The Empty Chair: Designing A ‘Royal’ Experience

Today’s publishing date of this post marks an important date for nineteenth-century historians, for it was on Tuesday 22nd January 1901 that Queen Victoria died, at the grand old age of 81 at her beloved Osborne House.  The royal couple have recently been at the forefront of our research activities (see RIP Prince Albert).  Lately we have been considering the absence of Victoria and Albert from the 1862 International Exhibition – Albert due to his premature death in 1861, Victoria due to her intense grief and mourning.  Conspicuously missing, her chair of state left empty, her lack of royal participation and patronage has been thought to have affected the tone of the exhibition, and therefore people’s experience of 1862.  This post examines the opening ceremony of 1862, its programme and character; looking at how this mood was created through structures, music and dress, we will also consider the personal experience of the event by the diarist Sir Frederic Madden, and question the superiority of visual spectacle over other forms of sensory experience.  Ultimately, did Victoria succeed in staging a ‘royal’ show for the public?

Henry Courtney Selous, 'The Opening of the Great Exhibition by Queen Victoria on 1 May 1851', oil painting.  Victoria and Albert Museum, 329-1889 © V&A, 2014

Henry Courtney Selous, ‘The Opening of the Great Exhibition by Queen Victoria on 1 May 1851’, oil painting. Victoria and Albert Museum, 329-1889 © V&A, 2014

The above painting shows us what it was meant to be.  An unfavourable mood existed before 1862 opened, when the inevitable comparisons with 1851 were made and an important difference made clear: ‘Something of gloom and regret could not but be present to the minds of all who took part in the brilliant ceremony of our May-Day, when they reflected that the author of the Festival lay cold in his grave, and that the Queen, mourning in her widowhood, could not take part in the event’. 1.  The missing monarch, wishing deference to be paid to dear Albert, instead directed the organisers to create an opening event with the feeling of a ‘national ceremony’.  Though absent in body, she determined to be there in spirit, exerting her magisterial influence to add a certain ‘lustre’ to the event; from reading newspaper reports and guidebooks on 1862, it appears that she was successful. 2.  So how was this achieved?

The International Exhibition opened with an official ceremonial; following a designed and structured programme, a procession of dignitaries wove its way through the building, pausing at various points to read speeches and listen to specially commissioned cultural works by composers and poets.  Formal dress codes were observed, and a seated audience was curated by special invitation.  It began with an official reception in the central south court; a glittering assemblage of people dressed to the nines came together to create an image of power and prestige – Victoria’s court was employed to full use.  As well as high-ranking military personnel, guests included her official representatives (such as her son the Duke Of Cambridge, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Lord High Chancellor, and Viscount Palmerston), ministers and members of parliament, foreign ambassadors, and the 1851 and 1862 Commissioners.

Court Suit, London, 1899, velvet suit with silk lining and cut steel buttons (complete ensemble included a cotton shirt and suspenders, machine-knitted silk stockings, patent leather shoes and beaver hat).  Victoria and Albert Museum, T.61 to C, F to L-1918 © V&A, 2014

Court Suit, London, 1899, velvet suit with silk lining and cut steel buttons (complete ensemble included a cotton shirt and suspenders, machine-knitted silk stockings, patent leather shoes and beaver hat). Victoria and Albert Museum, T.61 to C, F to L-1918 © V&A, 2014

Many of the men would have been wearing court dress similar to this later example on the left.  Men’s fashions evolved slowly over the nineteenth-century century; more eighteenth-century in character, court uniform required breeches and tailcoat in dark colours – looking sober, traditional and serious.  Juxtaposed with military uniforms that added a dash of colour and sparkle, these men (all occupants of positions of power) assembled together must have created an imposing front, and could be relied upon to create the national character the Queen desired.  Such uniforms were expensive dress, made of quality materials and well-cut; these well-dressed men not only looked good, but promoted British craftsmanship simultaneously to all those watching.

 

Court Dress, Great Britain, 1860-1865, silk and silk tulle with hand and machine embroidery, ribbons and silk gauze.  Victoria and Albert Museum, T.329 to B, AA-1977 © V&A, 2014

Court Dress, Great Britain, 1860-1865, silk and silk tulle with hand and machine embroidery, ribbons and silk gauze. Victoria and Albert Museum, T.329 to B, AA-1977 © V&A, 2014

The dress of other British processional participants, those specially selected for the limited seating, and indeed everyone else dressed to impress in the massive crowd that attended the event also showcased British fashion, as Cassell’s guide attested: ‘Flashing helmets and glittering jewels, sumptuous robes and unique costumes; feathers, stars, crosses, and all the bravery of fashion, intermingled with good effect’. 3.  Whether it was to everyone’s taste or not, this event called for participants to be patriotic and to put on a worthy show to the world.  Given the width of ladies’ skirts in this period, fashion could not have made the crush of the crowd comfortable!

