(P136) Heart of Glass

Robin Stringer tours the Dulwich Picture Gallery's new Crystal palace Exhibition.

Living South, February 2004

The Crystal Palace ignites passions. Even now, nearly 70 years after Joseph Paxton's glass Valhalla collapsed in flames, they still run high. Hence the recent history of petitions, angry meetings and court actions over Bromley's plan for a multiplex, confrontations between eco-warriors and officialdom and the continuing controversy over the future of the 12-acre site on top of Sydenham Hill, which at 380 ft above sea level is the highest point in southeast London and commands breathtaking views over London and Kent.


Joseph Nash, The Opening of the Crystal palace by Queen Victoria, June 10th 1854, Private Collection

The chances of it being developed commercially, which so many people found so offensive, seem remote now that Bromley Council, the owner, has agreed to keep the site as Metropolitan Open Land. But a further element of uncertainty has since been introduced into the already complex equation, following the crisis over the future of the Crystal Palace National Sports Centre, and now Ken Livingstone and the Greater London Authority are considering taking over ownership of the park from Bromley.

In an attempt to find a consensus between all the contending interests from the GLA and Bromley through wildlife and amenity organisations to individual residents, the Crystal Palace Park Dialogue Process was established. After a predictably volatile first 12 months, facilitator Nigel Westaway is still hopeful that it will be possible to find sufficient common ground between the 200 [sic] or so organisations and individuals represented in the dialogue. He believes that the next few meetings will be critical, specially in bridging the divide between those who want development on the hilltop and those who do not. Some of the current suggestions for the site will be on show at a new exhibition in Dulwich Picture Gallery this month, which also looks back to the glory days of this wonder of the world.

The display neatly coincides with the 150th anniversary of the completion of the Crystal Palace at Sydenham, Paxton's second attempt which was almost twice as big as that erected in Hyde Park for the Great Exhibition.

Entrusted with evoking the sense of awe and wonder which Victorian visitors must have felt is Jan Piggott, archivist at Dulwich College and author of a new book about Paxton's masterpiece called Palace of the People.

"What we really want to do is to show what it was like to wander through the palace and the gardens, and we have a wealth of contemporary paintings, original photographs and engravings, film clips, plaster casts, books and artefacts to help us.


M D Wyatt, Colossal Figures, Views of Crystal Palace and park, 1854, Private Collection

"The nave held a fantastic Winter Garden of botanical displays and statuary with exhibits of architecture, ethnography and manufacturers. Its architects intended the contents of the Palace to form an 'illustrated encyclopaedia'.

"The whole history of sculpture was on display with several thousand plaster casts of statues representing every important statue you can imagine. Then there were the meticulous archaeological reproductions of the architectural courts, the Assyrian, the Pompeian, the Alhambra, the Gothic and so on, and the colossal Abu Simbel figures standing 65 ft high."

Piggott points out that, compared with the Great Exhibition, the richness and variety of the displays at Sydenham and the events are relatively unknown. Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto had its first British performance there, the Imperial War Museum was born there, and the park hosted the FA Cup Final from 1895 to 1914.

A hugely popular performer at the Palace was the incomparable French acrobat Blondin. Piggott's favourite exhibit, a children's book produced in 1862 which he found in the Bodleian Library in Oxford, shows Blondin cooking an omelette on a stove on the high wire. Even John Ruskin, who likened the Palace to a cucumber frame between two chimneys, attended the Handel concerts and came to see Blondin.

Some idea of the scale of the 1851 and 1854 palaces will be provided by a new perspex model of the 1854 building and a contemporary model of the 1851 exhibition made of cardboard and paper with mica windows. But perhaps the most vivid impression of the grandeur of Paxton's vision is in James Duffield Harding's aft by aft watercolour of the park and palace, viewed from above and behind the dinosaur lake at the bottom of the hill. Laid out in astonishing detail below the palace is the vast park with its terraces, elaborate formal gardens and informal English landscaping, and the complex of fountains, water-temples and cascades designed to upstage Versailles. With two jets that reached 280 ft, 100 ft higher than Nelson's Column, and nearly 12,000 in all if you include all the minor spouts, it seems fair to assume that it | was the most ambitious scheme of its kind in history - too ambitious, if reports that it only ever worked six times are true.


Philip Delamotte, Photographic view of the Crystal palace, Sydenham, Bromley Central Library

"The whole idea was to show the evolution of civilisation from the dinosaurs at the bottom of the hill to the modernity of the British Empire at the top," says Piggott.

"It was saying: 'We have got it taped.' It was pretty smug. The idea also was to teach the people who did not know about the world and transform them into middle-class citizens. But the palace was shut on Sundays which was the only day the working class had off."

Whatever its motives, the scale of its achievement was stupendous. It is an achievement that is recognised in the 1990 Crystal Palace Act, which states that any building erected on the Palace site should reflect the style of Paxton's vision.

It is also recognised in the proposals that make up the second part of the Dulwich exhibition. The Botanic Garden proposal suggests twin conservatories, semi circular in section, enclosing the derelict lower terrace with woodland on the top site.

The Subway proposal recommends restoring the vaulted chambers of the Grade II listed subway which could be used as a Crystal Palace museum and a structure above the entrance to house a butterfly house, a science centre, reptile house and aquarium. The Sculpture Gallery project proposes a sculpture park with its already well-publicised Zeppelin structure standing above the tree line and the gardens below. The footprint of the original Palace would be marked out in a line of light.

Other suggestions include a new Crystal Palace Museum complex to properly commemorate Paxton's astonishing creation, the Paxton Crystal Palace Corner Project, a Viewing Tower, a Winter Garden and a Water Sculpture Workshop.

None of these, of course, has formal backing from any official body. The site is not exactly up for grabs but its future is far from resolved. So the exhibition is making a panel available where visitors can sketch their visions of what they would like to see on the site of the old Crystal Palace. Got any ideas?

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Exibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery "Crystal Palace at Sydenham", Jan Piggott- more details see

16/2/04 Last Updated 16/2/04