When newsworthy events happen today, the rest of the world is instantly informed by television and social media. Images can become part of our shared consciousness almost as soon as they occur - sometimes even while they're occurring.
Things worked a bit more slowly 165 years ago. In the spring of 1851, the most important event in London was the opening of the International Exhibition of Arts and Manufacture - more customarily (and concisely) known as the Great Exhibition - in the enormous Crystal Palace in Hyde Park. Initiated by Prince Albert, the Exhibition was an early "tech show," showcasing the best manufactured examples of imagination and ingenuity from around the world.The not-so-subtle message, however, was that the creations of Great Britain were hands-down the best in the world, and so the exhibition became as much a tribute to the British Empire as it was to international excellence. Even the Crystal Palace itself was an architectural triumph, a marvel of British engineering.
While over six million people visited the Exhibition between 1May and 11 October, 1851, there were still many more, unable to attend, who wished a glimpse at its wonders. Artists of the day were quick to capture the Crystal Palace and the various exhibits, and while they couldn't post the images on Instagram or Facebook, they swiftly did produce prints of their work that were sold around the world.
The painting shown above was made by Henry Courtenay Selous (1803-1890), and shows the opening day festivities. Of course the Royal Family (above left) is the centerpiece of the composition, but the Archbishop of Canterbury is also there, offering a benediction, as well as many of the dignitaries connected with the exhibition, right. (Except for Queen Victoria and her ladies, these are all male; other women appear to have been relegated to the viewing stands on either side of the ceremony, lower left, the curving brims of their bonnets framing their faces like scallop shells) In the foreground, the dignitaries are all carefully painted portraits, their presence documented.
For that, really, was the purpose of a commemorative painting like this: to preserve an important historical moment for posterity. The painting became an event in its own right, and was publicly exhibited for an admission fee in the year after the exhibition had closed. The large scale of the painting - it's over ten feet wide - meant that details could be studied and appreciated equally by those who had attended the opening and those who had not. In addition, prints were produced and sold commercially, making this one of the most popular and best-known images of the exhibition.
A reviewer in the Art Journal in August 1852 proclaimed: "[This painting] will form an interesting memorial of an event that for many years to come will lose little of its attractiveness in the estimation of thousands." It still does.
The Opening of the Great Exhibition by Queen Victoria on 1 May 1851, by Henry Courtney Selous, 1851-1852. Victoria & Albert Museum.
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.