Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 6/John Horner, Esquire, on the Exhibition Building and its opening

Once a Week, Series 1, Volume VI
John Horner, Esquire, on the Exhibition Building and its opening
by Andrew Wynter


For a just impression of the enormous building, covering the twenty-four acres of ground, which this time last year was a thriving orchard, we must ask the very important question. Is it to be considered as a permanent casket, or a rough packing-case,—a structure reared with the utmost art that Britain possesses, in which we shall hold future international tournaments, or is it a mere temporary affair, doomed to disappear at the end of the season, like the mushroom growth, the International bazaar, which lies in its shadow? If we are to believe the reports which are everywhere current, and if we examine the main details of the building, we must conclude that those domes which shine afar, and which cannot be discovered within 200 yards of the building itself, never will come down again. Moreover, there seems to be no necessity that it should suffer either the translation or destruction to which its predecessor was destined, in consequence of its being an intruder upon the park. It stands upon the land of the Commissioners of the old building, and once having secured the ground, we do not believe that, considering the ever increasing difficulty of getting a west-end site, it will be deemed expedient to displace it. Moreover, it is valued at 430,000l., a sum which would decline to a very insignificant figure if represented by the proceeds of old iron and timber carted away at second-hand. If these facts will not permit us to look upon Captain Fowke’s building as a packing-case, what shall we say of it as a casket, as a jewel-case prepared to receive, for perhaps a century to come, the decennial congregations of the wealth of the globe? When the secret power presiding at the South Kensington Museum undertook to create this structure destined to be the cynosure of foreign eyes, and when the behest went forth from the very cradle of art design in this country, the world anticipated some triumph of artistic skill. In 1851 a palace sprang from the scrawl upon a blotting-book, and the Commissioners were justified by the world in their unanimous selection of a gardener’s design, in preference to those of the professed architects who sent in drawings. Apparently a distrust of professional aid has become ingrained with the Commissioners; at all events, such assistance was not even sought, and lo! a captain of Engineers by some occult influence suddenly found himself standing in the shoes that Sir Joseph Paxton once filled so well. As far as we know, this gentleman had never done anything of an architectural kind before he designed the south arcades of the Horticultural Gardens, but his star at once placed him in possession of possibly the most valuable uncovered piece of ground in Europe, and the country placed in his hands half a million of money to cover it with a fitting place of meeting for the civilised world to stand in open fight for the palm of the victory of peace. We are afraid the unanimous verdict of the public will agree with those who have a right to give an opinion upon the matter, that England will not present to the world a favourable specimen of her architectural ability. Supreme ugliness is stamped upon every inch of it; not only is the general design monstrous, but all the details are worked out in such a manner as to insure adverse criticism.

The site is, we confess, unfavourable to a fair view of the building. On three sides it is bounded by roads lined with houses, which will only permit the visitor to catch a glimpse of its façades by straining his eyes upwards. The only place that is open is that fronting the Horticultural Garden, a private ground to which the public has no access. The Picture Gallery, a rather heavy structure of brick, is to be hereafter enriched with mosaic work and wall-pictures by our first artists; the Society of Arts, to whom the gallery is leased for ninety-nine years, agreeing to spend £50,000 on this part of the building alone, provided the profits of the Exhibition will permit of the outlay. Strictly speaking, the Picture Gallery is the only architectural feature of the building, the remainder being nothing more than a series of railway sheds, greatly inferior in design to those of the Great Western and Great Northern
Dome of St. Paul’s.
Termini. We are told, indeed, in a spirit of brag, strangely American in its taste, that the two domes are the largest in Europe, as though a work of art were to be estimated by its size, like some Yankee panorama. If Captain Fowke has succeeded in raising the largest dome yet erected, we cannot congratulate him on his work. It is generally considered a triumph of art to increase the apparent size of a building, but it is certain that the domes of the Great Exhibition, by a want of artistic arrangement, are so dwarfed as to lose their claim to height. Let us for a moment compare them with the work of Wren. The dome of St. Paul's is much smaller, but it absolutely looks a mountain to the transparent structures, which appear like two Nassau balloons rising over the buildings of the South Kensington Museum. The reason is obvious: the form is a little better than half a sphere, instead of the elliptical curve which greets the eye of the delighted spectator as he goes up Ludgate Hill. What are we to say, again, to the miserable base of painted boards from which the dome springs?—a straight line, so poverty-stricken in look, that we cannot help comparing the whole structure to an egg and its cup. Wren added to the height of his dome, by placing it on an enriched pedestal, which added to the grandeur of its form; and the dome of the Radcliffe Library at Oxford was buttressed with scrolls with the like impressive result.

