Monday 13 September 2010

A Tour of the Crystal Palace

A tour of the Crystal Palace in 1856 (The Leisure Hour, as ever):


[• The multiplicity of objects in the Crystal Palace is found so perplexing to ordinary visitors, that this paper has been prepared with a view to furnish a clue to seeing, in an orderly manner, in one visit, its principal features. ]

How swiftly we rush along! as though our locomotive had just received a stimulative supply of alcohol, in lieu of water, to incite it to drag us bravely up the incline, whence, in an instant, we shall gain our first near glimpse of the Crystal Palace. See! like a vision of magic, its striking foreground and magnificent park come into view; whilst, beyond them the Palace rises, wondrous in extent, yet so light and aerial in aspect, as almost to defy belief that it is a thing of solid substance.
    A pleasant journey we have had by railway. Ere, however, the interior of the Palace is reached, a long walk awaits us, commencing with the gigantic flight of steps before us, leading from the trains to the ticket-taking entrance. From this point you perceive there is a route across the park to our destination, through the door there to the right, and another along the pretty flower-adorned corridor facing us. The latter we will follow. It will bring us to another flight of stairs and the third-class refreshment• room, where visitors may obtain an excellent dinner of cold meat and bread, with a temperate glass of beer, for ninepence—a great consideration to those who seek enjoyment without extravagance. Take a peep into the refreshment-room, and observe how conveniently it is arranged. Now ascend to the gallery above, conducting to the final ascent.
    At length, as the reward of our pilgrimage, the shrine is attained. Is it not beautiful? Yet re- strain your admiration, and move round slightly to the left, along by the small refreshment tables to the front of yon splendid screen, covered with statues, each representing a sovereign of England. What an enchanting scene here meets the eye! A seemingly interminable vista opens, presenting innumerable gaily-dressed groups of visitors, promenading through lines of luxuriant foliage, intermingled with statuary, from behind which arise ranges of elaborately ornamented facades, and lofty, slender, parti-coloured columns, festooned and enwreathed with graceful climbing plants, springing from the ground, and shooting out from suspended baskets, lustrous with blossoms of every hue ; while, high overarching all, is a crystal canopy, stained, as it were, with the mellow blue of the heavens, or sparkling with myriads of sunlight reflections. In the foreground, covered with white and purple and crimson water-lilies, is a sheet of water, from the midst of which springs the world- renowned crystal fountain, glittering with prismatic colours. The scene, in fact, look in whichever direction we may, displays features of beauty, magnificence, and interest, which cannot fail to inspire enthusiastic appreciation.
    The main building, as seen from this point, is composed of a nave, more than a quarter of a mile long, 72 feet wide, and 104 feet high ; of two side aisles, giving, with other arrangements, a general width to the Palace of about 312 feet ; of three transepts, termed respectively the South, Central, and North — the South and North being each 336 feet long from east to west, and 72 feet from north to south ; and the Central one 384 feet from east to west, 128 feet from north to south, and 168 feet high. Above each aisle are two galleries, which run entirely round the edifice ; whilst above them, in certain quarters, are other galleries, from which particularly striking views of the interior and the peculiar construction of the edifice may be obtained. And, marvel of marvels, " the total length of columns," says the official guide-book, " employed in the construction of the main building and wings, would extend, if laid in a straight line, to a distance of sixteen miles and a quarter. The total weight of iron used in the main building and wings amounts to 9641 tons, 17 cwt., 1 qr. The superficial quantity of glass used is 25 acres ; and if the panes were laid side by side, they would extend to a distance of 48 miles ; if end to end, to the almost incredible length of 242 miles." To which may be added the further marvel, that on the edifice and its appurtenances, the park, etc., not much less than a million and a half sterling has been expended. This series of facts, combined with what we see around us, evinces a truly amazing amount of cost and skill in design, and taste in execution—all, too, bestowed on a shilling exhibition for the people, and renders the establishment one without a parallel.
