On this date in 1851 Queen Victoria and Prince Albert opened the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations or The Great Exhibition, sometimes referred to as the Crystal Palace Exhibition in reference to the temporary structure in which it was held. It was an international exhibition that took place in Hyde Park, London, from 1 May to 11 October 1851. It was the first in a series of World’s Fair exhibitions of culture and industry that became popular in the 19th century and was a much anticipated event. The Great Exhibition was organized by Henry Cole and Prince Albert. It was attended by numerous notable figures of the time, including Charles Darwin, Samuel Colt, members of the Orléanist Royal Family, and the writers Charlotte Brontë, Charles Dickens, Lewis Carroll, George Eliot, and Alfred Lord Tennyson. Music for the opening was under the direction of Sir George Thomas Smart and the continuous music from the exhibited organs for the Queen’s procession was under the superintendence of William Sterndale Bennett.
The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations was organized by Prince Albert, Henry Cole, Francis Henry, George Wallis, Charles Dilke and other members of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce as a celebration of modern industrial technology and design. It was primarily a response to the highly successful French Industrial Exposition of 1844; its prime motive was for “Great Britain [to make] clear to the world its role as industrial leader.” Prince Albert was an enthusiastic promoter of the self-financing exhibition; the government was persuaded to form the Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851 to establish the viability of hosting such an exhibition. Queen Victoria and her family visited three times. Although the Great Exhibition was a platform on which countries from around the world could display their achievements, Great Britain sought to prove its own superiority. The British exhibits at the Great Exhibition “held the lead in almost every field where strength, durability, utility and quality were concerned, whether in iron and steel, machinery or textiles.” Great Britain also sought to provide the world with the hope of a better future. Europe had just struggled through “two difficult decades of political and social upheaval,” and now Great Britain hoped to show that technology, particularly its own, was the key to a better future.
The Exhibition was described as,
Large, piled-up ‘trophy’ exhibits in the central avenue revealed the organisers’ priorities; they generally put art or colonial raw materials in the most prestigious place. Technology and moving machinery were popular, especially working exhibits. [Visitors] could watch the entire process of cotton production from spinning to finished cloth. Scientific instruments were found in class X, and included electric telegraphs, microscopes, air pumps and barometers, as well as musical, horological and surgical instruments.
A special building, nicknamed The Crystal Palace, or “The Great Shalimar”, was built to house the show. It was designed by Joseph Paxton with support from structural engineer Charles Fox, the committee overseeing its construction including Isambard Kingdom Brunel, and went from its organization to the grand opening in just nine months. The building was architecturally adventurous, drawing on Paxton’s experience designing greenhouses for the sixth Duke of Devonshire. It took the form of a massive glass house, 1851 feet (about 564 m) long by 454 feet (about 138 m) wide and was constructed from cast iron-frame components and glass made almost exclusively in Birmingham and Smethwick. From the interior, the building’s large size was emphasized with trees and statues; this served, not only to add beauty to the spectacle, but also to demonstrate human triumph over nature. The Crystal Palace was an enormous success, considered an architectural marvel, but also an engineering triumph that showed the importance of the Exhibition itself. The building was later moved and re-erected in an enlarged form at Sydenham in south London, an area that was renamed Crystal Palace. It was destroyed by fire on 30 November 1936.
Six million people—equivalent to a third of the entire population of Britain at the time—visited the Great Exhibition. The average daily attendance was 42,831 with a peak attendance of 109,915 on 7 October. The event made a surplus of £186,000 (£18,370,000 in 2016), which was used to found the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Science Museum and the Natural History Museum. They were all built in the area to the south of the exhibition, nicknamed Albertopolis, alongside the Imperial Institute. The remaining surplus was used to set up an educational trust to provide grants and scholarships for industrial research; it continues to do so today.
The Exhibition caused controversy as its opening approached. Some conservatives feared that the mass of visitors might become a revolutionary mob, whilst radicals such as Karl Marx saw the exhibition as an emblem of a capitalist fetishism of commodities. King Ernest Augustus I of Hanover, shortly before his death, wrote to Lord Strangford about it:
The folly and absurdity of the Queen in allowing this trumpery must strike every sensible and well-thinking mind, and I am astonished the ministers themselves do not insist on her at least going to Osborne during the Exhibition, as no human being can possibly answer for what may occur on the occasion. The idea … must shock every honest and well-meaning Englishman. But it seems everything is conspiring to lower us in the eyes of Europe.
In modern times, the Great Exhibition is a symbol of the Victorian Age, and its thick catalogue, illustrated with steel engravings, is a primary source for High Victorian design. A memorial to the exhibition, crowned with a statue of Prince Albert, is located behind the Royal Albert Hall. It is inscribed with statistics from the exhibition, including the number of visitors and exhibitors (British and foreign), and the profit made.
The official descriptive and illustrated catalogue of the event lists exhibitors not only from throughout Britain but also from its ‘Colonies and Dependencies’ and 44 ‘Foreign States’ in Europe and the Americas. Numbering 13,000 in total, the exhibits included a Jacquard loom, an envelope machine, kitchen appliances, steel-making displays and a reaping machine that was sent from the United States.
Naturally we have to go with Mrs Beeton for a recipe. Her extravagant displays (often involving crystal) are a start.
But then there is this:
- AN ANECDOTE IS TOLD of the prince de Soubise, who, intending to give an entertainment, asked for the bill of fare. His chef came, presenting a list adorned with vignettes, and the first article of which, that met the prince’s eye, was “fifty hams.” “Bertrand,” said the prince, “I think you must be extravagant; Fifty hams! do you intend to feast my whole regiment?” “No, Prince, there will be but one on the table, and the surplus I need for my Espagnole, blondes, garnitures, &c.” “Bertrand, you are robbing me: this item will not do.” “Monseigneur,” said the artiste, “you do not appreciate me. Give me the order, and I will put those fifty hams in a crystal flask no longer than my thumb.” The prince smiled, and the hams were passed. This was all very well for the prince de Soubise; but as we do not write for princes and nobles alone, but that our British sisters may make the best dishes out of the least expensive ingredients, we will also pass the hams, and give a few general directions concerning Sauces, &c.
- THE PREPARATION AND APPEARANCE OF SAUCES AND GRAVIES are of the highest consequence, and in nothing does the talent and taste of the cook more display itself. Their special adaptability to the various viands they are to accompany cannot be too much studied, in order that they may harmonize and blend with them as perfectly, so to speak, as does a pianoforte accompaniment with the voice of the singer.
Sauce soubise, named in honor of the prince, is easy to make, and goes well with ham, fish or poultry.
250g (9 oz) onion, peeled and finely sliced
60g (4½ tbsp) butter
12g plain flour
2½ dL (1 cup) clear veal or chicken broth
2 tbsp crème fraîche
pinch caster sugar
salt and white pepper
Place the onions in a thick bottom saucepan with 40g of butter and sauté them gently over medium-low heat, covered, for 20-25 minutes. Stir frequently and do not allow them to take on color. Stir in the flour and allow to cook, stirring, for another 5 minutes. Stir in the broth and add the seasonings to taste. Bring gently to a simmer while stirring constantly. Cover and let the sauce cook, at a very gentle simmer for at least 45 minutes. Stir from time to time.
Force the sauce through a double layer of cheesecloth lining a sieve and put back on the heat. Then add the rest of the butter and the crème fraîche. Let the sauce cook for another 5 minutes. Check the seasoning and serve (in a crystal jug !!).