Crystal Palace, Exterior

Return to search resultsTo cite or link to this item, use this identifier:

By Elizabeth Creveling

This text is freely available for the purpose of academic teaching and research provided the text is distributed with the header information provided.

Display colophon information
Edited by: Isabelle Gournay
Edited by: Jean McEvoy
Header creation and encoding by: Daniel Davis

Essay on Crystal Palace from the Great Exhibition (1851 : London, England) created as a final assignment in World's Fairs: Social and Architectural History, HONR 219F, Spring 2001

Essays on the Material Culture of the World's Fairs
Edited by: Patricia Kosco Cossard and Isabelle Gournay
Published by:
University of Maryland Libraries
University of Maryland
College Park
Maryland 20720
Electronic version encoded on February 14, 2006

Titles of texts, foreign words, and emphasized text have been encoded


  • Paxton, Joseph, Sir, 1803-1865
  • Crystal Palace (London, Eng.)
  • Great Exhibition (1851 : London, England)
  • Exhibition buildings -- Design and construction
  • Exhibitions
  • Essay
  • 1901-2000
  • Europe
  • United Kingdom
  • England
  • London
Hide colophon information

The Crystal Palace was dismantled and rebuilt in Sydenham after the closing of the Fair and stood there until 1936 when it was destroyed by fire. Although it is no longer standing today, this structure is documented in photographs such as this one, through which it can continue to influence the worlds of architecture and engineering.

The Great Exhibition of 1851 was the first event of its kind, bringing together people from all over the earth in an environment of peace and intellectual stimulation. Conceived as an "Exhibition of the Works of all Nations">, the Great Exhibition was the brainchild of Prince Albert and Henry Cole of England. Queen Victoria's husband, his mind always "bent towards the artistic", was easily convinced by Cole to take on this event of massive proportions (Beaver, 11). As President of the Society of Arts, the Prince had played a large role in the exhibitions of 1847, 1848, and 1849. When a Royal Commission was formed in 1850, he was again chosen as President. Consequently, when Cole proposed a larger British Exhibition for the year 1851, he looked to the Prince for approval (Beaver, 11).

The idea of a National Exhibition did not originate with the British, but with the French, who had organized the first exhibition of national products as early as 1798 and had held an exposition every five years since the beginning of the century. The fair in 1849 was particularly well organized and Cole hastily took leave to Paris to observe this event. He found that the initial plans for the 1851 Exposition in London were far too na??ve, and if the British wanted to surpass the French, they must set their sights higher. The original site for the Great Exposition was to be the courtyard of Somerset House (Beaver, 12). Thomas Cubitt, a builder and friend of the Prince, suggested that the building site be moved to a much larger site in Hyde Park.

The next task for the Royal Commission was to design a building. An architectural competition was advertised, resulting in "two hundred and forty-five designs from architects of all nations," but the Royal Commission was not entirely satisfied with any of the proposals (Cowper, 1). Taking the most pleasing elements from several designs, the Commission devised a new proposal. This resulted in a "hideous hybridity" that was not well received by the public (Beaver, 15). The proposal was published in the Illustrated London News and the negative reactions nearly resulted in the discontinuation of the Exhibition.

One man, Joseph Paxton, saved the Fair and the Commission. A farmer's son in 1801, he was born in a small village in Bedfordshire, England. As a young man he quickly received recognition for his work as a gardener. At twenty-one he was employed as an undergardener in the arboretum of the Horticultural Society's gardens at Chiswick, an 18th century Palladian Revival house designed by Lord Burlington. Paxton was an excellent example of the "self made man," pulling himself out of a small community to become known as one of the greatest architects of the 19th century. By the age of twenty-three, he was head gardener at the Duke of Devonshire's estate in Chatsworth. From here he went on to build bridges, gasworks, model villages, fountains and much more. Paxton's acknowledged masterpiece was the building he designed at the Chatsworth Estate, the Great Conservatory (1836) that housed a large water lily named the "Victoria Regia," a new species that Paxton had worked on for several years (16). The building created for this natural wonder was a "light and airy structure with a glass roof supported by light wooden beams...these beams were supported in turn by light tubular columns of iron" (Beaver, 17). This unique construction method would become a regular style for Paxton, winning him accolades from the architectural and engineering fields.

Hearing that the Royal Commission was prepared to consider other proposals for the Hyde Park site, Paxton offered his architectural services. The only restriction was that the Committee was only prepared to receive another proposal "providing it was submitted, complete with detailed drawings, within two weeks" (Beaver, 17). In addition, the structure had to be "capable of accommodating tens of thousands of visitors at one time and displaying the arts and manufactures of the whole world but at the same time it also had to be a purely temporary structure". (Beaver, 18) Not only did Paxton accept the two-week time limit, but he stated that he would bring the completed plans back in nine days.

His proposal was very similar to the Conservatory at Chatsworth. The building would also be constructed of wood, iron and glass, a combination that was very suitable for an exhibition. It would also be easily erected and disassembled, and "at the worst the glass and iron would have high scrap value" (Beaver, 17). This appealed to the Committee, but they had yet to dismiss their earlier plans. Paxton's design was finally clinched in the eyes of the public when journalist Douglas Jerrold of Punch dubbed it the "Crystal Palace" (Hobhouse, 37).

