Scripting Fine Arts at the Great Exhibition
It is in the highest degree remarkable… that this Great Exhibition of London—
born of modern conceptions of steam power, electricity, and photography, and
modern conceptions of free trade—should at the same time have afforded the
decisive impetus, within this period as a whole, for the revolution in artistic forms.
To build a palace out of glass and iron seemed to the world, in those days, a fan-
tastic inspiration for a temporary piece of architecture. We see now that it was the
first great advance on the road to a wholly new world of forms.
—Julius Lessing, Das halbe Jahrhundert der Weltausstellungen (Berlin, 1900);
quoted in Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project
Amazed I pass
From glass to glass,
Deloighted I survey ‘em;
Fresh wondthers grows
Before me nose
In this sublime Musayum!
—William Makepeace Thackeray, “The Crystal Palace”
John Ruskin’s fierce demands for a truthful vision in art in the 1840s emerged from both his Evangelical beliefs and his investment in a scientific ethos. His calls for readers to conduct visual experiments in their gardens often sounded like a lone truth-teller beseeching an ignorant herd. This individualist strain in Ruskin’s early writings contrasts with a major development in art criticism in the 1850s, as some critics began to establish identities as new art professionals attached to evolving institutions such as the National Gallery and the British Museum. As art professionals began to create a collective identity by referencing other well-educated readers, they also asserted their expertise by demarcating a learned kind of looking unavailable to the ignorant amateur.1 In this chapter, I explore art writing produced in response to the Great Exhibition of 1851—by all accounts, one of the defining events of Victorian visual culture—in order to analyze the aesthetic values embraced by emergent art professionals. Mid-century battles about art have always seemed remarkable for the vehemence of critics’