The second research post by RCA History of Design students involved in the Memories of the Future exhibition (more information here).
An exploration of the sensory engagement and experience of visitors to the 1862 exhibition, with a focus on the visual and felt elements, using collated press reviews as the primary source for analysis. This brief discussion looks at the built and human construction of the Exposition as perceived then.
The 1862 International Exposition was a large-scale, high profile and multi-purpose exhibition, designed to follow from the success of the 1851 Great Exhibition. Supported by Prince Albert and enthusiastically carried through by Henry Cole and his associates. The main aims of the exhibition were to promote peace and international relations, trade, education, food, spectacle, national identity and commerce.
In order to deliver this a new building designed by Captain Fowke was delivered on the South Kensington site now home to the Natural History Museum. The plan consisted of a central temporary exhibition area –a nave, two transepts and six courts made in plate glass and iron and timber frames. Around this were arranged picture galleries with a refreshment area on the north side built in contrasting brick. This building received mixed reviews from public and press.
The building was viewed by the Blackwood magazine as an example of ‘ugliness’ reflecting the ‘native railway style’ of architecture. The Sunday Review also stated that the building had ‘no real centre to the structure’, ‘staircases to the galleries were too few and too small’, ‘the whole arrangement particularly abominable’ and showed ‘audacity’ and ‘bad taste’.
More mildly the Guardian stated that the building ‘excited little disgust and no enthusiasm’ further mentioning that the ‘romance of glass sacrificed to the reality of brick’ and the domes appeared as ‘gigantic balloons’ suggesting they appeared ludicrous and unstable devices. It is interesting to note that the original building plan had included an extremely large central concert hall however this was not realised due to the considerable expense it would have entailed.
Although the structure when seen as a mere edifice was strongly criticized–what were the reactions or experience like when the building was in use? Reviews of the opening ceremony and experience of viewing the exhibition ranged from mild to enthusiastic. ‘That remarkable light house lantern, with its copper cupola and revolving glasses’ seemed to delight the spectator as did the ‘pagoda like structure’ of the domes seen in sunlight as having a ‘fairy lustre’.
The opening ceremony was also seen as a highlight, where guests had the chance of experiencing the building as it had intended to be. With Royal Guests leading the procession along with the Commissioners, there also assembled the rank and file of the various professions, from civic to military officials offering ‘a perfect pageant in court dress and uniforms’ reflecting a spectrum of the classes in display.
The procession was accompanied by music including God save the Queen sung by the multitude, in addition to poetry such as England’s Welcome by Thomas Hood and military music, for example; ‘a shrill blast from the trumpeteers of the Life Guards…announced the procession had begun to move’.
As the Guardian mentioned ‘to the great mass of visitors the speeches were a dead silence, the music a beautiful indistinctness’. However, the crowd itself was perceived as part of the whole experience depicted by the Guardian as ‘polite, well dressed, amused’. In the account of the masses in the nave the sheer numbers of people were experienced as a felt pressure ‘the crowd were gathered as thick as bees’ suggesting a noisy and potentially dangerous physicality.
At the higher end of the crowd the variety and colour of the guests clothing was in itself sensational, as one reviewer puts it ‘the eye will grow satiated at last with rich hues and varied costumes’1. The reviewers also described the reaction of the crowd when a sensation was created on the entrance of the Duchess of Cambridge. It was also noted that the Duke of Cambridge and political leaders were loudly cheered, the noise of the crowd becoming part of the lived experience of the Exposition.
The action, sound and physical dress of the procession created a ‘magnificent scene’ ‘as a spectacle this was the most impressive point in the days ceremonial’. As the ‘glittering crowd’ and ‘glowing mass’ gathered around the dais where the seats of state were place under a drape of velvet.
The type and variety of exhibits on offer lent an almost chaotic element to the scene and as the Guardian representative put it, the possibility of looking at anything in detail was deemed impossible. If the visual impact of the number and variety of exhibits was overwhelming could viewers gain or enjoy the exhibits in other ways? The aspect of touch remains unclear, in the collation of reviews assembled by Kempt it is mentioned only once, in relation to the instrument of the grand piano, thus we can deduce that some objects may have been touchable.
The sheer scale of the exhibition was apparent if we consider that the Western half divide among some 16 thousand exhibitors. The French exhibitors consisted of 4,000 exhibitors 1,000 from the colonies (it was considered strong in art furniture, china and glass and in particular the sensuousness of French sculpture was celebrated). Other figures of exhibitors from Europe show that the Austrian representative consisted of 1,400 exhibitors, and those of Italy at 2,000.
Interior decoration met with mixed reviews and the decoration by Crace was criticised as being too bold in colour. Whilst importations such as ‘tinted marble statues sent by Gibson from Rome’ were also viewed unfavourably. Moreover parts of the interior decoration were obviously unfinished such as ‘the great skeleton of Benson’s unfinished clock’. One of the main failures of the overall design seems to have been the lack of cohesion of style, both inside and out. However, as a military engineer Fowke was not a proponent of either the classical or the modern style but a functional engineer.
In creating a space where it was possible for the masses to experience goods from all over the world, to eat, to listen to music and purchase items the building fulfilled the specification, perhaps as far as was possible. The mixed use of materials enabled it to be produced cost effectively and to be built to schedule. Its later dis-assembly bears testimony to the fact that unlike the Crystal Palace exhibition halls those of 1862 were not regarded as a national treasure, lacking the visual spectacle and aesthetics to impress and enchant. Reminding us of the importance of the visual impression as a key factor within the experience of the exhibition.
Dale Dishon, South Kensignton’s Forgotten Palace, ‘The Rise and Fall of the 1862 Exhibition Building’
Kempt, Robert, What do you think of the Exhibition? (London, James Hogg and Sons, 1862
© Suzie Partridge, MA History of Design student, Royal College of Art & Victoria and Albert Museum