Aesthetic Analysis and Visitors’ Experience of the 1862 International Exhibition

Edmund Walker 'Exterior of the International Exhibition of 1862', watercolour, 1862-1882, Victoria and Albert Museum, 1111-1901 © V&A, 2014

Edmund Walker ‘Exterior of the International Exhibition of 1862’, watercolour, 1862-1882, Victoria and Albert Museum, 1111-1901 © V&A, 2014

On 27th and 28th June 2014, the editors of visit1862 had the pleasure of being part of the London Conference of Critical Thought.  Presenting on a panel of rare historical voices within the conference’s discussions about Deleuze, the everyday political, the human as cyborg, and much more, we were given the opportunity to explore how thinking theoretically can provide new insights into the 1862 International Exhibition. [1]

As historians our relationship with theory is complicated.  Studying the nineteenth century with theories developed in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries could be considered highly questionable.  Therefore, part of the purpose of the paper we presented at the LCCT was to demonstrate how we do not use theory as a model with which to construct narratives of the past, but are interested in how theory raises questions about the past.  Our paper presented the way we use theory, explaining how we start with the historical sources, consider what they can potentially reveal and then, where necessary, utilise appropriate theoretical frameworks to pose questions of them that facilitate comprehensive appreciation of their value.

An adaption of the paper we gave, this post is an exploration of how aesthetics can contribute to the exploration of visitors’ experiences at the 1862 Exhibition, which is at the heart of the visit1862 project.  Despite the bulging literature on nineteenth and twentieth-century international exhibitions and regular analysis of the relative aesthetic success of these buildings and their displays, comparatively little has been written about visitors’ experiences of such events.  This bias is partly due to the scant number of existing first-hand accounts written by visitors.  However, we argue that consideration of the materiality of the exhibition can provide a means of bypassing this apparent gap in the historical archive.

The Theoretical Framework

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

Nineteenth-century sources suggest that contemporaries considered looking to be very important at the 1862 exhibition, as it was intended to instigate good taste, inspire developments in future design and educate the visitor about the world they lived in. Therefore consideration of the visual aesthetic engagements visitors’ made at this event will provide some insight into how the exhibition was experienced.

However, we would also like to suggest that visitors’ aesthetic engagements with the exhibition went beyond visual appreciation.  Drawing on expanding definitions of aesthetics, which have developed since the 1970s and 80s, we shall be defining ‘aesthetic experience’ as any engagement made by a human’s mind, body or soul with something that, in someway, can be defined as ‘beautiful’.  Therefore, aesthetic encounters can be made through any of the body’s senses – not just the cognitive processes of the mind – and beauty can be found in everyday activities, as much as in pieces of fine art.

Consequently, we suggest that it is equally important to think about what people smelt, heard, tasted, touched and saw.  Additionally, we think about the aesthetic engagements visitors had with objects that were on display, but we also want to discuss the more ‘everyday’ aesthetic experiences they had in the exhibition space.

The main purpose of defining aesthetic experience like this is that it facilitates consideration of the tension between intended and experienced aesthetic experiences at the 1862 Exhibition.  The exhibition’s organisers hoped that their displays of industrial creations, decorative products and fine arts would encourage creativity and innovation in design and manufacturing and improve the visiting public’s taste.  However, consideration of many of the events held in the exhibition and how they were written about in the press, demonstrates that aesthetic experiences at the exhibition were much more complicated than the organisers’ stated aims.

Visual aesthetics

British Picture Gallery, 1862 International Exhibition, Victoria and Albert Museum, 1550-1927 © V&A, 2014

British Picture Gallery, 1862 International Exhibition, Victoria and Albert Museum, 1550-1927 © V&A, 2014









To begin, how did visitors’ make visual aesthetic engagements and how did they contribute to visitors’ experiences?

While no fine art had been displayed at the 1851 Great Exhibition, 1862 hosted a grand selection of art in a specifically constructed gallery.  More than any other part of the exhibition, this gallery was intended to induce aesthetic appreciation and improve visitors’ aesthetic taste through visual engagement with objective beauty.

However, commentators’ reflections on the fine art gallery demonstrate that the art’s aesthetic qualities did not always have such noble consequences.  In May 1862, Punch published a cartoon accompanied by the following caption:

CAUTION – (To the two young ladies in pink bonnets who expressed such enthusiasm about Mr. B. Stubb’s pictures, and would so like to see that “dear Mr.Stubbs”) The tall young man who on overhearing the above praise, wetted his pocket-handkerchief, and removed an imaginary speck of dust from Mr. S’s picture, thereby trying to convey the impression that he was the fortunate man who had painted it, is some imprudent imposter, and never touched a canvas before in his life.  Mr. B Stubbs is a good-looking short man, with wideawake, auburn-beard and spectacles.

