The Civic Society column with David Winpenny

The title page of the Art Journal Catalogue of the Great Exhibition.
The title page of the Art Journal Catalogue of the Great Exhibition.

The Exhibition as a Lesson in Taste is the title of an essay appended to the ‘Art Journal Illustrated Catalogue of the Industry of All Nations’ – in other words, the catalogue of the Great Exhibition of 1851.

It’s not often that we get as comprehensive a snapshot of the taste of a past age as we do from the pages of this catalogue.

This American piano 'is creditable to the skill and ingenuity of the workmen who have produced it'.

This American piano 'is creditable to the skill and ingenuity of the workmen who have produced it'.

You could argue that since, say, the middle of the last century such publications as the Habitat and IKEA catalogues can give us something of the same – but these come with a specific purpose.

They are there to tempt us, with their promise of elegant and exciting modern living, to spend our money on their products.

The Art Journal Catalogue has a very different purpose.

The Art Journal was not selling anything – except perhaps its own publications. It was for many years the most important Victorian magazine on art and on taste. It was started in 1839 and the publishers were bought out by George Virtue in 1848.

The Crystal Palace, home of the Great Exhibition.

The Crystal Palace, home of the Great Exhibition.

Despite the success of the Great Exhibition Catalogue, it was another ten years before the magazine made a profit – but it had established a reputation for its forthright, if conservative, views on art.

It opposed the Pre-Raphaelites, for example, and was scathing about the Impressionists. It could not survive the tsunami of new art as the 19th Century turned into the 20th, and it struggled on only until 1912.

The Catalogue remains as its memorial – and an impressive one it is. It runs to 416 large pages: there is a 24-page, small-print, introduction to the Exhibition, telling of its foundation by Prince Albert and the search for a design for a building, which ended when Joseph Paxton sketched what was to become the Crystal Palace on a piece of blotting paper at a meeting.

There are engravings of the impressive interior (at 1848 feet long it was almost seven time longer than Ripon Cathedral) and of the various sections into which it was divided.

The bulk of the Art Journal Catalogue, though, consists of 328 pages devoted to steel engravings of hundreds of objects that were on display at the Crystal Palace and which the Art Journal thought worthy of inclusion and comment.

It then concludes with several essays: ‘The Science of the Exhibition’, which looks mainly at the materials that are used in the many exhibits; ‘The Harmony of Colours’ which, within the limitations of black-and-white printing, attempts to show how some exhibits were more successful than others in their use of colour.

Then follows ‘On the Vegetable World as Contributing to the Great Exhibition’ – in large part about how natural forms influenced designers (a theme very evident in the main part of the catalogue) and ’The Machinery of the Exhibition as Applied to Textile Manufacture’, with images of bobbin frames and warping mills.

The final essay, which brings us back to the central discussion, is ‘The Exhibition as a Lesson in Taste’.

Looking at the images of the myriad exhibits in the main part of the Catalogue, we may wonder if taste played any part in the Exhibition at all. For the mid-19th Century seems, to our eyes, to have been a time when ’anything goes’ in terms of decoration – and the more elaborate the better.

We look in vain for something plain and simple, for a classical outline unadorned by festoons of leaves and flowers, with Renaissance flourishes or with models of well-fed naked maidens pressed into service as supporters of fountains or teapots. A few pieces from the Medieval Court – essays in the Gothic style – might be acceptable to us today, but even here over-exuberance trumps medieval restraint.

So how does the essay on Taste justify this assault on the senses? It suggests that, if methods of production can easily overcome any technical problems, then ‘Taste must be the paramount agent... but where this is not the case, the chances are still very greatly in favour of Taste over mechanical facility, provided low price be not the primary object’.

In other words, unless you want things to look cheap, decorate them.

Yet, instead of answering the question about what taste is, the essay has a long description of past styles – from the Greeks, Etruscans and Romans, through the Byzantine and Medieval to the Renaissance and Louis Quatorze.

All these, it says – and it is evidently true from the images – are to be found in the decorative taste of the day.

The Art Journal approves of this use of historical styles (though it says patriotically (or chauvinistically) that the British do it much better than the French.

It does, though, point out that ‘a designer might produce a perfect arrangement of forms and colours, and yet show the grossest stupidity in its application’– though it doesn’t draw what to us would be an obvious conclusion, that many of the examples it presents do exactly that.

The essay on Taste concludes with the thought that ‘it is necessary to distinguish the various tastes that have prevailed throughout past ages and preserve them as distinct expressions; otherwise... we should lose all expression, and the very essence of ornament, the conveying of a distinct aesthetic expression, be utterly destroyed.’

The 19th Century was to a large extent the age of copying past styles, in architecture and in design, so when a revolution in art happened, as it was bound to, such styles were rejected.

These days we do not look with admiration at the exhibits of the Great Exhibition, as shown in the catalogue.

Instead, we celebrate the innovation of the Crystal Palace building, with its iron frame holding hundreds of thousands of panes of glass – the precursors of our own architectural environment.

But beware: in another 166 years our own taste may well be viewed with as much disbelief as we summon up for the exhibits of 1851. Tastes will have changed again.