Thursday, May 5, 2016
Thursday, May 5, 2016
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.
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.