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The Great Exhibition

The idea of the Exhibition of 1851 is said to have been originally due to Mr. F. Whishaw, Secretary of the Society of Arts, as early as 1844, but no active steps were taken until 1849, when the Prince Consort, who was President of the Society, took the matter up very warmly. His speech at one of the meetings contained the following sentence: -

"Now is the time to prepare for a great Exhibition - an Exhibition worthy of the greatness of this country, not merely national in its scope and benefits, but comprehensive of the whole world; and I offer myself to the public as their leader, if they are willing to assist in the undertaking."

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 £230,000 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 honor 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.

They have been selected, as being fairly representative of the work of the time, and not on account of their own intrinsic excellence.

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, of their work previous to the Exhibition. One of the illustrations, however, may in passing 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 page 172 of a harpsichord, which the Piano had replaced about 1767; and this supplies evidence of the increased attention devoted to decorative furniture at and since the time of the 1851 Exhibition. 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 - down to the latest development of the decoration of the case of the instrument by leading artists of the present day. Mr. Algernon Rose, of Messrs. Broadwood, whose firm was established at their present address in 1732, has been good enough to supply the author with the particulars for this notice.

It will be seen from the illustrations of these exhibits that, so far as figure carving and composition are concerned, our foreign rivals, the Italians, Belgians, Austrians, and French, were far ahead of us. In mere construction and excellence of work, we have ever been able to hold our own, and, so long as our designers have kept to beaten tracks, the effect is satisfactory. It is only when an attempt has been made to soar above the conventional, that the effort is not so successful.

In looking over the list of exhibits, one finds evidence of the fickleness of fashions. The manufacture of decorative articles of furniture of papier-mache was then very extensive, and there are several specimens of this class of work executed, both by French and English firms. The drawing-room of 1850 to 1860 was apparently incomplete without occasional chairs, a screen with painted panel, a work table, or some small cabinet or casket of this decorative but somewhat flimsy material.

The design and execution of mountings of cabinets in metal work, particularly of the highly-chased and gilt bronzes for the enrichment of meubles de luxe, was then, as it still to a great extent remains, the spécialité of the Parisian craftsman, and almost the only English exhibits of such work were those of foreigners who had settled amongst us.

Amongst the latter was Monbro, a Frenchman, who established himself in Berners Street, London, and made furniture of an ornamental character in the style of his countrymen, reproducing the older designs of " Boule " and marqueterie furniture. The present house of Mellier and Cie. are his successors, Mellier having been in his employ. The late Samson Wertheimer, father of Messrs. Charles and Asher Wertheimer, now so well known in the Art world, then in Greek Street, Soho, was steadily making a reputation by the excellence of the metal mountings of his own design and workmanship, which he applied to caskets of French style. Furniture of a decorative character and of excellent quality was also made some forty years ago by Town and Emanuel, of Bond Street, and many of this firm's "Old French" tables and cabinets were so carefully finished with regard to style and detail, that, with the "tone" which time has given them, it is not always easy to distinguish them from the models from which they were taken. Toms was assistant to Town and Emanuel, and afterwards purchased and carried on the business of " Toms and Luscombe," a firm well known as manufacturers of excellent and expensive "French" furniture, until their retirement from business some twenty years ago.

Webb, of Old Bond Street, succeeded by Annoot, and subsequently by Radley (The present firm is Radley, Robson and Mackay.), was a manufacturer of this class of furniture; he employed a considerable number of workmen, and carried on a very successful business.

The name of " Blake," too, is one that will be remembered by some of our older readers who were interested in marqueterie furniture of forty years ago. He made an inlaid centre table for the late Duke of Northumberland, from a design by Mr. C. P. Slocombe, of South Kensington Museum; he also made excellent copies of Louis XIV. Furniture.

The next International Exhibition held in London was in the year 1862, and, though its success was somewhat impaired by the great calamity this country sustained in the death of the Prince Consort on 14th December, 1861, and also by the breaking out of the Civil War in the United States of America, the exhibitors had increased from 17,000 in '51 to some 29,000 in '62, the foreign entries being 16,456, as against 6,566.

Exhibitions of a National and International character had also been held in many of the Continental capitals. There was in 1855 a successful one in Paris which was followed by one still greater in 1867, and, as every one knows, they have been lately of almost annual occurrence in various countries, affording the enterprising manufacturer better and more frequent opportunities of placing his productions before the public, and of teaching both producer and consumer to appreciate and profit by every improvement in taste, and by the greater demand for artistic objects.

The few illustrations from these more recent Exhibitions of 1862 and 1867 deserve a passing notice. The cabinet of carved ebony with enrichments of carnelion and other richly-colored minerals (illustrated on previous page), was made by the firm in which the author's father was senior partner; it received a good deal of notice, and was purchased by William, third Earl of Craven, a well-known virtuoso of some forty years ago.

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