Sunday, September 18, 2011

Contemporary reaction to the Great Exhibition

Contemporary reaction to the Great Exhibition was almost universally favorable from the day it opened on 1 May 1851.

A review in the Times of London on 2 April 1851, the day after the Exhibition was opened by Queen Victoria, describes public reaction to the Exhibition:

"Certain it is that people who had never before seen the sun rise, except through a ballroom window, were in full activity soon after dawn, impelled by the impulse that seem to lend life and energy to the whole substance of the great and somewhat lethargic metropolis...the arteries of the great city surged with life, beat full and strong under the pressure of a hitherto unknown excitement.  Never before had so vast a multitude collected together within the memory of man".

"Written words are powerless and weak in the presence of that great muster of worldly magnificence - that stupendous act of homage to industry and the peaceful arts".

The Times recorded attendance figures, takings and occurrences at the Exhibition on a daily basis throughout the summer of 1851, commenting on 12 May 1851, for example:

"This is the tenth day of the Great Exhibition and it is literal truth to say that every one of the myriads who have visited it has done so each successive day with increased admiration and delight.  This is proved not only by the enthusiastic expressions one hears from every side, but still more by the pecuniary success.  The sale of season tickets continues as brisk as if the Exhibition were still to open and none of the exclusive attractions...have been exhausted".

Individual reaction was, on the whole, equally as favorable.  Charlotte Bronte, author of novels such as Jane Eyre and Shirley, visited the Great Exhibition and described her visit in a letter:

Jane Eyre, depicted in a painting by George Richmond in 1850

"Yesterday I went for the second time to the Crystal Palace. We remained in it about three hours, and I must say I was more struck with it on this occasion than at my first visit. It is a wonderful place – vast, strange, new and impossible to describe. Its grandeur does not consist in one thing, but in the unique assemblage of all things. Whatever human industry has created you find there, from the great compartments filled with railway engines and boilers, with mill machinery in full work, with splendid carriages of all kinds, with harness of every description, to the glass-covered and velvet-spread stands loaded with the most gorgeous work of the goldsmith and silversmith, and the carefully guarded caskets full of real diamonds and pearls worth hundreds of thousands of pounds. It may be called a bazaar or a fair, but it is such a bazaar or fair as Eastern genii might have created. It seems as if only magic could have gathered this mass of wealth from all the ends of the earth – as if none but supernatural hands could have arranged it this, with such a blaze and contrast of colours and marvellous power of effect. The multitude filling the great aisles seems ruled and subdued by some invisible influence. Amongst the thirty thousand souls that peopled it the day I was there not one loud noise was to be heard, not one irregular movement seen; the living tide rolls on quietly, with a deep hum like the sea heard from the distance".

William Makepeace Thackeray, one of the leading novelists of the Victorian era, was moved to write a poem about the opening of the Crystal Palace:

As though 'twere by a wizard's rod                               
As blazing arch of lucid glass
Leaps like a fountain from the grass                        
To meet the sun.
A quiet green, but few days since;
With cattle browsing in the shade,
And lo! long lines of bright arcade
In order raised!
A palace as for a fairy prince,
A rare pavilion, such as man
Saw never since mankind began,
And built and glazed.

A peaceful place it was but now,
And lo! within its shining streets
A multitude of nations meets;
A countless throng
I see beneath the crystal bow,
And Gaul and German, Russ and Turk,
Each with his native handiwork
And busy tongue.

I felt a thrill of love and awe
To mark the different garb of each,
The changing tongue, the various speech
Together blent:
A thrill, methinks, like His who saw
"All people dwelling upon earth
Praising our God with solemn mirth
And one consent."

Extract from 'A May Day Ode' by
William Makepeace Thackeray (1811 - 1863)
Published in The Times, 1 May 1851

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