The House of Glass

Hunt's Hand-Book to the Official Catalogues of the Great Exhibition, 2 Volume Set, Robert Hunt‘. . . we may safely pronounce that the House of Glass will exist in the annals of history, long after the vaunted pyramids of Egypt, of which the builders and the object are already alike unknown, shall have crumbled into dust.’ Thus the ‘Introduction’ to Volume 1 of the three-volume second edition of Tallis’s History and Description of the Crystal Palace, and the Exhibition of the World’s Industry in 1851, published in 1854 as a history-cum-souvenir of that incredible event.

Tragically, though the pyramids are still here, and we know rather more about them and their builders now than in the 1850s, the Crystal Palace now survives only in the annals. It was moved from Hyde Park to Sydenham Hill in south London in 1854, and was burnt to the ground in 1936, in a conflagration which, it was reported, could be seen across eight counties.

It must have been amazing. Covering 18 acres (six times the area of St Paul’s cathedral), it was 1851 feet long, needing 900,000 square feet of glass, hundreds of miles of cast iron tubing, columns and bearers, 205 miles of wooden window bars . . . One of the conditions of the design was that it enclosed the mature elm trees in that area of Hyde Park: asked his advice by Queen Victoria about dealing with the sparrows who came in through the open windows, perched in the trees, and threatened to soil the exhibits below, the Duke of Wellington is reputed to have said, ‘Try sparrowhawks, Ma’am.’

Tallis’s work (edited by J.G. Strutt, the husband of Elizabeth, author of A Spinster’s Tour) gives a melodramatic account of the whole project from the concept (grudgingly conceded to have been French in origin – but we of course did it much better) to the opening day. There then follow a few pages on the practicalities – opening hours, ticket prices, rest and refreshment facilities – and then lively and highly opinionated descriptions of the wonders of the Exhibition, of which the ‘Contents’ page gives a small flavour: Amazon Attacked by a Tigress (a sculpture), British Machinery, Elaborate Corkscrew, Immense Sheet of Paper, Wonderful Achievement with a Penknife . . . The third volume ends with a description of the Palace’s new home in Sydenham, surrounded by landscaped gardens populated by painted stone dinosaurs, and of its official opening.

Tallis’s work is illustrated, and the text exuberant to a remarkable degree. A more sober, two-volume work, Hunt’s Hand-Book to the Official Catalogues of the Great Exhibition, was published in 1851, and intended as ‘An Explanatory Guide to the Natural Productions and Manufactures of the Great Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations, 1851’. It has no pictures except for plans of the ground floor and the galleries (taken from the Official Catalogue), but the description of the exhibits is serious, factual, and comprehensive, as befits the ‘Keeper of Mining Records, author of Researches on Light, The Poetry of Science, Synopsis, &c. &c.’ Robert Hunt (born into poverty in Cornwall, became a chemist with the help of (among others) Elizabeth Fry, married a member of the Davy family, and eventually thrived as a pioneer photographer, statistician of mining and minor poet) and his learned co-authors were especially interested in the technological items exhibited – the new industrial machinery, and the raw materials for industry. They explain the processes underlying the creation of objects in stone, metal and ceramics, from fine jewelry to steam locomotives and Robert Stevenson’s Bell Rock lighthouse, of which a model was displayed.

Finally – though first in chronological terms – we have just reissued The Official Catalogue of the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations 1851, in its fourth ‘corrected and improved’ edition of 15 September 1851. The Exhibition had been opened on 1 May (the birthday of both the Duke of Wellington and his godson Prince Arthur, at that time Queen Victoria’s youngest child) and by the time it closed on 11 October, over 6 million visits had been made (the number of visitors is more difficult to determine, as season tickets were available and enthusiastically made use of).

The Official Catalogue lists all the items on show with their origin and location. In ‘The Catalogue’s Account of Itself’, included at the end of the book, Charles Dickens describes with great and characteristic verve the complex compilation process involved. The first print run of the English version, completed just hours before the Exhibition opened, was 250,000 copies, and the type remained – all 60,000 lb. of it – ‘set up for constant use and correction’.  And after the last official pages is a fascinating addition – the ‘Advertiser’, fourteen pages of adverts for everything from the Norwich Union insurance company to Colman’s mustard, Welsh flannel and vinaigre de Bordeaux, supplied by W. & S. Kent and Sons, Upton-upon-Severn, Worcestershire.

Wouldn’t it have been wonderful to see it all, from the chiming skeleton clock to the ‘Great Diamond of Runjit Singh, called “Koh-i-Noor”, or Mountain of Light’ (exhibited by Her Majesty the Queen), to the ‘elaborate articles in the newly-revived work called tatting or friviolité … the work of poor Irish children, under the tuition of the benevolent Miss Sophee Ellis, of Kilmedoc, Ardee’, to the ‘very amusing and interesting’ stuffed animals in anthropomorphic poses from the Zollverein (i.e. bits of Germany) – and of course the sparrowhawks?


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16 Responses to The House of Glass

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  13. Faisel K says:

    Hello Caroline, unfortunately three of your links don’t work. I hope you can correct them.

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