    Looking down the nave, from where we are standing, we face the north, and therefore have the east on our right hand, and the west on our left. Lying immediately on either hand, occupying the eastern and western ends of the South Transept, is the ethnological and natural history department of the Palace. Commencing our tour of inspection here, with the western portion of the department, or that referring to the New World, we find ourselves amongst highly interesting and instructive representations of the human and brute creations of North and South America, so grouped as to display their ways and habitudes, and, as far as possible, the scenery and vegetation of their locale. The neighbouring glass-cases contain specimens of beautiful American birds, of North American river-animals, and of West Indian corals, sponges, and molluscules, as found assembled together at the bottom of the sea. Everything about us is, in fact, wonderfully characteristic. Look, for instance, at these groups of Indians some asleep, others at work just as they might be seen in their native lands. Nov observe this graphic representation of the polar bear and other arctic animals "at home," amidst icebergs and the bleak desolateuess of the North Pole, all so truthfully displayed that we need but travel five miles from London to be able to obtain a perfect idea of one of the most striking scenes of nature, existing thousands of miles away, and only accessible to the human eye under circumstances of the greatest difficulty and danger.
    We have now passed out of the South Transept into what is termed the Pompeian Court, and the southern end of the western aisle. Imagining that this Court incloses, as it assumes to do, a real Pompeian house, this airy uncovered portion is the atrium, or outer court of the edifice, used for the reception of visitors. Those small rooms surrounding it are bed-chambers—cell-like looking places, to be sure, but in the days of the Pompeians, and under their sultry clime, doubtless adapted to their requirements, especially as there is reason to believe that they did not regularly go to bed, as we do, in a four-post bedstead, but merely threw theme selves upon a shall couch, and made their toilets next day in their bath-rooms requiring, therefore, no space in their sleeping apartments for toilet conveniences, or for aught beyond the couch, and it may be, an occasional yawn and stretch of the arms on arising, idly inclined. Through the open side of this atrium we see the state-room of the house, its columned garden, and dining-room; the whole attesting, by their decorations, the cultivated taste and art proficiency that once existed in Pompeii, the overthrown city, whose intellectual cultivation was sadly in contrast with its moral depravation.
    Succeeding this revival of the works of an obliterated race one this side of the Palace, and inviting our further progress, are compartments, styled the Sheffield, Birmingham, and Stationery Industrial Courts, the News Room, the Central Transept, and the Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Alhambra, and Assyrian Fine Arts Courts, each of which we shall notice on our passage through it. Within, between, and behind the Industrial Courts, exhibitors' stands are placed, displaying almost every description of manufactured articles, and forming part of the universal museum of natural and useful art productions the Palace may be said to contain.
    Here we stand within the Sheffield Court, containing a choice and valuable assortment of Sheffield wares, and considered by many, on account of the exquisitely light and elegant arcade of arches forming its upper part, to be the most pleasing in appearance of all the Industrial Courts. They are composite Moresque Gothic in design, and iron in material ; whilst iron and plate-glass are exclusively employed in the construction of the whole.
    On leaving this Court, do not fail to notice the gorgeous-looking stand of gold, silver, and plated goods you will come upon; then, before entering the Birmingham Court, turn to the left, to pause and admire Bell's lovely marble group of the "Babes in the Wood;" for the sight of that alone is more than worth the cost of a visit to the Palace. One of the most noteworthy features of this, the Birmingham Court, is its splendid facade of cast iron, in the English ornamental style of the seventeenth century an appropriate characteristic, Birmingham being the chief seat of the application of iron to ornamental as well as useful purposes, interesting examples of which are to be seen spread around in profusion. Between the architectural peculiarities of this and the next, or Stationery Court, a marked difference exists the latter being formed entirely of wood, ornamented in the Cinque cento style. And see how different are the contents of the one and the other, yet intimately connected by a link obvious on reflection; for here are exhibited splendid specimens of costly book-binding, maps, prints, and stationery ware in general, which could not be produced without the aid of such implements and material as Birmingham chiefly manufactures and employs in her work-shops. After what we have been feeding our minds upon, the Penny News Room (although apparently a very superior place of the sort) can have no charms for us to-day, consequently we will pass on through the approaching groups of English and German sculpture into the great or Central Transept. Observe the noble span and vast height of its roof! No part of the building required so much skill to erect as this ; and, unhappily, the valuable lives of several workmen were sacrificed during the process of erection. But as we shall have another opportunity of examining this portion of the building at our leisure, we will leave its multifarious attractions for the present, and press forwards into the Fine Arts Courts, bearing in mind that each of these Courts, with those immediately opposite to them, shows the state of the arts of architecture and sculpture, with reference to the country after which it is designated.
