The idea of a "great exhibition of the Works and Industries of all Nations" was Prince Albert's. The scheme when first proposed in 1849 was coldly received in this country. It was intended, to use the Prince's own words, "To give us a true test and a living picture of the point of development at which the whole of mankind has arrived in this great task, and a new starting-point from which all nations will be able to direct their further exertions."
The Times led the attack against the proposed site in Hyde Park, and the public was uneasy at the thought of large numbers of foreigners congregating in London, and at the expected importation of foreign goods.
As showing the absurd things which 'John Bull' could say at this time in his jealousy and dislike of foreigners the Prince wrote: "The strangers, they give out, are certain to commence a thorough revolution here, to murder Victoria and myself, and to proclaim the Red Republic in England; the Plague is certain to ensue from the confluence of such vast multitudes, and to swallow up those whom the increased price of everything has not already swept away. For all this I am to be responsible, and against all this I have to make efficient provision."
Punch pictured the young Prince begging, cap in hand, for subscriptions:
Pity the sorrows of a poor, young Prince
Whose costly schemes have borne him to your door;
Who's in a fix, the matter not to mince,
Oh! help him out, and Commerce swell your store!
Such constant worry and anxiety affected the Prince's health, but the support of Sir Robert Peel and of many great firms gradually wore down the opposition.
The building was designed by Paxton, who had risen from being a gardener's boy in the Duke of Devonshire's service to the position of the greatest designer of landscape-gardening in the kingdom.
He took his main ideas for the Crystal Palace from the great conservatories at Kew and Chatsworth. It was like a huge greenhouse in shape, nearly one thousand feet long and ninety feet high, with fountains playing in the naves and a great elm-tree in full leaf under the roof.
On May 1, 1851, the opening day, everything went well. The crowds in the streets were immense, and there were some 34,000 visitors present in the building during the opening ceremony.
Lord Macaulay was much impressed with the Exhibition, for he wrote after the opening: "I was struck by the numbers of foreigners in the streets. All, however, were respectable and decent people. I saw none of the men of action with whom the Socialists were threatening us. . . . I should think there must have been near three hundred thousand people in Hyde Park at once. The sight among the green boughs was delightful. The boats, and little frigates, darting across the lake; the flags; the music; the guns;—everything was exhilarating, and the temper of the multitude the best possible. . . .
"I made my way into the building; a most gorgeous sight; vast; graceful; beyond the dreams of the Arabian romances. I cannot think that the Cæsars ever exhibited a more splendid spectacle. I was quite dazzled, and I felt as I did on entering St Peter's. I wandered about, and elbowed my way through the crowd which filled the nave, admiring the general effect, but not attending much to details."
And again on the last day he wrote: "Alas! alas! it was a glorious sight; and it is associated in my mind with all whom I love most. I am glad that the building is to be removed. I have no wish to see the corpse when the life has departed."
The Royal Party were received with acclamation all along the route. "It was a complete and beautiful triumph,—a glorious and touching sight, one which I shall ever be proud of for my beloved Albert and my country," wrote the Queen. Six million people visited the Great Fair during the time it remained open.
In one respect, however, it could scarcely be considered a triumph for this country. It was still an ugly, and in some respects a vulgar, age. The invention of machinery had done little or nothing to raise the level of the public taste for what was appropriate and beautiful in design. That an article cost a large sum of money to manufacture and to purchase seemed sufficient to satisfy the untrained mind.
Generally speaking, the taste of the producers was uneducated and much inferior to that of the French. Most of the designs in carpets, hangings, pottery, and silks were merely copies, and were often extremely ugly. England, at this time the first among the Industrial Nations, had utterly failed to hold her own in the Arts.
Machinery had taken the place of handwork, and with the death of the latter art and industry had ceased to have any relation. Public taste in architecture was equally bad. A 'revival' of the art of the Middle Ages resulted only in a host of poor imitations. "Thirty or forty years ago, if you entered a cathedral in France or England, you could say at once, 'These arches were built in the age of the Conqueror—that capital belonged to the earlier Henrys.' . . . Now all this is changed. You enter a cathedral, and admire some iron work so rude you are sure it must be old, but which your guide informs you has just been put up by Smith of Coventry. You see . . . some painted glass so badly drawn and so crudely coloured it must be old—Jones of Newcastle."
[Footnote 9: Fergusson, History of Modern Styles of Architecture.]
John Ruskin, who was in many ways the greatest art teacher of his age, was the first to point out the value and the method of correct observation of all that is beautiful in nature and in art.
In an address on "Modern Manufacture and Design," delivered to the working men of Bradford, he declared: "Without observation and experience, no design—without peace and pleasurableness in occupation, no design—and all the lecturings, and teachings, and prizes and principles of art, in the world are of no use, so long as you don't surround your men with happy influences and beautiful things. . . . Inform their minds, refine their habits, and you form and refine their designs; but keep them illiterate, uncomfortable, and in the midst of unbeautiful things, and whatever they do will still be spurious, vulgar, and valueless."
At the time, however, the Exhibition proved a great success, and the Duke of Coburg carried most favourable impressions away with him. He says: "The Queen and her husband were at the zenith of their fame. . . . Prince Albert was not satisfied to guide the whole affair only from above; he was, in the fullest sense of the word, the soul of everything. Even his bitterest enemies, with unusual unreserve, acknowledged the completeness of the execution of the scheme."
