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Ep 159: The Great Exhibition: Anyone for a Tempest Prognosticator?

The Opening of the Great Exhibition by Queen Victoria on 1 May 1851, oil painting, Henry Courtney Selous © Victoria and Albert Museum

1st May 1851 the royal family, members of the royal commission, generals, politicians and a chap who wanted to advertise his Chinese restaurant all gathered in Hyde Park, inside one of the worlds most extraordinary buildings, to officially open the Great Exhibition. Or, to give it it's full title: The Great Exhibition of the works of Industry of All Nations. Six months and six million visitors later, the doors were closed, the building repurposed and the site cleared away. But what happened in those 6 months? and what legacy was left? This week Fiona is talking about the Great Exhibition.

Look at the painting above, which figure first catches your eye? Is it Queen Victoria in the middle in the pink dress? Is is the aforementioned Chinese gentleman in blue silk? Or is it Prince Albert with his red jacket, sash and slightly odd quiff of hair over his right ear? For me it's Albert, which seems to be fair. He was one of the driving forces behind the exhibition. He and Henry Cole (see also Victorian Christmas cards) joined together to organise and exhibition to inspire and encourage British manufacturing; to celebrate the best of design from around the world.

On the pod we talk about some of the objects that were on display, like:

Sawyer's Velocipede Image Dover Museum

The forerunner of the bicycle was Sawyer's Velocipede. A four wheeled contraption manufactured in Kent by carpenter Willard Sawyer.

Replica of Tempest Prognosticator, made for Festival of Britain, Whitby Museum. Image Badobadop

The Tempest prognosticator (left) held leeches in jars. As they reacted to a change in air pressure they would climb up their jars, which would ring a bell. Relatively small and cheap version were for sale, but this is a replica of the grandest, most ornate version. Now on display in the Whitby Museum. As designed by George Merryweather.

From page 115 of History and Description of the Crystal Palace and the Exhibition of the World's Industry in 1851, Volume 1. Printed in London by John Tallis and Co.

And then there was this. A German offering of a tableau of stuffed animals, cats(?) taking tea. Why? What were they thinking? (Remember Henry Cole and the mad Christmas cards.....)

The Greek Slave, by Hiram Powers. Image George Baxter © Victoria and Albert Museum

There was uproar over this, titled The Greek Slave. A female nude statue in classical style, but wearing chains.

Sculpted by American Hiram Powers. It looks to us like a comment on the slave trade, but the controversy at the time was mostly to do with putting a fully nude statue on display. You can see from the image it had it's own little tent, Weirdly, the statue also rotated. Seemingly a classic example of Victorian era modesty, covering something up in such a way, that it ends up being more provocative than if it was not covered at all.

There were walking sticks with a complete set of surgical instruments, and folding furniture for cruise ships. All in all there were 14,000 exhibitors and 100,000 objects within the 10 miles of displays.

Right in the middle of the building was a 27ft high glass and crystal fountain. Which you can clearly see in this fancy souvenir:

Lane's Telescopic View: The Interior of the Great Industrial Exhibition Special Collections at Johns Hopkins University CC BY-NC 2.0 DEED

The left picture is the view through the little hole on the front of the right picture. The cut out panels concertina out to create a 3d effect. It gives a hint of just how impressive the building would have been, even on it's own. For a modern equivalent click here to see a virtual reality version of the Crystal Palace, created by Seymour and Lerhn. Here's one still to give you a taster, and get a sense of the scale.

VR version of Crystal Palace interior.

The site of the building was 18 acres (23 acres of display space including the balconies). One acre = a American football field, half a proper (soccer!) football pitch, or 16 tennis courts. Prefabricated and slotted together it was built in just 39 weeks, and looks remarkably similar to Paxton's first sketch:

The Great Exhibition building, architectural sketch, Joseph Paxton © Victoria and Albert Museum

Once the exhibition closed the great glass palace was dismanteled and rebuilt in Sydenham, South London - the area now known as Crystal Palace. But that's a story of another episode - Episode 92 in fact, from June 2022. Look it up!

There's more, much more, on the pod. Who visited, what they ate, how much they paid for the loos. Yes, if you are taking a guess on that one, you've probably got it right. Who walked the furthest and what advice Queen Victoria got from the Duke of Wellington. So have a listen and then get in touch with anything you think we need to know. Does anyone have relatives who were involved? Does anyone have a family heirloom bought at the exhibition itself? We want to hear from you!

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