    The first of the Fine Arts Courts before us is the Egyptian Court, presenting features awfully solemn, imposing, and mystical in character, as the remote ages of the world to which they carry the imagination back. Here also are models of both early and late Egyptian architecture, all displaying solidity, grandeur, and simplicity, indicative of the earliest periods of scientific construction, some being models of portions of temples and palaces, and some of tombs. Of much of the surrounding sculpture, it must be admitted that it is stiff and unnatural ; perhaps, however, the result only of conventional requirements having been followed in its conception ; and the whole of it denotes the heathen principles which animated the Egyptians of yore.
    A glance suffices to show that we are now in the Greek Court; amongst the relics of a race differing greatly front the Egyptians, more refined in their conception of beauty of form and expression, and more ideal in the embodiment of their imaginings. Greek art is of the highest order—poetic, chaste, and elevated. No other country carried sculpture and architecture to so great a degree of perfection as Greece ; and it would appear to be vain to hope to surpass the excellence it achieved. Hence its best works have justly become fixed standards of perfection, as regards grace, proportion, sentiment, and execution.
    But here is an arch, seen nowhere else about this Court, because it is intended to indicate a change of architectural style, being that of the Romans; for though the arch was not first employed by them, as is proved by modem discoveries in Egypt and Assyria, they were the first people who adopted the general use of it in buildings, showing therein taste and discernment, as the greatest beauty and strength are alike its characteristics. This, the Roman Court entrance, presents, you perceive, a pleasing vista, formed of arches, and terminating at the Alhambra Court, towards which we will wend our way, gazing the while on the numerous objects of historic as well as art interest which lie along our path.
    Now mark the wondrous change of scene that meets the eye! Ideal, graceful, and beautiful, as are the Greek and Roman creations of genius we have just been contemplating, still the surrounding Alhambra balls appear to be the offspring of the more poetic fancy. In gazing on them, a sense steals upon us of a different, if not superior, race of producers gene, gnomes, and fairies --- beings accustomed only in their habitations to whatever excitingly attracted and gratified the senses ; such as arches and roof's trimmed with exquisitely delicate fretwork ; illuminated walls, covered with fanciful arabesque patterns ; the fragrance of lovely flowers, and soft murmuring's of air-cooling fountains. The halls represented are the Court of Lions, the Hall of Justice, and the stalactite roofed Hall of the Abencerrages ; each in a manner conveying a perfect idea of the unsurpassable splendour of its multifarious decorations a splendour, we fear, which will render the appearance of the North Transept, we are about to enter, somewhat cold and tame, although it represents tropical regions, and abounds in striking attractions, as witness this avenue of palms and sphinxes, forming an appropriate oriental-looking foreground to the gigantic figures towering above us.
    The latter are sixty-five feet high, and are supposed to portray Rameses the Great, seated on a throne ; the massive temple behind is Nubian, and for many reasons is fittingly located next to the Assyrian and Nineveh Court. It is but a few years since the originals, serving as models for this Court, were discovered ; consequently these sculptured tablets, winged bulls, symbol painted walls, and extraordinary effigies of combined human and brute beige, are facsimiles of newly resuscitated remains of the past ; displaying likewise remarkable architectural and sculptural features, previously unknown to man for aces anterior to the Christian era. Examine them well, for they will impart to you many new and valuable ideas. The sculptured tablets are curiously-elaborated symbolic and pictorial representations of events full of the most singular and minute details, introduced therein to render them comprehensible as public records, or adapt them to serve the purposes of our modern written histories the art of writing having been unknown to the Assyrians. Every figure about us here is typical of some incident or peculiarity connected with the histories of Assyria and Nineveh.
