A Half-Century of Greatness: The Creative Imagination of Europe, 1848-1884

By Frederic Ewen; Jeffrey Wollock | Go to book overview

Chapter One
The March of Empire and the Victorian Conscience

Look around you and see what is the characteristic of
your country and of your generation at this moment.
What a yearning, what an expectation, amid infinite
falsehoods and confusions, of some nobler, more chival-
rous, more god-like state! Your very costermonger trolls
out his belief that “there's a good time coming,” and the
hearts of gamins, as well as millenarians, answer, “True!”
… And for flesh, what new materials are springing up
among you every month … railroads, electric telegraphs
… chemical agriculture, a matchless school of inductive
science, and equally matchless school of naturalist
painters—and all this in the very workshop of the world!

—Charles Kingsley, Yeast, 1851

There it stood—unreal, yet true—the unbelievable, the mighty structure of steel and glass, spreading its gigantic majesty over Hyde Park: England's Great Exhibition Hall, soon to be named Crystal Palace. On May 1,1851 it was officially opened by the Queen, the Prince Consort in attendance. Actually it was the latter's project brought to life; he had fostered it, helped in its planning and in its fulfilment. Its creation was the work of that fabulous gardener's son, Joseph Paxton. Two thousand feet long, four hundred feet wide, sixty-six high—glass, buttressed by iron, many of its parts prefabricated! Prophecy and fortress of reassurance and pride, its transepts rose over one hundred feet. The architects had taken care to protect the ecological beauties of Hyde Park, for the building enclosed its finest elms.

What was probably the first World's Fair brought together thirteen thousand exhibitors from many parts of the world, with their numerous products—handicrafts as well as machinery. One half of the exhibits were of England's or her colonies' manufacture; among foreigners, French and German products stood out. Here was the world's plenty—reaping machines from America, the Jacquard loom, the electric telegraph, agricultural implements—a physical compendium of modern technology. And not least, the building itself, another superb example of modern architecture—a fit monitory counterpart and answer to the prevailing taste for Gothic architecture,

so graceful, so delicate, so airy, that its translucent beauty remains graven on my mem-
ory, wrote Lord Redesdale … No mere human hand and hammers and builders' tools
could have wrought such a miracle.1

-375-

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