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  • Writer's pictureSteven Heller

When Ornament Was Queen

For more than 30 years the Crystal Palace had been regarded as the funniest of all Victorian jokes. Considered Queen Victoria’s folly, it was really the brainchild of the Prince Consort, Albert—her main squeeze. It served as the home of the future of industrial art and design, and all the “modern” industrial wares of the day were packed into its halls. But it was considered by many as indescribably ludicrous—like a vast conglomeration of international bric-a-brac under glass. It was meant to usher in the modern but rather than evolve into the Bauhaus it seemed like a class at a backward kindergarten.

The Crystal Palace building was a cast-iron and plate-glass structure originally built in Hyde Park, London, to house the Great Exhibition of 1851, the jewel in Queen Victoria’s Victorian era crown. More than 14,000 exhibitors from around the world gathered in its 990,000-square-foot exhibition space to display examples of technology developed in the Industrial Revolution. Designed by Joseph Paxton, the Great Exhibition building was 1,851 feet long, with an interior height of 128 feet. The invention of the cast plate glass method in 1848 made possible the production of large sheets of cheap but strong glass, and its use in the Crystal Palace created a structure with the greatest area of glass ever seen in a building.

After the exhibition, the Palace was relocated to an area of South London known as Penge Common. It was rebuilt at the top of Penge Peak next to Sydenham Hill, an affluent suburb of large villas. It stood there from 1854 until its destruction by fire in 1936. The nearby residential area was renamed Crystal Palace after the famous landmark. The examples shown here from Christopher Hobhouse’s 1950 book 1851 and the Crystal Palace reveal the extremes of the era and the curious aspects of its history.

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