass and much more.
The jewellery and the precious materials which were displayed at the exhibition drew much attention and went on to influence a whole generation of designs with repercussions to this day.
Below is an overview of some of these displays. This is not meant to be a conclusive list but, rather, an impression.
The Great Diamonds
On proud display were two of the greatest diamonds ever discovered. The 280 carat Koh-i-Noor, meaning the ‘Mountain of Light’, was, in 1851, the world’s largest known diamond. It was acquired in 1850 as part of the Lahore Treaty. Also on display was the Daria-i-Noor, one of the rare pale pink diamonds in the world. It was 177 carats.
These stupendous diamonds must have been a breathtaking sight for the average Victorian who would not necessarily have been exposed to diamonds in their everyday life, let alone ones of this size. The effect must have been to spur on a greater desire for diamonds in the general populace.
A.W.N. Pugin’s Medieval Court
The designer A.W.N. Pugin presented a ‘medieval court’ complete with fixtures, furnishings, art and fine textiles.
As part of this breathtaking display he also presented a range of jewellery resplendent with gothic and ecclesiastical motifs, blue and green enamel work, pearls, turquoise and cabochon garnets in medieval style settings along with quatre-foils and other architectural inspired details. This line of jewellery appealed to the romantic nature of the Victorians who were in love with a perceived lost history, the novels of Sir Walter Scott and the notion of honour and courtly love. Pugin’s range caused an explosive revival in enamelling techniques and medieval influenced styles.
George Waterhouse’s Celtic Revival
The early 8th-century Tara Brooch, discovered in 1850, was the finest known Irish penannular brooch. It was exhibited by the Dublin jeweller George Waterhouse along with a display of his fashionable Celtic Revival jewellery. These Celtic Revival designs would have appealed to the romantic nature of the Victorians and their reverence for the perceived beauty of the deep past.
This line of jewellery went on to inspire generations of Celtic influenced styles. Queen Victorian presentation of gifts of Scottish Jewellery at the Exhibition’s Opening Ball gave further impetus to this trend.
Wedgewood, of course, is famous for his jasperware cameos. Even though they began to be produced in 1769, they were showcased at the Great Exhibition and catapulted to popularity as a way to bring relatively inexpensive cameo jewellery and the neo-classical styles to a those who had previously only been able to admire from afar.
Sunar Indian Jewellery
Gold ornaments and silver enamelled handicrafts fabricated by the Sunar caste from Sind, British India, were given much attention. These exotic and ornate pieces went on to inspire a taste for Indian influenced jewellery and ornamentation that continues to this day.
It was at the Great Exhibition that the rubber gum based material Gutta Percha made its debut with a diverse range of products displayed by The Gutta Percha Company. Gutta Percha was one of the first natural plastics, a lightweight, adaptable material which became popular for jewellery in the 1850s and throughout the 1860s and 1870s.
The Crystal Place catalogue of 1851 had this definition, ‘The Isonandra Gutta, the source of the gum, known as gutta percha, one of the most useful substances introduced into the arts during the present century.’
There were many pieces of jewellery on display crafted by pre-technological peoples from far-flung locations. These exotic materials and simple designs certainly went on to have a great influence on the styles of the era.
Devaranne’s Cast Iron
Devaranne is recorded in 1828 as a manufacturer of cast-iron wares and in 1850 as owner of a cast-iron foundry. In 1825 he was asked to supply cast-iron wares for a Parisian firm of goldsmiths. He showed cast-iron jewellery at the Great Exhibition in 1851 (Art Journal illustrated Catalogue, 1851, p. 37).
Also in evidence were many floral and nature themed motifs as the Victorian movement of ‘Naturalism’ emerged as a counterbalance to the growth in industry and technology.
The Art-Journal Illustrated Catalogue said, ‘The taste for floral ornament in jewellery has been very prevalent of late and it’s a good and happy taste, inasmuch as an enamelled leaf or floret of brilliant colour is an excellent foil to a sparkling stone. We have scarcely seen the designs for jewellery at any period more tasteful, elegant, and appropriate than they are at the present day.’
As an interesting side note – William Morris, the renowned British Arts and Crafts philosopher and designer, is reported to have visited the Great Exhibition and been appalled by what he saw. He found the technology ‘dehumanising and ugly’. The exhibition was, no doubt, an impetus for him as he developed his anti-industrialisation philosophy and iconic designs.
For many others, The Great Exhibition of 1851 was a source of inspiration that continues to this day.
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