Visitor attraction: in the Crystal Palace 1851

When I first visited London in the 1960s we stayed with my uncle who lived in Crystal Palace. The first place he took us to was the park, where the stone dinosaurs immediately became one of my favourite things in London. Up the hill from the unlikely versions of the ancient animals were the TV mast, another source of wonder and the remains of the structure which gave the area its name: the Crystal Palace.

Sphinx (2)

Before 1936 when some mishap caused it to burn down it looked like this. Joseph Paxton the designer of the great glasshouse had moved the whole thing from Hyde Park to an obscure site in Sydenham, south London. He expanded the main building, added two towers at either end (designed by Brunel) and built an ornamental park around it.

crystal palace

Despite its destruction (and who is to say it would have survived the War, and the post war dislike of Victorian structures that saw the disappearance of the Euston Arch among many others?) it remains a familiar image and occupies a small but permanent niche in the popular imagination.

We don’t usually remember where exactly it was originally located, but this is the spot:

location cpic192

It faced the main road between London and Kensington

cpalace 1

And although photography was in its infancy, many pictures were taken including calotypes by the Fox-Talbot company. There are plenty of photographs of the interior but by technical necessity they show it empty, without people. The essence of a visitor attraction is the people who come to it in their hundreds, and you can only get a sense of that from prints and lithographs.

Plate 4 The transept centre-left - Copy

The transept had been built around the tree after an MP had complained about its possible destruction but it actually added to the general effect. The fountain was constructed out of crystal glass.

The statues were cast in plaster.

Plate 4 The transept right side higher view - Copy

There was an appreciative and colourful throng of visitors. This view shows the height of the structure, the strangeness of some of the objects – a lighthouse reflector, the Ross telescope, the Colebroke Dome  and in the centre the Queen and the Prince Consort, the premier celebrities of the day.

Plate 3 The British Nave right side

Plate 3 The British Nave left side cut off on left - Copy (2)

They’re on a relatively informal visit in this lithograph.

Plate 3 The British Nave right side - Copy

Bystanders keep a discreet distance from the Royal party while getting as close as they think is correct on both sides of the Nave.

Plate 3 The British Nave left side complete - Copy

The exterior of the building appeared squat and monotonous but the interior seemed Tardis-vast.

Foreign nave

Above the ground level were galleries, some stuffed with curious objects.

Canada

Others quiet and ecclesiastical:

Stained glass gallery

And others weirdly intimate:

Austria

Victoria and Albert had paid a more formal visit on the day of the Palace’s Inaugeration in May.

Plate 2 The Foreign Nave left side

They entered the Palace through iron gates and proceeded through the crowds to take their place under a giant canopy.

Plate 1 The Inaugeration centre-left - Copy

Victoria wrote in her diary: “the glimpses of the transept through the iron gates..(the) myriads of people filling the galleries and seats gave us a sensation which I can never forget.” In a letter she said “The sight…was incredibly glorious, really like fairyland.” Other commentators spoke of the intoxicating effects of, forms, colours and noise.

When I think of a Victorian glass house I think of the Palm House at Kew Gardens, full of vegetation and damp air, like being in a jungle. I can’t quite imagine an even bigger version full of light, artificial colours and people.

Inaugeration Plate 1 detail of crowd new scan

The opening ceremoney,Victoria said “fills me with devotion more so than any service I have ever heard”. She visited the Exhibition many times, going one day and starting off the next in the exact spot she had left off, until she had seen almost everything.

After six months in October of 1851  police cleared the building for a final time. There was a last private ceremony to close the building which Victoria “grieved not to be able to be present”. (Albert had advised aginst it.). She did go back to look at it again with all the exhibits removed “the beauty of the building was never seen to greater advantage.”

Interior

The following year after much debate as to its future the Palace moved to Sydenham, deep in the suburbs, and after seventy years or so, one day its story came to an end.

The ruins of the Crystal Palace, London, after it was burned down - 30 November 1936

Postscript

We were over the border in the City of Westminster this week but as a forerunner of Albertopolis the Crystal Palace and the Great Exhibition are of some interest to the history of Kensington and Chelsea. And I liked the set of lithographs which were too big for me to scan in one piece but had some irresistible details. I started out with them but the more I read the more pictures I wanted to add, so you get a  bumper crop of images this week.

John McKean’s book Crystal Palace (1994) was particularly informative, and was where I found the quotes from Queen Victoria.

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