The Centenary of the Great Exhibition


Fred Peskett


            As part of their contribution to the 1951 Festival of Britain the Victoria and Albert Museum presented a loan exhibition to commemorate the centenary of the Great Exhibition, which in many respects was their own centenary since the land on which the museum was built was purchased by the 1851 Commission from the profit made from the exhibition. Many of the exhibits shown at the Great Exhibition were either purchased or donated for show at the first museum in South Kensington known by the shape of the building as the “Brompton Boilers”.

            For the 1951 exhibition the “loan” items included many choice 1851 exhibits from the Royal Family such as Queen Victoria’s Great Jewelled Casket, The fabulous Prussian Shield, King Edward VII’s lace christening shawl, four paintings of the interior of the Great Exhibition, Prince Albert’s season ticket to the exhibition, portraits of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, the chair used by Queen Victoria during the opening of the Great Exhibition, the “Official” painting by H.C. Selous of the opening of the exhibition and the priceless jewelled Kniphausen Hawk. The Duke of Devonshire loaned the Devonshire Emerald, and a portrait of Joseph Paxton. From the Victoria and Albert Museum collection the blotting paper “doodle” of his initial design for the Crystal Palace by Joseph Paxton, a model of the Crystal Palace made in 1851 together with many prints and paintings of both the interior and exterior of the Crystal Palace. There was a toy model of the Great Exhibition made from lead and glass complete with trees, carriages and visitors.

            Replicas of 1851 sculptures, including the “Greek Slave” by Hiram Powers and “Andromeda” by John Bell. A large Persian Carpet, an Indian Throne, decorative chairs featuring the Royal Portraits, a large cabinet designed by Pugin, an elaborate chair from the Cape of Good Hope, a prize winning Grand piano, tables, screens, clocks and fire irons. Jewellery by Pugin, silver objects, pottery, porcelain and several items of crafted glassware. There were also some of the curiosities from the 1851 exhibition including an electric telegraph in the form of a talking head, a book made from cork, cases of stuffed animals posed in “human” situations! A gun breech, and a knife with eighty blades. Also on show were a number of mementoes and souvenirs from the Crystal Palace at Penge, the base of one of the iron columns, glass paper weights, pot lids, plates, mugs, and medals from the various exhibitions and shows over the years to 1936. Also made specially for the exhibition was a replica of the dress worn by Queen Victoria for the Opening of the Exhibition.

            For the 1951 exhibition there were a few souvenirs on sale:-

A plaster cast of a small bust of Queen Victoria by F. Chantrey, at the price of 25 shillings.

A plaster cast of the Council Medal of the Great Exhibition, at three shillings.

The Great Exhibition, A Commemorative Album compiled by C.H. Gibbs-Smith at six shillings.

and six coloured postcards at fourpence each.

A short 16 page guide to the exhibition was also available for threepence.

            The 1951 souvenirs are now quite collectable. The plaster bust of Queen Victoria is scarce and sells for around £25. The cast of the Council Medal at about £5, although this plaster cast was still available in the V & A shop up to 1978. The commemorative album by C.H. Gibbs is fairly common at around £6 for the 1951 edition, it was reprinted in 1981 but with a different cover and revised contents, however the postcards are very difficult to find and no price is available, it is possible but not certain that they were available in a special envelope for the set of six. There is one very rare item from this exhibition, the advertising handbill, only a couple seem to have surfaced in last 50 odd years?

            The actual exhibits shown in 1951 can still be seen, those loaned by the Royal Family are at Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle. All of the V & A items are still on show in the Museum, Joseph Paxton’s blotting paper sketch and Prince Albert’s season ticket are in the Henry Cole gallery. The original statue of Andromeda is outside the front of Osbourne House on the Isle-of-Wight, but you will have to visit New York Art Gallery to see the original Greek Slave statue.

            Over at the South Bank Exhibition there was on display several of the exhibits first shown at the Great Exhibition. In the Dome of Discovery in the Sky section was an original weather map of 1851 as sold to the visitors to the exhibition, this was loaned by The Royal Meteorological Society, also in this section was a 1951 reconstruction by Cockade of Dr. Merryweather’s “Tempest Prognosticator” a device said to be able to predict the occurrence and direction of a forthcoming storm by leaches in glass tubes who were disturbed by a change in barometric pressure and in trying to climb out of the tube rang a bell there is no evidence that this device actually worked.

            In the Lion & Unicorn Pavilion a printed tapestry sofa rug made by John Crossley and Sons for show at the Crystal Palace, loaned by the Crossley Company Ltd. Also in this Pavilion was the original die for minting the Prize Medal of The Great Exhibition loaned by John Pinches who produced all the medals for the Great Exhibition.

            In the Sports Pavilion there were two cricket balls made for display in 1851 and loaned by Phillip Wickham from Croydon. The 1851 Centenary Pavilion had a model of a farm wagon, used as a goat cart by Queen Victoria’s children in 1851 on show, and a small glass panel with the Crystal Palace of 1851 with iridescent windows made from butterfly wings was fitted into one of the end glass panels of the Pavilion, this small glass panel is now in the Fred Peskett collection.

            Also at the South Bank one of the largest survivors from 1851 was the Buddicom Locomotive in the Transport Pavilion, made in Britain for the French Railways and shown at the Crystal Palace, this locomotive was still in running order. It was again shown in this country in 1976/7 at the V & A at the Tonic to the Nation Exhibition to mark the 25th Anniversary of the Festival of Britain. It was on loan for both exhibitions by the Societe Nationale des Chemins de Fer Francais, Paris.


© Exhibition Study Group 2009