The history of civilisation in a suburban theme park

Palace of the People
July 22, 2005

This book tells the story of an extraordinary institution that deserves to be better appreciated. The Crystal Palace began life as part of the 1851 Great Exhibition in Hyde Park, an event whose place in national history is well assured. But the palace's post-exhibition life as a mammoth suburban theme park is arguably a more resonant and rich cultural episode.

It is certainly an irresistibly surreal one. Among the pages here we have giant dinosaurs made of bricks, men dressed up in firework suits, Charles Blondin cooking an omelette on a tightrope and a dinner party held in the model of an iguanodon.

The Crystal Palace filled John Ruskin with rage, but George Eliot saw in it something more profound, identifying the palace as one of the three most characteristic things the English had ever produced (the other two being the British Navy and Shakespeare).

J.R. Piggott does justice to the eccentricities of the tale. One of the book's virtues is that the author sets himself very firmly in the period and constructs his account from primary sources. The text is littered with quotes, and the author cannot resist sharing with his readers all the amusing nuggets he has found. The value of this is that the book captures what Dickens calls the "flatulent botheration" of some of the Victorian prose related to the palace.

If there is a fault, it is that the text can occasionally read like research notes strung together. Piggott is more of a footnoter than a storyteller, and he sometimes makes his readers work hard to grasp the overall picture. But his enthusiasm for his Victorian protagonists overcomes all obstacles, and the thick forest of quotes gives the book an air of magisterial authority that somehow seems to suit its subject matter.

He has also dug out some terrific illustrations.

One of the many charms of the Crystal Palace is the way it unselfconsciously mixed commerce and culture, often to comical effect. At one level it was intended to provide an "illustrated encyclopaedia", a collective object lesson in "the complete history of civilisation".

But its high-minded ideals were realisable only with money - and thus arrived the tearooms, railway stations, shopping arcades, dog shows, popular concerts, bazaars and firework displays. Massive scale seems to have been assumed to be the key to mass appeal. The palace was full of very large things, from the colossal "Aboo-Simbel" statues to the 85m-high fountain and the gigantic "extinct animals" lurking in the grounds.

Piggott describes all the palace's main elements, from the interior courts to the vast gardens. He is most comfortable at the high-brow end of the palace, and devotes most space to the fine art courts that used reproductions of buildings and sculpture to convey the decorative styles of ancient and Christian civilisations.

The obsessive colour theories of Owen Jones, the mastermind of the courts, are discussed in detail, as is the academic huffing and puffing they generated. The palace's other spaces are sketched rather than analysed, but in a way that will provide much food for thought for anyone engaged in the modern-day object-lesson business, whether theme-park manager or museum curator.

The book is clearly a labour of love for the author, who is keeper of archives and rare books at Dulwich College and a resident of Sydenham. He is to be congratulated on publishing a highly engaging reminder of this bizarre yet glorious episode in our cultural history.

Cathy Ross is head of department, later London history, Museum of London.

Palace of the People: The Crystal Palace at Sydenham, 1854-1936

Author - J. R. Piggott
Publisher - Hurst
Pages - 230
Price - £22.50
ISBN - 1 85065 7 0

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