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Dome of International Exhibition.

But we must object in toto to the introduction of glass domes as a feature of architecture—at least when viewed from the exterior. Their transparency entirely deprives them of the preponderating size which solid domes exhibit, and which always forms a grand feature—generally the leading one—in the public buildings of Europe so enriched. Moreover, the form itself, however beautiful its outline may be when of glass, is entirely cut up by the manner in which the supporting ribs cut each other. If we judge of them from the inside less is to be said against them; but our praise even here can only be negative, as without doubt they let in a vast deal more light than is necessary, whilst they utterly fail to transmit light to the tunnel-like nave. We confess we would much rather have seen such a dome as that covering the reading-room of the British Museum, where there is light enough in all conscience, notwithstanding the massiveness of its exterior. But the truly ludicrous appearance of the dome of the Great Exhibition, as seen from the only part the public can approach it on the eastern side, is fairly given in the following sketch which was made from the Exhibition road opposite to the eastern entrance, and at the utmost distance the artist could get from the object. Here it puts on the appearance of one of those umbrellas used to protect the vegetables in Covent Garden Market. Viewed from the Horticultural Gardens, the best view can perhaps be had of those enormous wens upon the ugly body of the building, but we conceive that as the two are brought into view from this point, the faults of the building are thereby only doubled.

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Umbrella Aspect of Dome from Eastern Entrance.

It will be unnecessary to dilate upon the poverty-stricken look of the great wheel windows over the eastern and western entrances. Of the interior of the building not much is to be said, except that it entirely lacks that unity of design which characterised the Crystal Palace of 1851. On every hand we are hemmed in by walls of uncouth brickwork, and where a beautiful effect was possible, such as openings towards the north, giving occasional peeps of the Horticultural Gardens which lie in the arms of the building, the dull brick-wall rises and shuts us out. From the upper gallery of the nave a charming vista might thus have been produced; but the inherent sense of the ugly, which manifestly oppresses Captain Fowke, leads him instead to the following composition of window and stairs, which cannot be matched for hideousness, we venture to say, by any Birmingham manufactory.

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Factory Façade of Dining-rooms.

The building has certain points about it which renders it, on the whole, a better packing-case for holding the riches it contains than the building of 1851. To begin: it is larger than its predecessor, the covered space in that Exhibition occupying seven hundred and ninety-nine thousand feet, and the present building nine hundred and eighty-eight thousand feet. If we consider the area of covered space it contains, it is also larger than the Paris Exhibition of 1855. It has this advantage also over the last building,—the machinery-department is contained in the western annexe, instead of in the building itself, thereby avoiding the not very odoriferous smells that sometimes pervaded the old building.
The Cart-wheel Window.
If we admit that the structure is a more commodious packing-case, we must also admit that it is a thousand times less elegant than the crystal casket which shone like a diamond on the verdant sward of the park, and which now flashes in renewed splendour on the summit of the Surrey Hill side. When that casket was emptied of its contents it still remained a thing of beauty, which Englishmen would not willingly let die, and its translation to a nobler site was hailed with delight by all classes.

Captain Fowke’s packing-case, we trust, will be pulled down to the last girder. The contract with Messrs. Kelk and Lucas provides that they shall receive for its use a rent of 200,000l. to be increased to 300,000l. if the receipts exceed 400,000l. the contractors agreeing to leave to the Society of Arts the Picture Gallery, running along the Cromwell Road. If the Commissioners of 1862 agree to take the building, they are to pay a further sum of 130,000l., making a total of 430,000l., which we should say would be the largest sum ever paid for an ungainly packing-case, and we should feel half inclined to hope that the receipts may not warrant the purchase of the building, were we not really anxious for the success of the Exhibition itself. At all events, the building in its present ugly integrity cannot be allowed to stand, as it would be a blot upon the very heart of the future fashionable quarter of the town. Strangely enough, the Commissioners make a boast of the cheapness of the erection; the ground has been covered at the cost of 12,000l. per acre, a rate, we are informed, considerably below that at which ordinary houses are built. This may be a very fair remark if the building were intended for a workhouse; but surely it is a very poor reason to urge in favour of a structure which, with malice aforethought, it is intended shall be a permanent high-art building.

