Posted by: helenabeliveau | October 11, 2018

Industry and Artisanship in the Great Exhibition of 1851

Upon reading about the use of the ‘phantasmagoria’ to mask the inherent violence of colonialism and the rise of industrialism within Zahid Chaudhury’s piece on ‘Anaesthesis and Violence’, I decided to look more closely at one of these tools of phantasmagoria.  More specifically, the rise of ‘world exhibitions’ inWestern Europe concurrent with the spread of colonialism. The ‘Great Exhibition’, held in London during 1851 was one of the largest and most successful world exhibitions to take place during the mid-nineteenth century.  Following a series of exhibitions ‘Des produit de l’industrie Francaise’ held by France during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, Henry Cole, a council member of Great Britain’s Society of Arts, convinced Prince Albert to receive a Royal Charter to stage a series of similar exhibitions of the products of British industry. Following these successful exhibitions, Henry Cole and Prince Albert eventually staged a similar event, albeit on a much larger scale.  

The ‘Crystal Palace’, as designed by Joseph Paxton, was built specifically to house over 100,000 pieces. These pieces were grouped thematically into machinery, manufactures, fine arts and raw materials. Foreign exhibits also played a major role in this event, and displayed, in stark contrast to the exploitation of the countries at hand, the glittering representations of Great Britain’s expanding empire. However, this phantasmagoria lay not only in these ‘foreign exhibits’ but in various machinery pertinent to industrialization in Great Britain.  

The goals of this effort were especially aspirational, ranging from an intent to “bring together specimens of industry and ingenuity of all nations; to encourage the communication of knowledge and the free interchange of ideas and to promote friendly intercourse amongst the different nations of the earth;’ and to promote social and international harmony ‘which cannot fail to advance the improvement of the human race” (Auerbach 91). Over six million people took advantage of the accessible ‘1 shilling days’ to visit various exhibits demonstrating the prestige of the British Empire.

In an effort to pictorialize this monumental event Prince Albert commissioned a series of fifty watercolours from artists Joseph Nash and Louis Haghe.  To remain on theme with the cutting edge of British industry, these paintings were reproduced in chromolithography, a new mechanical color printing process.  This account of the Great Exhibition, in turn parallels a tension present within many of the exhibits; the struggle of the old versus new, and the growing anxiety by artisans that the rise of mechanization would mark the realm of fine arts obsolete. In a more explicit, and arguably less effective effort to quell these critiques, Prince Albert authorized the creation of a ‘Medieval court’.  Situated amidst dizzying amounts of steel machinery, and the raw materials that were soon to be transformed by the machinery, the Medieval court contained several gothic style handmade home furnishings.

Mid-century design critics and reformers claimed that “machines were having a deleterious effect on production by diminishing the role of craftsmen, by separating design and production, and by creating the possibility of cheap imitations.” (Auerbach 117).  Therefore, this court was an attempt to demonstrate that the British empire still had an appreciation for this form of craftsmanship despite the sharp rise in industrialization. However, this image feels forced and crowded amid the other images illustrating the crisp, clean lines of machinery.  In an effort to praise tradition, and ensure its place within contemporary British society, this opulent display evokes an image thoroughly rooted in the past. This attempted marriage of accessibility in industry, and the beauty of craftsmanship, instead creates two wildly contrasting images of British society.   However, the rich colors, compounded by the clusters of opulent furnishings of the medieval court, evoke a sense of enchantment, and when seen in conjunction with the various elements of progress, leave the viewer feeling bewildered and disoriented. Perhaps then, this disorientation allows viewers to evade the tension that the two oppositional exhibits attempt to reconcile.  

medieval court ‘Medieval Court’- Louis Haghe

moving machinery

‘Moving Machinery’- Louis Haghe

AUERBACH, JEFFREY A. “Commerce and Culture.” The Great Exhibition of 1851: A Nation on Display, Yale University Press, NEW HAVEN; LONDON, 1999, pp. 91–127. JSTOR,

Haghe, Louis, Jason Nash, and David Roberts.  Dickinson’s Comprehensive Pictures of the Great Exhibition of 1851. 1854.  British Library ,

Johnson, Ben. “The Great Exhibition of 1851.” Historic UK,


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