A People Passing Rude
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5.  The Crystal Palace Exhibition and Britain’s Encounter with Russia

Scott Ruby

The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations, sometimes referred to as the Crystal Palace Exhibition, was the first World’s Fair Exhibition and focused on culture and industry. This international exhibition took place in Hyde Park, London, from 1 May to 15 October 1851 in an enormous fantastical glass and reinforced iron structure, from whence the ‘Crystal Palace’ designation derives. The grandeur of the exhibition was enhanced immediately upon entrance as the visitor was met by an enormous glass fountain designed by Osler of Birmingham. The fountain contained iron bars embedded within the glass for support. Although the Exhibition was intended as a platform on which countries from around the world could display their achievements, Great Britain was a dominant force and in fact occupied the entire western section of the exhibition.

In 1851 foreign goods were not as familiar as they are today and the exhibition provided a vicarious way of travelling the globe. ‘The exhibition offered cultural diversity and geographic scope during a period when people’s lives were still highly localised’.1 There was enormous uncertainty prior to the exhibition opening as to the extent of the foreign participation in the exhibition. In many cases the distances involved were such that no information was available about what was being sent until it actually arrived. This was certainly the case with Russia’s Great Exhibition, the United States’s and others.

Two Great Exhibition catalogues were produced, the first was intended as a smaller guide priced at 1 shilling The other was the ‘Official Descriptive and Illustrated Catalogue’ of the exhibition and was conceived as something much more monumental, costing the substantial sum of £3.3s. This cost provided the purchaser with ‘a record of the most varied and wonderful collection of objects ever beheld, and […] a book of reference to the philosopher, merchant, and manufacturer’.2

The organizers were counting on various exhibits for their crowd-pulling power. The Russian and Austrian exhibits were considered highly important in this regard and were referred to as the ‘Lions of the Exhibition’. These exhibits included works from royal collections and works of art. Also included were works that depicted royalty or politicians, which proved extremely popular in a simpler age less used to mass-produced imagery.

Most foreign displays were organized by state governments. The foreign sections had an emphasis on luxury, splendour and magnificence and wealth. The Russian and Austrian displays in particular seemed to be produced in order to show to the outside world the power of the imperial state in terms of art and artefacts. The exhibition allowed direct comparison between countries and the way was opened for governments to begin competing with one another. However, there was some fear as to what this competition might mean. In Britain, many producers had viewed the Exhibition suspiciously, as an event that would allow foreign manufacturers to spy on British production techniques. For a conservative power such as Russia, participation in the Exhibition was an extremely sensitive matter. At the beginning of April 1851, foreign secret police reports began to show that notorious revolutionaries were using the Exhibition as an excuse to travel to London and proselytise among their countrymen. Russia immediately stopped issuing passports and stepped-up its efforts to prevent certain elements of Russian society from travelling to London.

Russia’s goals in participation, as stated in the Russian press, were not to compete with other countries but to educate foreigners about Russian agriculture and industry.3 While the tsar established an imperial commission to organize Russian participation, other government institutions were appealed to directly for participation. For example, the Ministry of the Imperial Court was asked to contribute examples of decorative art produced at the Imperial factories specializing in porcelain, lapidary and cut stone. However, like many of the agricultural interests involved in the exhibition, these artistic manufacturers worried that their European colleagues might regard their work as inferior. By early September 1850 the Russian Imperial Commission had begun preparations for shipping exhibits to England. Approximately 376 exhibitors were involved, including well-known industrialists such as the Demidov Brothers, whose display of malachite decorative objects dominated the Russian display. Few proposed exhibits were turned down, though displays considered odd were rejected, such as an unusually large ear of rye and the idiosyncratic work of a peasant clock-maker who turned elements of agricultural machinery into clocks.

At the time of the Great Exhibition writers regularly expressed fear and distrust of foreigners. Real or perceived, the differences between foreign people and the British were thought of as of immutable national characteristics. The World’s Fair: Or, the Children’s Prize Gift Book even used national characteristics as a theme. The English were industrious and persevering; Indians were poor and simple; Turks were a handsome race of people, but prone to a fiery temperament. Italians were beggars and bandits and not particularly industrious, although their country had a good climate. Germans were thoughtful, romantic and well-educated; the Dutch industrious and tidy. Northern Europeans were held in highest regard, followed by southern Europeans, with Russians, Asians, Africans and American Indians bringing up the rear.