From the south court the reception moved on to the western dome, where a verse of the national anthem was sung, and Earl Granville (the chairman of the 1862 Commissioners) gave a speech.  This was the site of an empty chair of state, in the centre of this activity.  This is a powerful symbol; Victoria was counting upon her court and attendees to suggest her power and majesty.  It will be interesting to learn what foreign attendees made of this – was her excuse of grief and mourning respected, or resented?

Edmund Walker, 'Interior of the international exhibition of 1862', 1862, watercolour, 74.5 x 104.6 cm.  Victoria and Albert Museum, 1110-1901 © V&A. 2014

Edmund Walker, ‘Interior of the international exhibition of 1862’, 1862, watercolour, 74.5 x 104.6 cm. Victoria and Albert Museum, 1110-1901 © V&A. 2014

The crowds watching the procession could sense what their neighbours were wearing through touch and smell, as well as sight; as regards the official participants, the crowd had to look from afar.  But when the procession arrived from the western dome to its eastern twin, everyone experienced the next device employed by the organisers to create a national mood in the audience.  Music was not just a charming diversion – a succession of musical performances created a powerful sense of drama in a shared experience.  An orchestra set up under the dome delivered various commissions, beginning with a Grand Overture by Giacomo Meyerbeer (1791-1864), a Prussian composer.

This master of grandiose opera didn’t disappoint; accustomed to producing huge operatic works for the stage, Meyerbeer was perfectly comfortable delivering a piece that befitted the scale of the occasion. 4.  He cannily sampled Rule, Britannia! – beginning as a poem, it became a popular and well-known tune after it was set to music by Thomas Arne in 1740.  Strongly associated with the navy and army, those audience members who knew the words would immediately connect Meyerbeer’s music with an idea of the Great British Empire that ‘majestic thou shalt rise’, able to rule the waves, and whose citizens would never be slaves.  It is a rousing anthem difficult to resist unless the words are known in detail; this tune so encapsulates the national character that it is still a fixture at the BBC Last Night of the Proms held at the Royal Albert Hall every summer.

More music followed.  A British collaboration saw the words of Tennyson’s ‘A Festival Ode’ set to music by Sir William Sterndale Bennett (1816-1875); wishing to participate in the experience, the poem was chanted by thousands ‘heartily, yet tenderly’. 5.  The programme ended with a Grand March composed by French composer Daniel Auber (1782-1871).  Under the great glass dome, within this gigantic space, the sound must have reverberated and echoed over the crowd – it is worth remembering that for the majority of people, listening to live music was something of a luxury.  If you were lucky you might hear your favourite symphony perhaps two or three times in your lifetime, so such a programme was a real treat of an experience.  The music ended with the singing of the National Anthem, which again impressed the sight of the empty chair upon the audience – Victoria was absent in body, but not in spirit, as her subjects sang about her.  They also sang the Hallelujah chorus, and the Bishop of London provided a prayer; there was an explicit religious undertone to the proceedings of the opening ceremony.   With the many parallels between the exhibition building and that of church architecture (for example, the designation of areas as aisles and the nave), the crowd assembled together praying for the Queen made the opening ceremony include a religious experience hand-in-hand with one of entertainment and enjoyment.

Photograph of the British Picture Gallery, 1862 International Exhibition, South Kensington, 24th April 1862.  Victoria and Albert Museum, 1550-1927 © V&A, 2014

Photograph of the British Picture Gallery, 1862 International Exhibition, South Kensington, 24th April 1862. Victoria and Albert Museum, 1550-1927 © V&A, 2014

With the music over, the procession walked to the final stage on its journey, ending in the Picture Galleries to officially open the exhibition.  Here the barriers to the public were removed.  Cassell’s guide reflected that the event had conformed to Victoria’s instructions, with the appropriate pomp and grandeur.  Indeed, this opening ceremony was better attended by foreign luminaries than that of 1851, so these elements intended to fashion a national character were performed to a good audience.  The general resplendence was aided by the ‘inexplicable influence of youth, beauty and refinement’ – fashionable London helped render the occasion worthy of the city and the country. 6.  

Such events can prove difficult for historians to comprehend; a description of the ceremony programme fails to capture the crowd, detail how they behaved and experienced the event – one needs to listen to the music, to think of the noise and smells.  We do well to remember the hierarchy of the senses, that incorrectly values what we see over what we smell, hear, taste and touch.  What really helps historians formulate ideas about experience are personal accounts created by its participants – for 1862, we are lucky to have such a resource.

