Magazine article The Spectator

The Greatest Show on Earth

Magazine article The Spectator

The Greatest Show on Earth

Article excerpt

The greatest show on earth PALACE OF THE PEOPLE by J. R. Piggott C. Hurst & Co., £22.50, pp. 121, ISBN 1850657270

This generously illustrated book serves two purposes. First of all, it celebrates the centenary of the reopening of the Crystal Palace which housed the 1851 Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations in Hyde Park, at Sydenham in June 1854. In this role it traces the history of the building reopened as a venue for Londoners. Secondly, it focuses attention on a very comprehensive and magnificent exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery, which covers both its brief period of glory in Hyde Park, and its longer, more problematic, existence in South London.

The exhibition contains some well-known images, including the famous 'blotting-paper' drawing in which Paxton sketched out his preliminary ideas for a light-weight structure, achievable within the tight schedule facing the Commissioners of the 1851 Exhibition. The building is shown in its two decorative modes: the well-known view of the Inauguration of the Great Exhibition on 1 May 1851, from the Royal Collection, together with a similar view of the Sydenham opening by Queen Victoria in June 1854. The colouring and decoration of the two buildings were very different, though both are by Owen Jones, who was very important as decorator and archaeologist in the collection of the contents and their display in the Sydenham building.

The Palace was moved to Sydenham despite a spirited rearguard action by Paxton and his supporters to keep it in Hyde Park, in defiance of the undertaking that it would be removed after the Exhibition. A combine of railway interests and local landowners found a magnificent site at Penge which provided both a suitable position for a slightly enlarged and heated building, and a magnificent park. The intention was to couple education and entertainment in a commercial manner which would both finance the enterprise and reward the entrepreneurs, many of whom had been involved with the promotion of the Great Exhibition. Jones was sent abroad to obtain casts of great foreign monuments torn the Medici tombs and arabesques after Raphael to the temples of Abu Simbel on the Nile. The Fine Arts Courts included Greek, Roman and mediaeval courts, and the Alhambra Court was much admired by the Spanish-born Empress Eugénie of France on a royal visit in 1855. …

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