Some writers used a country’s ‘otherness’ as a jumping-off point for a story. One example which features English people encountering Russians was Thomas Onwhyn’s Mr. & Mrs. Brown’s Visit to London to see the Great Exhibition of All Nations. How they were astonished at its wonders, inconvenienced by the crowds, and frightened out of their wits by the Foreigners. In the Crystal Palace the Browns meet a Don Cossack who has bushy hair, is dressed in military garb and carries a sword. The caption for this meeting reads ‘A good natured Don Cossack takes notice of Anna Maria, much to her terror’.4 For many in Britain, Russia represented an unknown; it conjured up images of a barbaric people living in arctic cold and ruled by tyrannical despots—a view established by English travel accounts of the 16th century, which remained remarkably powerful into the Victorian period. In many ways the presence of a Russian display at the Great Exhibition was an attempt to combat Russophobia and the Russian stereotypes commonly held in the Western mind.

Alexis de Valon seemed to capture in a few words what many British people felt about Russia and its image problem at the Great Exhibition. He wrote: ‘I do not know Russia and this causes me much regret. It seems that there is not another country in the entire world about which such a false understanding is held’.5 When the British invited all nations to the Great Exhibition, Russian officials viewed this as an opportunity to put right misconceptions about the Empire and to demonstrate Russia’s rich natural resources, industrial achievements and her native ingenuity. Since Britain was also the major purchaser of Russian exports, Russia regarded participation in the exhibition as a wise strategy in terms of maintaining a favourable public opinion.

Like France, the United States and many other foreign exhibitors, Russia’s display was largely incomplete on the opening day. The shipment from Odessa and one shipment from St Petersburg had arrived in the autumn of 1850. However, a second shipment from St Petersburg was delayed by ice floes in the Baltic Sea and a third shipment had not even set sail by the opening of the exhibition. The display was finally completed and opened to the public on 7 June 1851. The Russian commissioner, Gavril Kamenskii, performed most of the installation with help from the Ministries of State Domains and Finance. He and his colleagues worked day and night to make sure the display was complete. There were four galleries in the Russia section, which neighboured the United States to the east and the exhibits of pre-unification Germany (Zollverein) to the west.

Among the avid visitors to the exhibition was Queen Victoria. She recorded her impressions of the visit:

11 June. To the Exhibition: with our relatives. We went first to look at the Russian exhibits, which have just arrived and are very fine: doors, chairs, a chimney piece, a piano as well as vases in malachite, specimens of plate and some beautifully tasteful and very lightly set jewelry […] we came home at a quarter to 12 and I felt quite done and exhausted, mentally exhausted.6

In some ways the Russian display was a more extreme version of Austria’s. There was almost a complete absence of machine-produced goods. Instead, raw materials formed a large part of the display. Art was used to demonstrate wealth and power, and colossal vases and architectural elements in stone (such as malachite and jasper) helped to make this point along with costly jewellery. Industrial produce, including cast iron, was also of a gigantic scale, as though size were a substitute for complexity. Almost all of these works were created by state-producers, from the Imperial copper works of Bogoslovskii and Perm’, the Aleksandrovskii cannon foundry and the metal works of Artinsk, Narnoulsk and Koushvinsk, to name but a few. The power of the state was clearly the watchword for the Russian display.

The Russian exhibition was divided into two halves by the exhibition’s main aisle. Machinery, manufacturers’ goods and fine art were on the north side, while raw materials were on the south. The raw materials section was divided into four sections. First: silk, chintz and yarn; second: hemp, flax hides, leather and felt. Ores and ingots from Russian mines formed the third, and the fourth was dedicated to chemical products. The northern section contained one large room hung with pomegranate-red cloth. Pieces from the Demidov’s malachite factory were on display in the centre, along with porcelains, mosaics and other objets d’art from the imperial factories and private craftsmen. Along the sides of the rooms were galvanized medals designed by Count Tolstoi to commemorate Russia’s 1812 victory; tools, cutlery and other objects, specimens of decorative paper, ornamental arms, and inlaid wood ornamented the walls. Ten-foot tall bronze candelabra stood alongside the columns at the entryway. At the back of the gallery there was machinery for making sails, as well as three carriages and two sleighs. On the second floor the Russian display continued with furs, mohair, shawls, lace and other miscellaneous items.

The Russian sections created an absolute sensation with the public. According to The Times, the beauty of the Russian section was phenomenal. The Illustrated London News gushed that ‘only a fairy palace could be furnished with such incredible malachite […] brilliant green […] malachite with its curled waviness like the pattern of watered silk and its perfect polished surface […] heightened by the burnished gold of the paneling and ornaments.’7 The gilt bronze candelabra by Moscow maker Krumbigel were deemed ‘impossible to excel’.8 Further, an ebony cabinet decorated with an arrangement of fruit was cited by The Times as ‘one of the chief wonders of the exhibition’.9 The Prince of Wales said of this piece that the amethyst currants depicted on its lid were delectable enough to eat. These successes were matched by the poor reception given to the grains and ores, which were judged ‘unattractive’ by the press.