William Drummond, 'Sir Frederic Madden (1801-1873), Keeper of Manuscripts (1837-1866)', c.1837, oil on canvas, 95 x 80 cm.  The British Museum, London © The Trustees of the British Museum, 2014

William Drummond, ‘Sir Frederic Madden (1801-1873), Keeper of Manuscripts (1837-1866)’, c.1837, oil on canvas, 95 x 80 cm. The British Museum, London © The Trustees of the British Museum, 2014

Sir Frederic Madden (1801-1873) was an antiquary, palaeographer, and talented curator, acting as the Keeper of Manuscripts at the British Museum.  He was also a dedicated diarist, creating a 40-volume diary covering the years 1819-1872 (now kept by the Bodleian Library, Oxford).  Apart from detailing his professional life (and conflicts with his fellow curators) at the British Museum, Madden recorded his multiple visits to the 1862 International Exhibition, regaling the reader with his personal experience of the event. 7.

Madden provides fascinating glimpses into multiple facets of 1862; for example, he notes the substantial crowds on their way to the event, who were ‘very quiet and well behaved’.  Madden on the whole found the opening ceremony very tiring – ‘If these Jours de Fête came often, people would be killed by fatigue’.  But he visited again the following day, and several times throughout the exhibition’s run until November.

But it sounds like another story inside the building.  Victoria may have given up her seat, but Madden and hoards of others couldn’t find one, not for the lack of trying: ‘On alighting we turned to the right to endeavour to get seats near the orchestra erected in the Eastern Dome, but we very soon found that this was impossible, and not a seat was to be had…The search was fruitless as every corner was packed closely with genteel people, all of whom had paid their £3/3/0 and the greater part of them were, like ourselves, obliged to content ourselves with standing room’.  Exhibiting gentlemanly behaviour, Madden paid a shilling for a trestle and board for the ladies in his party to stand upon, allowing them to see over the heads of the crowd.  This suggests that opportune and enterprising individuals were making money as they became involved in designing the visitor experience of 1862.

Madden writes of his frustration at being unable to see the proceedings: ‘There must have been gross favouritism in the whole affair.’  He found himself a spot with a view: ‘by dint of pushing through the crowd and mounting divers ladders and other impedimenta’ – which is not quite the polite and well-mannered behaviour we imagine when we look at images of visitors to 1862!  ‘Impedimenta’ could well refer to actual objects and the displays themselves!  It seems a shame that Madden didn’t see the visual spectacle that was being carefully presented to him, but interestingly he writes: ‘Of the procession I saw nothing whatsoever, but did not care much about it.  Had I purchased tickets earlier , and sent in an application for reserved seats in the Gallery, I am told I should certainly have obtained them.  However, it really mattered but little.’  Madden heard the music  ‘exceedingly well’ – perhaps he was content with what we heard instead.  Madden was used to meeting important personages within his capacity as Keeper at the British Museum, so perhaps he was not as bothered watching this procession of personalities.  But in his work for the museum he understood the sensory impact of the objects he worked with, and no doubt appreciated the multiple ways in which as a visitor he would form his experiences to 1862. 8.

Cassell’s guide believed that visitors who attended the exhibition’s opening ceremony would long-remember the event, but the absence of the Queen and Albert still loomed large.  Their combined presence at 1851 had imbued the Great Exhibition with ‘an impressiveness and meaning hardly realised by the inauguration of 1862’. 9.  The traditions of dress, stirring music and the national anthem bestowed a national character to the proceedings; this was Great Britain on show, and by extension, Victoria was the Great Britain Empire.  But fundamentally, it would seem that the magnificence of the procession and its accompanying programme provided no real substitute for Queen Victoria.  Pomp could not fully support the illusion of a royal presence  – the chair was empty.

References

1. Cassell’s Illustrated Exhibitor; containing about three hundred illustrations, with letter-press descriptions of all the principal objects in The International Exhibition of 1862 (London: Cassell, Petter & Galpin, La Belle Sauvage Yard, Ludgate Hill, London and Park Buildings, New York, 1862), p.2.

2. Cassell’s Illustrated Exhibitor, 1862, p.2.

3. Cassell’s Illustrated Exhibitor, 1862, p.2.

4. To learn more about Meyerbeer listen to Donald Macleod on Composer of the Week, at BBC Radio 3, http://www.bbc.co.uk/music/artists/e2e5fec1-d87b-4b48-81b1-7e9ab074f348 [accessed 17 January 2014]

5. Cassell’s Illustrated Exhibitor, 1862, p.2.

6. Cassell’s Illustrated Exhibitor, 1862, p.2.

7. Madden’s Diary Entries: Un-numbered extracts provided from BM Staircase, No.15 (1), February 2011, with thanks to The Madden Society [notes provided February 2012]

8. For more on Madden see James Robinson, ‘Madden’s Moves’, The Game of Kings: Medieval Ivory Chessmen from the Isle of Lewis, exhibition blog (20 January 2012), http://www.metmuseum.org/exhibition/listings/2011/the-game-of-kings-medieval-ivory-chessmen-from-the-isle-of-lewis/exhibiion-blog/game-of-kings/blog/maddens-moves [accessed 17 January 2014]

9. Cassell’s Illustrated Exhibitor, 1862, p.2.

© Helen Cresswell and Ruth Mason, 2014

 

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