Queen Victoria opening the 1851 Universal Exhibition, at the Crystal Palace in London

Thomas Abel Prior1851

Musée d’Orsay, Paris

Musée d’Orsay, Paris
Paris, France

Thomas Abel Prior was an illustrator, watercolourist and engraver of Turner's work, who, for many years, taught drawing in Calais. In this watercolour he gives us an image of one of the most striking monuments of the nineteenth century, the Crystal Palace.

Built by a glasshouse specialist, Joseph Paxton, for the first Great Universal Exhibition held in London in 1851, this building's fairytale architecture caused a sensation. 563 metres long, and made entirely from glass and cast iron, the Crystal Palace was completely transparent, and clearly it was this characteristic that prompted its sobriquet in the satirical magazine Punch.

Two, large, barrel-vaulted transepts bisected the flat ceiling, and the extra height enabled some of the large trees in Hyde Park to be included. As can be seen in Prior's watercolour, the simple architecture of the Crystal Palace offered distant views and long perspectives.

The Crystal Palace was the first pre-fabricated building. With the help of the engineer Charles Foxes, Paxton designed the palace to be completely movable. It was in fact dismantled and reconstructed in Sydenham (Kent) in an even grander style. This is where Camille Pissarro came to admire and paint it in 1870 (Oslo, Nasjonalgalleriet). But the system was not yet perfect, and this operation in the end was far more expensive than the cost of building. The Crystal Palace, which influenced a whole generation of exhibition halls, was unfortunately destroyed by fire in 1936.


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