Queen Victoria opening  the 1862 International Exhibition

IN this age of competition in every department of industry, and at a time when such extraordinary development is taking place in almost every system, whether it minister to our personal comfort or to our enjoyment, it will be useful and interesting to bear in mind the importance of small beginnings. With this view it is proposed, now that the Society of Arts has put forth a declaration of its intention to hold a second Great Exhibition in 1862, to point out a few historic facts in reference to past exhibitions.

This Society was established by a body of patriotic gentlemen in 1753, for the promotion of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce. With this object they subscribed to a general fund, which they distributed as premiums for the introduction of new raw produce from abroad, the establishment of new industries at home, and the encouragement of an extended love for art among the upper and middle classes of society. Their meetings were first held in a private room at Rawthmell‘s Coffee-house in Henrietta Street, Covent Garden; but the Society soon growing in public estimation, removed to a house of its own opposite Beaufort Buildings; and having thus secured rooms of sufficient magnitude, were enabled to afford facilities to the artists of England to bring together their works, which were exhibited collectively for the first time in England in 1760.

A second exhibition took place in 1761; and owing to the success which attended these first attempts, a Society of Artists was formed, and subsequently the Royal Academy was established. Thus, from a small beginning in 1760, grew one of the most popular and interesting of our national Exhibitions; proving that the Society of Arts, in declaring as it did, in 1849, its intention to hold an Exhibition in 1851, and as it is again doing with reference to an Exhibition in 1862, is only following out the work for which it was founded. But it is necessary that I should not confine my statement to art. The Society held exhibitions of manufactured articles and of machinery from its earliest foundation; and ultimately established a permanent museum of models, which, accumulating from year to year, at length buried each other in the dust of age, and fell, like the Society itself, into decay.

Exhibitions, as now held, are institutions of our own time, and they have grown out of the efforts made by a few far-seeing men, who combined in 1845 for the purpose of resuscitating the Society of Arts; and this they considered could be most readily be effected by directing special attention to the improvement of design and colour in manufactured articles, as by this means a largely improved taste for art might be cultivated, and an extended sympathy with the Society’s operations enlisted. In order the better to carry out this view, the Society of Arts in 1856 offered and awarded a series of special premiums for designs in earthenware, fictile ivory, and other substances; and among the designs rewarded was a tea-service —such objects beings selected as having a place in every home.

The tea-service was peculiar for its simplicity of form and the total absence of colour, and was largely sought for by the public. This induced the council, established in 1847 by Royal Charter, to offer a second series of premiums for designs combining simplicity of form with ornaments printed or otherwise obtained by the use of a single colour. And the designs then asked for were to be sent to the Society in the spring of 1847, and exhibited with those rewarded in 1846; in addition to which were some “select specimens of British manufactures and decorative art.” This series formed the first of the special exhibitions which led to the Exhibition of 1851 —an exhibition which may be said to have had a teacup for its foundation. So much for the importance of small beginnings.

The result of the production of the tea-service here referred to, did not, however, stop with the close of the Exhibition of 1851. A large surplus, amounting to about 240,000 l.. over and above the cost of the Exhibition, remained in the hands of the Royal Commissioners. This sum has since been invested in land at South Kensington, upon which temporary buildings have been erected for a museum, and accommodation provided for the Government Schools of Design.

The museum at South Kensington is daily growing in public favour, but, like all of our public institutions, is the result of small beginnings; for it would almost appear, that our Government is incapable of appreciating and supporting by public grants any large proposition in its entirety: else we should long since have had a National Gallery worthy of the country. The British Museum has been the growth of many years; and from a small collection enclosed within the walls of old Montague House, visible only by tickets, which it often took a month to obtain, it has at length found a home worthy of our country —a home whose doors are open to all comers at all times and is now the finest general collection in England. The Geological Museum, first established in a single room in Craig’s Court, owing to the untiring energy of the late Sir Henry De la Beche. after years of ceaseless labour, obtained from Government the grant of a suitable building in Jermyn Street, and is now one of the most popular educational institutions in England.