One of the prize objects on display in the Russian section was a magnificent lidded silver beaker made by the firm of Sazikov. The celebrated silver making company was started by Pavel Sazikov (d. 1830) in Moscow in 1810. In 1837 Pavel was succeeded by his son Ignatii (1796-1868), who opened a branch in St Petersburg in 1837. The firm became one of the best known in Russia and was one of the first to employ a mechanized process in the production of silver. By the 1840s, Sazikov had machines for rolling, guilloché and polishing. He had also started to divide his workers by tasks so they could work more efficiently and faster. In 1844 Sazikov received the Imperial warrant and a year later established a school for training young students, one of the first of its kind in the country.10 The firm was particularly adept at working in the new ‘Russian style’, which became popular after the publication of Fedor Solntsev’s monumental tome recording the antiquities of the Russian state, Drevnosti Rossiiskago gosudarstva (1849-53). The newly rediscovered vocabulary of Russian design galvanized decorative arts in the country by bringing to light ancient decorative patterns that were commented upon in the media. In 1849 a correspondent with the St Petersburg newspaper, Severnaia pchela (Northern Bee), described this usage:

The St Petersburg public was full of admiration for Mr. Sazikov’s… [objects] in the new Russian style, based on ancient designs and forms of jewelry in the Kremlin’s Palace of Facets. Mr. Sazikov has resurrected and firmly established in Russia the art of Benvenuto Cellini.11

Sazikov’s prestige in St Petersburg and his commissions from the Imperial family undoubtedly influenced his selection to participate in the Crystal Palace Exhibition in London. For this event he sent 29 objects, mostly in the Russian style. Eleven are illustrated in the Official Catalogue, among which was a tall, lidded cup now at Hillwood Museum in Washington DC. Interlace patterns embellish the cup, which is further ornamented by raised spheres and ellipses.


Fig. 5.1 Ignatii Pavlovich Sazikov (1796-1868), Covered Cup, 1851, St Petersburg, Russia. Silver gilt. Hillwood Estate, Museum, & Gardens, Washington, D.C. Photography: Edward Owen.

One writer commenting on Sazikov’s pieces remarked:

The Russian contributions to the Crystal Palace evince a large amount of costly splendour combined with quaint and characteristic design, showing much fantasy in the Art-manufactures who have been engaged in their fabrication… There is a very free and fanciful taste prevalent in these articles, which gives them a strong individuality of character.12

In many ways world exhibits such as the Russian display in 1851 replaced the ceremonies surrounding royal weddings, coronations, and diplomatic receptions as opportunities to show off the latest style. The challenge to Russia was to present positively a largely unknown ‘other’ to the world. This attempt was successful. As a later reviewer, commenting generally about the Great Exhibition, noted ‘a taste for art is largely aided by exhibitions’.13 In the case of Russia, the Great Exhibition had the effect of pulling aside a veil that had obscured Russia’s artistry; now her achievements were displayed for the world to appreciate.


  1   John R. Davis, The Great Exhibition (Trowbridge, 1999), p. 71. Davis and Fisher (note 3) provide the general informational background to this essay and will only be footnoted hereafter when directly quoted.

  2   Davis, p. 102.

  3   David C. Fisher, quoting Ob’iavlienie ot vysochaishe i uchezhdennoi v s.-Peterburge komissii o Londonskoi vystavke (St Petersburg, 1850), in his ‘Russia and the Crystal Palace in 1851’, in Jeffery A. Auerbach and Peter H. Hoffenberg (eds.), Britain, the Empire, and the World at the Great Exhibition of 1851 (London, 2008), p. 126.

  4   Fisher, pp. 173-4.

  5   Fisher, p. 123.

  6   C.H. Gibbs-Smith, The Great Exhibition of 1851 (London, 1964), p. 21.

  7   Fisher, p. 136, quoting ‘The Russian Court’, Illustrated London News, 18/496 (1851), p. 597.

  8   Ibid., quoting Illustrated London News, 19/515 (1851), p. 304.

  9   Fisher, p. 136, quoting The Times, 9 June 1851, p. 8.

10   Anne Odom, Russian Silver in America: Surviving the Melting Pot (London, 2011), p. 150.

11   Odom, p. 180, quoted by Zavadskaia, in ‘Gold and Silver in St. Petersburg, 1830-1850’, in Géza von Habsburg, Fabergé: Imperial Craftsman and His World (London, 2000), p. 51.

12   Crystal Palace Exhibition Catalogue (London, 1851), pp. 266-7.

13   Prof. Archer, ‘The Influence which the Exhibition of 1851 and Those Held Subsequently Have Had in the Diffusion of a Knowledge of Art’, The British Architect (1875), pp. 306-7.