    Gleamed upon by the huge watchful eyes of the noble pair of man-headed, winged bulls behind us, we have now arrived at the north or tropical end of the Palace, and stand amidst trees, and plants, and birds, familiar only to regions far :sway, and widely diverse from our own. From this end of the Palace a wing juts out, called the North Wing, containing a picture gallery. We will visit it, however, on another occasion, as we have enough before us to occupy our attention for the remainder of the day.
    Onwards, then, to the architectural Fine Arts Courts, of which there are seven, not only containing an enormous mass of the finest architectural details, but a profusion of contemporaneous tombs and sculptures, all masterpieces of art. These three archings - note how charming the view through them! -  lead into the Byzantine and Romanesque Court ; the cloister to the right is Romanesque ; the other objects are sufficiently explained by the inscriptions affixed to them ; and as almost everything exhibited in the architectural Courts is similarly explained, if you will rest a while, we will endeavour to compress into a few words, all that we think necessary to point out with regard to the series, and the other objects we shall meet with en route to our original starting- point.
     To begin with our neighbour, the German Medieval Court : the guide-book speaking of it, says that it is devoted exclusively to examples of Gothic art and architecture in Germany ; and, taken with the English and French Medieval Courts, it gives an excellent idea of the style and character of architecture in those three countries during the middle ages. Succeeding the German, is the English Mediaeval Court, containing splendid specimens of Norman early English, decorated and perpendicular styles of architecture, as well as a cloister, one of the gems of the Palace. Next occurs the French and Italian Mediaeval Court, the style of which, for the sake of instruction, should be compared with that of the preceding Courts, and of the adjoining Renaissance Court.
    The latter-mentioned is a species of revival of the antique Roman, with florid modern accessories. The chef-d'oeuvre of the Renaissance Court is the remarkable fac-simile it contains of the wonderful Florentine Ghiberti Gates. The Renaissance leads into the Elizabethan Court-- a highly interesting one, as showing one of the superior deviations from the acknowledged original standard styles of architecture ; as also, for the same reason, is the Italian Court, which succeeds it, and is modelled after the Farnese Palace in Rome.
    On leaving the Italian Court, another maze of beautiful architectural and sculptural models will invite and repay inspection, as will also the Great Transept, the French Court, the newly-opened Ceramic Court, containing- superb specimens of porcelain ; the Glass Court, displaying the choicest description of fancy glass goods ; the Musical Instruments Court ; and, lastly, the Ethnological and Natural History Department, illustrating Asiatic, African, and Australian races of human beings and wild animals.
    Long as our stroll has been, the delightful distractions attending it have brought us unfatigued to this, the Ceramic Court, which is so brilliant, so unique, and so complete in its appointments, that it irresistibly claims further comment. It contains the finest examples of pottery and porcelain, displaying art in form and decoration, and produced between the present period and remotest antiquity. The works of living manufacturers and Assyrian ware are brought together in these cases, united by a series of old Chelsea, Worcester, Wedgwood, Sevres, Dresden, Berlin, Vienna, Limoges, Mayolica, and other descriptions of ceramic productions, modern as well as ancient. This chain of art is formed with the greatest taste and discrimination, and nearly every link of it is worth its weight in gold. Gems, fruits, flowers, metals, gorgeous masses of colour, and the finest paintings, are imitated to perfection on plain or ornamental forms of the utmost purity and grace. The classic groups of Wedgwood ware are surpassingly fine ; but where all is so perfect, individual taste alone can accord the palm of superiority to one portion of the display over any other. The value set upon one of these cases of groups by its proprietor is, we have heard, as much as £15,000 ; single objects likewise being similarly highly valued, or at from 100 to nearly 2000 guineas.
