B.21 - The Palace of the People - Sydenham 1854

by Jan Piggott, Keeper of the Archives, Dulwich College

Prelude to an Exhibition in 2004 to mark the 150th anniversary of the Sydenham Crystal Palace. it will be held at the Dulwich Picture Gallery and a book will be published to complement the exhibition.


Just above Dulwich, the Crystal Palace stood on the horizon for eighty-two years, a glittering crown to the bosky Sydenham Hill. Opened by Queen Victoria on June 10th, 1854, the Palace was on a colossal scale: it took double the amount of glass used by Paxton for the Crystal Palace at Hyde Park in 1851. For its first thirty years the Palace and Gardens drew an average of two million visitors annually. What went on at this 'Palace of the People'? What did it look like inside and out?

The interior nave was originally a Winter Garden with extraordinary botanical displays and statuary. To the sides were found most wonderful and at times bizarre displays of architecture, industry, ethnography and natural history. By its charter the Crystal Palace was bound to keep up the 'high moral and social tone' of the Great Exhibition of 1851, and there was much instruction as well as entertainment.

The vast sloping park was laid out with terraces, elaborate formal gardens and informal English landscape gardening. The waterworks fountains, water temples and cascades were intended to surpass Versailles; the main jet was higher than Nelson's column, and the system could pump 120,000 gallons a minute. The Park was even educational: the features included 'geological illustrations' and a prototype of the 'theme park'- twenty-nine life-size dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures.

The building and contents reflected the interests of its designers. Sir Joseph Paxton constructed his famous modular building of prefabricated units of cast iron and glass; Ruskin from his house on the nearby Herne Hill jeered at the 'cucumber frame' between the 'two chimneys' of Brunel's water-tower. Paxton's great botanical knowledge and enthusiasm garnered rare plants into the grandest conservatory in history, and his study of garden history shaped the Park. Paxton's building survived until the great fire of 1936 as a monument to and a symbol of the Victorian age; by this date it had also become an icon of the architectural Modern Movement, both English and continental.

Inside the Palace the academic knowledge and originality of Matthew Digby Wyatt and particularly of Owen Jones, the 'colour king', resulted in the polychromatic architectural structures, resembling film sets, of the Fine Art Courts. These taught a sequence of the main architectural styles of the world, seen most ambitiously in the Assyrian and Egyptian Courts, which included brick and plaster reproductions of the Aboo Simbel figures, sixty-five-feet high, showing the seated Rameses the Great; these were consumed in the North Transept fire of 1867.


The illustration is taken from the catalogue of the exhibition

"The Crystal Palace at Sydenham and the Architectural Courts"

held in the Wodehouse Library at Dulwich College on 18 January to 18 February 1988.

The Exhibition 2004

The exhibition with its wealth of contemporary paintings, original photographs and engravings makes possible an imaginary visit to the Palace and Gardens. The relation to the 'Parent Building' at Hyde Park and to the Great Exhibition is demonstrated; in general the 1851 exhibition is well known, but the extraordinary richness and range of the displays and activities at Sydenham are mostly unfamiliar.

The exhibition shows memorabilia from the entertainments up at the Palace: musical premieres and (from 1859) the famous Handel festivals, sports and the Empire exhibition of 1911 held out of doors. The air space above the Park was used most imaginatively for fireworks displays with the strange art form of elaborate coruscating set pieces representing scenes such as battles or Antarctic exploration, for balloon ascents and for Blondin to cook an omelette on a high wire. The Palace was a Naval Depot during the First World War, and became the obvious popular setting for brass band festivals' cat shows, pantomimes, mass baptisms and boxing matches. Spectacular film footage shows the fire of 30 November, 1936.

The exhibition places the Crystal Palace in the context of social and cultural history, of national and local history, of the history of museums, of public education in architecture, and of the history of taste; it raises issues of commercialised leisure.

Ed: Jan Piggott, at Dulwich College, is preparing an exhibition in 2004 on the Sydenham Crystal Palace to mark the 150th anniversary of its opening on Sydenham Hill. The exhibition will be held at Dulwich Picture Gallery and there will be a book to complement the occasion.

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17/11/02 Last Updated 17/11/02