We can compare the appearance of the interior of the Exhibition on Tuesday night to nothing better than a veiled statue. To the last moment of that day it seemed absolutely impossible that it could be ever decently prepared for the opening on Thursday. One day and night, however, was sufficient to drop the drapery, and to display the statue in all its beauty, as far as it is yet completed. Neither is this wonderful when we consider the infinite division of labour employed in the setting forth of the Exhibition. If the Commissioners had exerted themselves with half the sincere solicitude on behalf of the public invited to witness the opening ceremony, the day would have been a complete triumph; but we must confess, those who were not present on that occasion lost nothing, for a more ill-managed ceremony we have never witnessed. To invite between 30,000 and 40,000 season-ticket holders to witness a ceremony and to make no manner of preparation for their witnessing it, was no doubt a good practical joke, much enjoyed by those fortunate persons who by some back-door influence were secured the possession of the gallery seats, and every coign of vantage, but which, unfortunately the exhibitors had to pay for, as the public most ruthlessly made standing places of any elevation, whether glass cases or polished woodwork, which commanded a view of the proceedings. The Armstrong guns were loaded with ladies, and afforded that emblem of peace “Punch” pictured in his last number. The guns’ backs, however, were strong enough to bear the burthen; not so the delicate workmanship of cabinet furniture we saw so fearfully trampled upon.

If the Commissioners had erected a few raised seats on either side of the line of procession, all might have been avoided. The procession seemed heartily ashamed of itself; penned in as it was, the celebrities could only walk three abreast; and we must confess that these looked out of their element, and there was an evident attempt on their part to look about and admire the building in order to hide the miserable position in which they were placed.

Again, had the Commissioners learned anything by the experience afforded by the musical displays at the Crystal Palace, they would not have invited the greatest musical composer in Europe to write an overture for them which could not be heard by a twentieth portion of the persons present. We were not ourselves a hundred yards from the orchestra in the middle of the nave, and we can safely say, that not only the delicate shadings of the instrumentation were entirely lost, but whole bursts of music never reached the spot in which we, with thousands of others, stood. A sounding-board over the orchestra would have obviated all this; as it was, the light textile fabric suspended at a height of a hundred feet, only dulled the sound. We must make an exception, however, as far as the choral music is concerned. The Poet Laureate’s words, set to the majestic music of Bennett, told admirably, and the huge bank of singers—piled in the orchestra to a height of eighty feet, in the midst of which the ladies were happily ranged in the form of a cross, shining out with the sheen of an opal—gave forth a volume of sound which overcame the bad acoustic qualities of the building. In the same manner the Hallelujah Chorus, and the National Anthem were pealed forth through the great dome, and the spectators outside the building caught it up, and re-echoed the strain. When the shrill trumpet which followed the declaration of the opening of the building by the Duke of Cambridge, the multitude forsook the glass cases, jumped off the pianofortes, and left off wiping their feet on the damask furniture for the pleasure of spreading through the building.

We who remember the old building and the glorious view down the nave, felt a sad sense of disappointment on Thursday, at the crowded confusion of the trophies in the English department thereof, which, as far as we can see, have been taken possession of by a set of tradesmen merely to advertise their goods. The jumbled condition of these trophies, and the hideous nature of them, are a disgrace to those who had the laying-out and management of spaces given to exhibitors. In 1851, every trophy was properly placed by Owen Jones. He was answerable for the propriety of the decorations, saw that they were placed in happy juxtaposition, and rigorously forbade overcrowding. Now, every man seems to have shot his show case where he listed, and the consequence is, that a more hideous jumble than is here witnessed never before was seen. Regent Street toy-sellers and furriers have emptied their shops of their ordinary goods, and piled them upon gigantic dumb-waiters, which are dignified with the name of trophies; the mast of a light-ship jostles Elkington's silver work, and the great equatorial telescope nearly pokes out the eye of a bronze statue. It will be remembered that in the building of 1851 the rarest articles of manufacture and of art were alone exhibited; in the nave of 1862 only the rubbish is collected, with a few exceptions. Thank Heaven, many of them are to be banished! To find out the real merit of the Exhibition, and to measure the growth of English industry and art with that of the foreigner, since the last Exhibition, we must penetrate into the various Courts, and here the rival growth of the mind universal is obvious enough, and the value of the position we hold with respect to our neighbours is quite unmistakeable.

In succeeding papers we shall endeavour to pick out the plums in this huge pudding, and enjoy them at our leisure with the reader.