The cartoon illustrated a pretentious young gentleman who, on hearing two young ladies praises for one of Mr. Stubb’s works, pretended to be the artist in an attempt to impress them.  Bending down with his handkerchief, he made as if to wipe a speck of dusk off his masterpiece, while ‘a good-looking short man, with wideawake, auburn-beard and spectacles’ (Mr Stubbs himself) observed with disapproval from behind.

Obviously, the cartoon was not reflecting a real event, but nevertheless demonstrates that nineteenth-century society was aware that within the space of the art gallery, not everything was necessarily how it appeared.  Although intended to foster taste and morality, this context could also allowed for disguise, trickery and deceit.

Alongside such engagements with ‘fine art’, there were also moments of visual aesthetic engagement of a more everyday character.

Nineteenth-century images often show visitors to the 1862 Exhibition with a guidebook in hand. Written for different audiences, these texts provided instructions on what to see, what to appreciate, and advice upon how to get the most out of a visit.  As design historians, we have become very interested by the materiality and physical attributes of these books as objects.  Many of these books included maps, ground plans, and other illustrations.  Therefore, visitors would have visually connected with these technical drawings in these books and employed their guidebooks as tools for navigation and negotiation through the 1862 Exhibition.  Additionally, the agency of the books continued after the event as many of their prefaces stated that they were also designed to be displayed as ‘coffee table’ books.  This secondary purpose resulted in these books functioning as indicators of cultural capital and their drawings becoming mnemonic devices that enabled visitors to continue their experience of the exhibition.  Furthermore, the iterative process of continually re-reading these guidebooks, made the aesthetic engagements visitors had made at the exhibition part of their everyday lives.

Other senses and aesthetic experiences

The sounds, smells and surface textures that visitors experienced at the 1862 Exhibition would also have contributed to their aesthetic experiences.

In the Swiss Court at the 1862 Exhibition, there was a mechanical singing Bullfinch that had a surprisingly significant effect on visitors.  Wound-up periodically during the day, the song the bird sang was so beautiful that it drew a crowd from across the exhibition! However, this was a problem.  The Illustrated London News reported that the numbers of spectators the bird drew caused havoc and posed a threat to other exhibits in close proximity – displays were knocked as people jostled to see the calling bird.  In the end, to everyone’s disappointment, the Exhibition’s officials had to ask the Swiss to stop winding up the mechanical bird, the disturbance it caused deemed too problematic to be easily controlled and calmed.

This not only demonstrates the power a beautiful sound had on those who visited the exhibition – but also how the exhibition’s organisers had not expected this sound’s non-visual beauty to cause such a dramatic response.

Physical materialities

The physical materials that visitors touched while they were in the exhibition would also have influenced their aesthetic responses.  It is likely that visitors were able to touch some of the objects on display.  However, visitors would have also entered into much less pleasant touch relationships.  Contemporary descriptions of visiting the exhibition paint a crowded picture.  When Sir Frederic Madden, Keeper of Manuscripts at the British Museum, attended the exhibition’s opening ceremony, he described how ‘every corner was packed closely with genteel people’.  The volume of visitors continued to be high throughout, 25% more visitors attending the 1862 Exhibition than the 1851 Exhibition. Therefore, visitors would have felt each other as they moved through the space – desirable or undesirable, depending on one’s perspective!


Applying aesthetic theories to the 1862 Exhibition can helpfully contribute to visit1862’s project of exploring visitors’ experiences.  Thinking about aesthetic experiences as sensory responses to high art, natural beauty and the beauty of the everyday has allowed us to think about how the exhibition encapsulated aesthetic responses to the high arts and the everyday.  It has facilitated discussion about how sounds, smells and touch and sight contributed to visitors’ experiences of the event.  And it has demonstrated that the way visitors’ experienced the 1862 Exhibition was not always the way in which its organisers had intended.


[1] Our paper was a contribution to the ‘Street Level: Towards a critical discourse on urban aesthetics’ stream (organized by Sam Barton, Tim Ivison and Ruth Mason), and we presented our paper in a panel that brought together reflections of urban aesthetics from various different periods in time.


© Helen Cresswell and Ruth Mason, 2014


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