Although the Commission had hosted a design competition for the Exhibition building, they opted for a completely different design altogether. The design of their choice had been created by Joseph Paxton – largely known for his glass conservatory at Chatsworth. Paxton had found himself bored in a Board Meeting for a railway company when he drew his now very famous design on a piece of blotting paper. Within a couple of weeks of it being accepted by the Commission, the design became a well developed plan and took around nine months to build. Made up mainly of glass, the building became famously referred to as the Crystal Palace in the well-known satirical magazine, Punch, and it is now the name we associate the event with most. The building, perhaps to mark the year that it would be on display, was 1851 feet long and around 128 feet high. One of its main features was its arched transepts that accommodated the famous Hyde Park elm trees – something that had concerned many when the initial proposal for this building was put forward.
The Great Exhibition opened its doors to the public on May 1st, with a huge opening ceremony headed by Queen Victoria herself. Although initial plans did not include Victoria being present at the opening, in mid-April, Albert was finally persuaded and agreed for her to open the event. The opening was attended by members of the Royal Commission, parliament and those who had been able to get their hands on season tickets for the Exhibition along with general members of the public.
Displayed as an event of All Nations, the use of the Crystal Palace was an incredibly important aspect. Whilst it was advertised as an event for countries all over the world, it is clear that this was very much a British-headed event to show British superiority. The Palace covered just over 900,000 square feet, and one entire half of this was dedicated solely to Britain and the Empire whilst the rest of the world were squeezed into the other half of the building. Displays were divided amongst the four main categories proposed by the Royal Commission: Raw Materials, Manufacturing, Machinery and Fine Art.
One of the central features of attraction at this Exhibition was Osler’s Crystal Fountain (seen in the bottom left of the above image), one of the first things people would see when entering the Crystal Palace from the Southern Entrance. A Birmingham company, F & C Osler, established in 1807 became well known for their crystal chandeliers and fountains, and they were commissioned to create a piece for the Great Exhibition. The fountain was twenty-seven feet high, weighed four tons and was made entirely of crystal glass – a perfect feature to go alongside the Crystal Palace.
It was from the point of Osler’s Crystal Fountain that visitors of the Exhibition faced a difficult decision, where to go first? To the west side of the building, they would be greeted by British exhibits, to the east, the rest of the world…
There was certainly no shortage of displays to be amazed by at the Exhibition, and one visit simply would not have been enough. To be able to visit everything, a person would have needed to visit at least two or three times to truly make the most of the 100,000 objects from over 14,000 exhibitors from across the world. One of the most notable exhibits at this event was that of the Indian display. India sent a throne carved from ivory, along with a howdah and trappings for a rajah’s elephant – this was put on display on a stuffed elephant that was loaned from a British museum. Possibly one of the Exhibition’s most famous objects was also part of the Indian exhibit – the Koh-i-Noor diamond. Given as a loan from Queen Victoria’s personal collection, the Koh-i-Noor was the world’s largest diamond at the time and was the exhibit that many people often found themselves rushing to find.
Nevertheless, although incomplete until June as a result of ice in the Baltic causing delays, the Russian exhibit also proved incredibly popular. Their displays included vases and urns made of porcelain, furs, sledges and Cossack armour.