The Great White City.

This is taken from ‘The Franco-British Illustrated Review’

Published by Chatto & Windus. Edited by F. G. Dumas.

Two architects supervised the construction of all the buildings of the Franco-British Exhibition. Mr John Belcher, A.R.A., P.P.R.I.B.A., was the architect-in-chief of the Palaces, and M. Tourdoire was the architect-in-chief of the Pavilions. J. Belcher also designed the Palace of Decorative Arts and advised on the steel contracts and other matters. Amongst the buildings he supervised was the Education Building designed by Mr Charles Gascoyne and a number of other designs. The British Applied Arts Palace and French Applied Arts Palace were designed by Mr J. B. Fulton and Mr L. G. Detmar respectively. Contemporary architects consider the British Applied Arts Palace to be the finest building in the whole exhibition.

The two entrances were the work of a young French Architect M. René Patouillard-Demoriane. The Court of Honour was adapted from a design by M. Fournier de St. Maur, who unfortunately died in 1906. The Palace of Music was by Claude Martello, and the Palace of Women’s Work by Maurice Lucet. I will not go into a long list of the designers and architects for all the pavilions. This is covered fully in ‘The Franco-British Illustrated Review’ edited by F. G. Dumas. This is a beautiful book and the thing that strikes you first is the weight 5 lbs. I know books should not be evaluated by their weight but to me, I find heavy books attractive, I relate it to good quality paper and nice binding.

Although the Franco-British Exhibition soon acquired the name of ‘The White City’ it was by no means the first White City. The Manchester Heathcote’s & Brown’s White City was up and going at least a year before the Shepherds Bush White City. The entrance in Manchester had ‘White City’ in big letters at roof height.

Sculpture made of plaster of Paris on a wood and canvas framework.

If the exhibition at Shepherd’s Bush has done nothing else, it has shown Londoners what can be done with that strange material, fibrous plaster. It is everywhere. On skeletons of steel and concrete, the whole city is clothed in it. The beautiful and stately domes and columns that have the appearance of stone are built of wood, canvas, tow and plaster cement, at about one fifth of the cost of the more solid material. The beautiful Court of Honour, dazzling in its virgin white, delighting the eye with its domes, minarets, mouldings, lattice work and delicate traceries, is nothing but lath and plaster. The great palaces , with all their appearance of stone like solidity, may claim a skeleton of steel and concrete and no more, all the rest is fibrous plaster. But this city is no weakling, it is weather proof and remarkably strong, and with an occasional coat of paint should live for a quarter of a century at least. At that time they did not know what 1914 held in store for them.

The method of work employed in building is, first to make a framework of wood, over which is stretched a layer of canvas, a layer of fibrous plaster is then placed over the canvas, followed by more layers of canvas and more layers of plaster. This is continued until the dome, column, or whatever it may be, is ready for the decorative artist, who forms the delicate traceries from a composition called ‘staff’. which is a finer form of fibrous plaster, composed of plaster, cement, glycerine, dextrine etc. , with a basic material of cotton wool. In point of interest the use of fibrous plaster in building is far exceeded by its decorative use. The noble statues and groups which have the apparently solidity of marble, together with the delicate mouldings and entwining wreaths, represent the greatest skill of the plasterer and modeller. in figure work, first class modellers only can be employed. In the beginning the same method is used as in building, but in place of the decorative artist with ‘staff’ the sculpture now appears and he goes over the whole design with clay. When he has finished his modelling, a gelatine mould is taken and the plaster cast is made, atone fifth of what would have been the cost had the figure been executed in stone. When the cast is dried, it receives several coats of shellac to make it waterproof, and is then ready to fill its allotted space.

In cases where a knowledge of carving is united with that of the modellers art, the expense of casting and time also may be saved by building the figure in plaster of Paris on the wood and canvas framework. This method was adopted with the group that adorns the pavilion of the Canadian Pacific Railway in the Garden of Progress. For the four animals in the quadriga that adorns the Palace of Decorative Arts but one cast was used. The Quadriga took over three months in preparing and is perhaps the finest illustration of the plaster modellers art, if we accept the monster figure adorning the Palace of French Applied Arts. The figure here referred to, standing with uplifted hand holding a torch, measures over twenty feet in height. A very beautiful illustration of the plaster modellers work is the central figure of the floral sun dial in the Garden of Progress, facing the Pavilion of the Colectivité Délieux. This sundial is one of the graceful features of the exhibition.

Sun dial in the Garden of Progress.

Another instance of the plaster modellers work is the great shield at the Uxbridge Road Main Entrance. This shield was ten weeks in the making. It is so large (it is about 16 ft broad and over 16 ft in height) that it had to be made and placed in position in sections, the whole afterwards pieced together with cement. Here in addition to wood canvas and plaster, there is a generous admixture of clay, which is principally used in the formation of the flowers at the base of the shield.

As an illustration of the gargantuan efforts employed in building and decorating the White City, it may interest the reader to learn that the monuments and figures adorning the main buildings range in height from seven to thirty feet and number over two hundred, while the busts, heads, medallions, centre pieces, etc. , run into four figures.

Fibrous plaster is largely used on the continent for decorative purposes, but as a substitute for brick and stone it was practically unknown in England before the birth of the City of White Palaces.

© Exhibition Study Group 2003