To Mr. (afterwards Sir) Joseph Paxton, then head gardener to the Duke of Devonshire, the general idea of the famous glass and iron building is due. An enterprising firm of contractors. Messrs. Fox and Henderson, were entrusted with the work; a guarantee fund of some L230,000 was raised by public subscriptions; and the great Exhibition was opened by Her Majesty on the 1st of May, 1851. At a civic banquet in honour of the event, the Prince Consort very aptly described the object of the great experiment:—“The Exhibition of 1851 would afford a true test of the point of development at which the whole of mankind had arrived in this great task, and a new starting point from which all nations would be able to direct their further exertions.”
The number of exhibitors was some 17,000, of whom over 3,000 received prize and council medals; and the official catalogue, compiled by Mr. Scott Russell, the secretary, contains a great many particulars which are instructive reading, when we compare the work of many of the firms of manufacturers, whose exhibits are therein described, with their work of the present day.
The Art Journal published a special volume, entitled “The Art Journal Illustrated Catalogue,” with woodcuts of the more important exhibits, and, by the courtesy of the proprietors, a small selection is reproduced, which will give the reader an idea of the design of furniture, both in England and the chief Continental industrial centres at that time.
With regard to the exhibits of English firms, of which these illustrations include examples, little requires to be said, in addition to the remarks already made in the preceding chapter, of their work previous to the Exhibition. One of the illustrations, however, may be further alluded to, since the changes in form and character of the Pianoforte is of some importance in the consideration of the design of furniture. Messrs. Broadwood’s Grand Pianoforte (illustrated) was a rich example of decorative woodwork in ebony and gold, and may be compared with the illustration on p. 172 of a harpsichord, which the Piano had replaced about 1767, and which at and since the time of the 1851 Exhibition supplies evidence of the increased attention devoted to decorative furniture. In the Appendix will be found a short notice of the different phases through which the ever-present piano has passed, from the virginal, or spinette—of which an illustration will be found in “A Sixteenth Century Room,” in Chapter III.—down to the latest development of the decoration of the case of the instrument by leading artists of the present day. Mr. Rose, of Messrs. Broadwood, whose firm was established at this present address in 1732, has been good enough to supply the author with the particulars for this notice.
Other illustrations, taken from the exhibits of foreign cabinet makers, as well as those of our English manufacturers, have been selected, being fairly representative of the work of the time, rather than on account of their own intrinsic excellence.