    Once more the small refreshment-tables meet the eye ; but this time surrounded by hungry groups, satisfying their appetites with the dainties supplied for visitors who have not imitated our economic example, and brought their own refreshment with them. Yet the charges here are by no means extravagant; unlimited veal and ham pie, roast and boiled beef, salad and bread and cheese, for eighteenpence ; pigeon-pie, or chicken with ham or tongue, for two shillings ; jelly or pudding being sixpence extra. The knives and forks clattering here make, however, a less agreeable music than that of the band, which has now commenced playing. We will proceed, therefore, slowly down the line of the nave's ever-varying attractions, to the Orchestra, then rest a while and enjoy our lunch and the music together ; but without having seen more than half of the interesting con- tents of the Palace a portion, however, that, with a sight of the fountains, must content us on this occasion.
    Hark ! the gong sounds, announcing that the fountains are about to be displayed ! We will view then to-day from the Terrace in front of the Palace, descending and proceeding thereto by the way of the Great Machinery department. This is an excellent place, exactly central, and affording a splendid prospect of a landscape considered to be one of the finest in the kingdom. See how its features are momentarily diversified by lines of light and shadow playfully darting across its rich masses of woodland, as though engaged chasing each other up hill and down dale in a summer's day pastime. Now the tallest fountain jets, like silver framework, divide the scene into compartments, vying with each other in loveliness. Higher and higher some of them rise, the others the while dancing merrily around them, making their own music. The gay sound of waters is heard, rushing and tossing gleefully about. There a lovely iris has formed across the spreading sheet of the centre tall jet ; and mark how the ladies are wildly fleeing hither and thither to save their pretty dresses from being soaked with envious spray a diversion which amused even our gracious Queen on the day (the 18th of last June) of the first display of the complete fountain system. Ah ! that was a beauteous sight. On the high ridge of ground there, just above the large lakes, thousands of spectators were ranged, grouped round a mass of brilliant scarlet uniforms, the ladies' lively-coloured dresses making the green sward beneath shine as if flower-enamelled ; along the pathways winding amongst the trees and shrubberies, and surrounding the water basins, were lines of more gay company, whilst numerous detached groups stood dotted about the lawns in every direction. But the great feature of the fete was our Queen, who, accompanied by her guests, husband, and family, graciously condescended to be driven slowly through the ground, and bestowed her sweet, never-to-be-forgotten smile on one and all, creating in every breast the impression that she is the most fascinating of women, as well as loveable of sovereigns. During her progress, the air continuously rang with grateful huzzas, and when the new great fountains spouted forth their enormous liquid columns (the cascades pouring their sparkling crested volumes into the lakes) ; and when the sun gleamed out, as it did at the moment, with brighter beams, and the winds broke the aspiring waters into sheets of silvery mist, the scene, as you may imagine, be- came almost overpoweringly exciting.
    Well, we have told our tale ; the fountains have ceased playing, and we think it time to be wending homewards. Our course shall be across the grounds to yonder doorway at the end of the south wing of the Palace, and leading to the trains. Take a passing glance at the tastefully laid-out park, and lovely scenery beyond, now becoming more and more tenderly illuminated by the declining sun, whose rays are gradually producing an increasingly softening gloom, beautifully expressive of day melting away. On our route to our dear home we will recall the unlimited sources of useful and interesting knowledge we have been exploring, and bestow a grateful thought upon those whose exertions have enabled us to enjoy an eve•-memorable day of pleasure at the Crystal Palace. To-morrow let us work all the brisker for our holiday.


  1. The Crystal Palace: a superb monument to the ambition or audacity, and certainly the vision and ability of the Victorians. Even more so the fact that it was taken apart, carted up to Sydenham by horses and rebuilt there. Such a shame that nothing like this exists anymore, although a stroll around the Dinosaurs is still charming.

  2. The maze (restored) is quite nice, too.