By Kate Nichols
OUP (2015) h/b 328pp £70 (ISBN 9780199596461)
The Crystal Palace was an enormous building of glass, metal and wood constructed for the Great Exhibition of 1851. Inspired by a giant greenhouse built by its designer, Joseph Paxton, for the Duke of Devonshire, it was as much a wonder of the modern age as the exhibits housed within it. A patent modular construction and the latest kind of sheet glass came together in a building which went up in record time. In 1854 it was bought by railway proprietors, taken down and rebuilt on an even larger scale at Sydenham in South London, where it was home to displays, concerts and exhibitions till it burnt down in 1936.
In this excellent book, N. tells how this icon of modern industrial design functioned as a home for classical culture, and especially for Greek and Roman sculpture. Over four hundred plaster casts were installed in the Palace, which was accessible via two new railway stations. N. explores not only the layout and arrangement of the exhibits, but also the makeup of the visiting public and their responses to what they saw. The Palace became a popular and fashionable destination, but as the author points out, the almost complete lack of Sunday access made it very difficult for working-class families to visit. (The opening hours were 10am to dusk, making access out of working hours possible only in summer evenings.)
The Palace was intended to promote refined taste, but also to celebrate modern manufacture. One of the most popular of its ‘courts’ was the Ceramic Court, curated by a manufacturer of classical replicas: here the displays combined beauty, archaeological accuracy and commerce. A more controversial interaction of ancient and modern centred on the display of male nudes. The erection of a giant statue of Achilles in Hyde Park in 1822, funded by ‘the women of Britain’ in memory of the Duke of Wellington, had created outrage and a hasty fig-leaf; such scandal was rerun at the Crystal Palace in the 1850s, with similar results. In contrast with the reverent displays at the British Museum, the courts of the Crystal Place offered a vision of classical culture that was homely and naturalised, in a setting whose multiple resonances are very well explored by N. The book is nicely produced, though the index is inadequate.
Christopher Stray—University of Swansea