Again, the museum of the products of the Vegetable Kingdom, now for the first time lodged in a building in Kew Gardens, capable of affording the necessary facilities for a classified arrangement, is attributable to the energy of Sir William Hooker,whose private collections form the nucleus of this now national institution.

The. British Museum, the National Gallery, the Geological Museum, and the Vegetable Collection at Kew, were all established previous to 1851.The museum at South Kensington, however, has been called into existence since that date, and the Society of Arts may be said to be the founders of the new museum—which consists of educationalapparatus, animal products, and mechanical appliances, with the addition of specimens of theEnglish school of art. At the close of theExhibition of 1851, it was felt that if England was to maintain her position in the race ofindustrial competition, it was n that anincreased amount of attention should be paid to theeducation of her artisans. To efi’ect this point, theSociety of Arts, in 1854, exhibited in St. Martin’s Hall the educational appliances both of England
aid the Continent, so far as they could collect them; and this collection is the basis of the
Educational Museum of South Kensington.

A museum of Industrial Products in England was an acknowledged want, and the donations of exhibitors in 1851 were solicited and obtained, as the basis of a collection of that class; but there still existed another want, which the Society of Arts, jointly with the Royal Commissioners, determined to supply, namely, a collection of the products of the Animal Kingdom. This, under the super-intendence of Mr. Edward Solly, at that time Secretary of the Society of Arts, was obtained and exhibited by the Society, and it now forms the foundation of the animal collection at South Kensington.

Machinery and mechanical appliances still remained unprovided; and here the Society of Arts have again been the instigators of the measures which have enabled the Commissioners of Patents, under the able superintendence of Mr.Bennett Woodcroft, to form the collection of Patented Inventions now exhibited at South Kensington. The condition of the Patent Laws engaged the attention of the Society of Arts as far back as 1850 ; and the Bill which constitutes the amended law, and under which the appointment of Mr. Woodcroft and the publication of the specifications, took place, was based on the principles laid down in the reports made by the Society’s Committee. But the Society’s action neither began nor finished there; for in 1848 it opened, and has since held yearly, an Exhibition of the Models of Machinery and Patented Inventions, and want of space alone has prevented the establishment of a permanent mechanical museum of reference.

In advancing the foregoing facts, there is no desire to detract from the merit due to the
energetic management under which the accumulated collection has been brought together at South Kensington by Mr. Henry Cole; but the importance of the small beginnings instituted by the Society of Arts should not be lost sight of at a time when it is proposed by that Society to take steps for the establishment of a second Universal Exhibition in 1862, and which proposition includes the erection of a permanent building on the ground which was purchased with the surplus money obtained from the Exhibition of 1851.

It is not our intention now to enter upon the discussion of the merits of the proposition put forward, nor to consider the condition of the political atmosphere of Europe; but it may be well to impress on the mind of the public the important results which have already flowed iron: the Exhibition of 1851. England now possesses an Industrial, Art, and Educational Museum. An Art Museum, which illustrates more fully and worthily than has ever before been done, the character of the English School; an Educational Museum, which it never before possessed, and which includes within it the products of the animal kingdom, and which, when added to the Geological Museum in Jermyn Street, and the
Vegetable Museum of Kew, places the products of the three kingdom of nature before the student for ready reference; and an Industrial Collection, which embraces within its wide-spread arms the products of the potter’s wheel, the loom, and the last improved form of the mighty steam-engine, while it at the same time illustrates the means available for constructing healthy homes and increasing the comfort derivable by the working-man in the economic use and treatment of food substances.

If such results have already been reaped in eight years from a single Exhibition —if such
increased facilities for the instruction of the artisan have been created— to what results may we not look forward as likely to flow from a second Exhibition to be held in 1862?

H. G. H. 1860


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