So far from there being a loss upon the undertaking there was actually half a million of profit. The proceeds were devoted to securing ground at South Kensington upon which a great National Institute might be built. This undertaking (the purchase of the ground) was not carried through without great difficulty and anxiety. The Queen's sympathy and encouragement were, as always, of the greatest help to her husband, and he quoted a verse from a German song, to illustrate how much he felt and appreciated it:
When man has well nigh lost his hope in life,
Upwards in trust and love still looks the wife,
Towards the starry world all bright with cheer,
Faint not nor fear, thus speaks her shining tear.
The Great Exhibition was sufficient proof—if any had been needed—of how the Prince with his wife laboured incessantly for the good of others. Without his courage, perseverance, and ability there is no doubt that this great undertaking would never have been carried through successfully. He recognized the fact that princes live for the benefit of their people; his desire for the improvement in all classes was never-ending, and from him his wife learnt many lessons which proved of the greatest value to her in later life when she stood alone and her husband was no longer there to aid her with his unfailing wise advice.
A second Exhibition was held in 1862, and so far as decorative art was concerned there were distinct signs of improvement. 'Art manufacture' had now become a trade phrase, but manufacturers were still far from understanding what 'Art' really meant. As an instance of this, one carpet firm sent a carpet to be used as a hanging on which Napoleon III is depicted presenting a treaty of Commerce to the Queen. Particular attention had apparently been paid to the 'shine' on Napoleon's top boots and to the Queen's smile!
The Prince's great wish was to restore to the workman his pride in the work of his hands, to relieve the daily toil of some of its irksomeness by the interest thus created in it, and, where the work was of a purely mechanical nature, and individual skill and judgment were not called for, he wished the worker to understand the principles upon which the machine was built and the ingenuity with which it worked.
His schemes for the building and equipment of Museums of Science and Art were arranged with the purpose in view that both rich and poor should have equal opportunities of seeing what improvements had been made throughout the ages, and how vast and far-reaching the effects of such improvements were on the lives of the whole nation.
It was under his direction that the pictures in the National Gallery were first arranged in such a manner as to show the history and progress of art. In his own words: "Our business is not so much to create, as to learn to appreciate and understand the works of others, and we can never do this till we have realized the difficulties to be overcome. Acting on this principle myself, I have always tried to learn the rudiments of art as much as possible. For instance, I learnt oil-painting, water-colours, etching, lithography, etc., and in music I learnt thorough bass, the pianoforte, organ, and singing—not, of course, with a view of doing anything worth looking at or hearing, but simply to enable me to judge and appreciate the works of others."
It is interesting to note how closely the views of the Prince agreed with those of John Ruskin in matters of art and literature. Ruskin declared that it was the greatest misfortune of the age that, owing to the wholesale introduction of machinery, the designer and maker were nearly always different people instead of being one and the same person. He declared that no work of art could really be 'living' or capable of moving us to admiration as did the masterpieces of the Middle Ages unless the maker had thought out and designed it himself.
It was largely owing to his teachings that the 'Arts and Crafts' movement under William Morris and Walter Crane arose—a movement which has since that time spread over the whole civilized world.
In 1862, together with some of his friends, Morris formed a company to encourage the use of beautiful furniture and to introduce 'Art in the House.' Morris himself had learnt to be a practical carpet-weaver and dyer, and had founded the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings.
All the work of this firm was done by hand as far as possible; only the best materials were to be used and designs were to be original. They manufactured stained glass, wall paper, tapestry, tiles, embroidery, carpets, etc., and many of the designs were undertaken by Edward Burne-Jones.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the poet-painter, Holman Hunt (best remembered by his famous picture "The Light of the World ") and others, formed what was known as the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, to instruct public taste in creative work in art and literature. At the Kelmscott Press some of the most beautiful printed books of their kind were produced under the direction of Morris.
Ruskin, like so many others of his time, was greatly influenced by Carlyle, and his views on the 'condition of England' question were practically the same. He bewailed the waste of work and of life, the poverty and the 'sweating.' He urged employers to win the goodwill of those who worked for them as the best means of producing the best work. He preached the 'rights' of Labour—that high wages for good work was the truest economy in the end, and that beating down the wages of workers does not pay in the long run. He declared that the only education worth having was a 'humane' education—that is, first of all, the building of character and the cultivation of wholesome feelings. "You do not educate a man by telling him what he knew not, but by making him what he was not," was the theory which he endeavoured to put into practice by experiments such as an attempt to teach every one to "learn to do something well and accurately with his hands."
In common with Wordsworth Ruskin held that the love of Nature was the greatest of educators. He believed that
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.
The beauty and the everlasting marvel of Nature's works were, to him as to the poet of the Lakes, the real road to knowledge:
Come forth into the light of things,
Let Nature be your teacher.
An education of not the brain alone, but of heart and hand as well, all three working in co-operation, was necessary to raise man to the level of an intelligent being.
Ruskin's teachings fared no better than those of Carlyle at first, and though he is spoken of sometimes as being 'old-fashioned,' yet his lesson is of the old-fashioned kind which does live and will live, for, like Dickens, he knew how to appeal to the hearts of his readers. He is one of the most picturesque writers in the language, a man of great nobility of character and generous feelings, who had a tremendous belief in himself and knew how to express his thoughts in the most beautiful language. Some of his books, for example Sesame and Lilies and Unto this Last, are probably destined for immortality.