Britannia and its Great Exhibitions: Nikolaus Pevsner, Michael Leapman, 1851, 2012…

“It seems as if only magic could have gathered this mass of wealth from all the ends of the earth.” Thus Charlotte Bronte writing after her visit to Hyde Park’s Crystal Palace for the ‘Great Exhibition’ of 1851: that legendary pageant of imperial industry held in the 15th year of Victoria’s reign (with, had they but known, a further half-century still in store.) 150-odd years later, in the Diamond Jubilee of HM Elizabeth II, the machine built around London’s hosting of the Olympic Games is now making a strenuous effort to promote a present-day sense of ‘Greatness’ around Britain’s productive or creative or presentational capacities. We’ll just have to see how that one turns out. But anyone with an interest in the history of such national showcases will want to take a look at a pair of titles new to Finds, Nikolaus Pevsner’s High Victorian Design and Michael Leapman’s The World for a Shilling.
Pevsner took the view that what the Exhibition pointed to in the character of 1851 Britain was ‘thirst for information, faith in commerce and industry, inventiveness and technical daring, energy and tenacity, and a tendency to mix up religion with visible success.’ Today? Information we certainly desire and consume at wizard-like speed. In commerce we trust, though we’re currently and rather gloomily getting up to much less of it. Meanwhile industry has become rather a lost and fondly-remembered father-king, and as for the prospects of revival we worry whether we have quite enough ‘inventiveness and technical daring’ – or adequate and tangible faith in what we have of it.
However the Calvinistic idea that visible success is a hallmark of heavenly favour – a phenomenon on which Max Weber wrote with such vigour – has certainly gone to live behind a glass case in some museum of misconceptions. In short the Great Exhibition of 1851 belongs most eminently to a thoroughly bygone era, and Pevsner and Leapman offer invaluable retrospective assessments of its merits. The future historians of 2012, meanwhile, have already got a glut of material to start sifting…

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