As the only building in the Fair, it encompassed 33,000,000 cubic feet, a large volume, which was filled to capacity with exhibition material throughout the duration of the 1851 Fair. To appease public unrest, Paxton decided to incorporate the larger existing trees into his plan by adding a barrel-vaulted transept to the original design. The presence of trees also created an interesting transition between the inside and outside spaces. Paxton told the committee he "hit upon the idea of covering the transept with a circular roof, similar to that on the great conservatory" (The Art Journal, xviii). This arched motif was greatly emulated following the Fair and even today it can be found on buildings ranging from motels to grand office buildings.

Many images were taken of the Crystal Palace in its heyday. Photography had become increasingly popular since its invention in 1839 by artists such as Daguerre and Niepce. Photographers, both amateurs and professionals, traveled to the Fair in hopes of capturing the momentous event on paper. The mid-nineteenth century was a time when only the rich could afford to travel the world. Until the 1840's those of lesser mobility would use such techniques as engraving or watercolors to get a glimpse of major events. The invention of photography heightened this practice and made it easier for tourists to collect images of their travels as well. Many photographers visited the fair to record it and sell the photographs as mementoes or collectables.

The exterior photograph of the Crystal Palace displayed in the collection at the University of Maryland School of Architecture is through modern techniques on modern photographic paper from a vintage glass-plate negative. The earliest photographs were printed directly onto silver plated copper sheets and were non-reproducible. This technique, the daguerrotype, produced marvelously detailed prints on metallic surfaces, but was costly and time consuming (Newhall, 18). In 1841 William Henry Fox Talbot (1800-1877) invented another photographic technique known as the calotype, a process that entailed sensitizing paper rather than copper sheets to produce an image through sunlight. This process created paper negatives, which could be used to make innumerable reproductions of an image (43). The glass-plate negative process "produced a textureless image, far sharper than that of paper negatives" (Smithsonian). These plates were coated with a layer of collodion, and by 1860 the collodion glass-plate negative entirely replaced the paper negative.

The photograph of the East Fa??ade of the Crystal Palace is on a sheet of eight by ten inch twentieth century photographic printing paper with the image comprising only a seven by nine inch area. The print has little tonal separation and is characterized by extreme contrast. Due to modern printing techniques and an aged negative this print is not true to its original color. The print in the collection displays a strong contrast with bright whites and dark blacks. The original photograph was most likely an albumen print, which would have had a rich purple color due to the egg white (albumen) solution and gold chloride toner (Smithsonian). Frederick Scott Archer invented the collodion process in 1851 using a wet plate technique in which the glass plate is coated with a silver iodide solution in suspension and then exposed while wet. This process was very popular during the 1850's until it was replaced by techniques that did not require the precision of the wet plate. Early photographic processes demanded long exposure times to collect the proper amount of light; therefore architectural subjects were often chosen out of convenience. The image of the Crystal Palace is very crisp and clear, most likely due to a longer exposure, capturing the greatest amount of detail. However, because the flags atop the roof structure moved in the wind, this long exposure created ghostly images of some, and left other flagpoles seemingly empty.

The unknown photographer artfully captured the Palace's innovative cast iron and glass construction, which was both structurally sound and aesthetically pleasing. The identifying characteristic, the arched transept, is not visible in this image, thus deceiving the viewer of the grand scale of the building. The photographer chose to record the east fa??ade, capturing the combination of classical detailing (rounded arches) and traditional railway and bridge ornamentation. This type of detailing is often seen in comparable engravings of the time. Barriers for carts and carriages are visible in the foreground of the photograph, giving it a realistic setting, something that is often lacking in artistic renderings. The surrounding park setting is not visible; the photographer chose to crop the image closely, keeping any identifying elements out. A few trees are in view, helping to add scale to the image. The photographer captured the image on a day when the Fair was closed to the public, most likely a Sunday. The photographer Fox Talbot also used Sundays to record images of the interior of the Palace (Beaver, 37).

The Crystal Palace stood for eighty-five years, displaying the power of the British and keeping the legacy of the Great Exhibition alive. The exhibits and the nature of the interior are discussed in the essay accompanying the image of the nave of the Crystal Palace, a photograph by Philip H. Delamotte. The Crystal Palace stood until it burned in 1936. The discussion of this can be found with the image of the dismantling of the Sydenham Crystal Palace.

Works Cited

The Art Journal.Crystal Palace ExhibitionNew York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1970.
Beaver, Patrick. The Crystal Palace, 1851-1936: a portrait of Victorian enterprise. London: Hugh Evelyn Ltd., 1970.
Cowper, Charles. The building erected in Hyde Park for the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations, 1851. London: Victoria and Albert Museum, 1972.
Hitchcock, Henry Russell. The Crystal Palace: the structure, its antecedents and its immediate progeny: and exhibition. Northampton, Masachusetts: Smith College Museum of Art, 1952.
Hobhouse, Christopher. 1851 and the Crystal Palace; being an account of the Great Exhibition and its contents; of Sir Joseph Paxton; and the erection, the subsequent history and the destruction of his masterpiece. London: Murray, 1950.
Hyman, Isabelle and Marvin Trachtenberg. Architecture. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, Inc., 1986.
Newhall, Beaumont. The History of Photography: from 1839 to the present. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1982.
Smithsonian. India Trough the Lens: Photography 1840-1911. Washington, DC: Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, February 2001.