The strange British genius for turning media production into a prolonged spectacle, which we have seen during the hackgate scandal, dates back at least to the Great Exhibition of 1851 I would say. Reading through the huge profusion of books produced to coincide with that event one is struck by the advanced way in which the organizers thought of it as a mediated spectacle even before it happened. Routledge’s Guide to the Great Exhibition in 1851 one of these many products explains this in the first paragraph of its introduction: ‘Thousands and thousands throngs from all grades of society will witness it… while it will be presented to still greater numbers by the aid of pictures, by descriptions of in the languages of the principal nations and by each eye witness becoming as it were a lecturer upon what he has seen when he returns to his own country.’
In architectural terms the Crystal Palace may have been a single structure but it was also a celebration of reproduction. Paxton, describing his plan with pride declared that “a section of one part shows the whole’. However the palace was not simply a celebration of standardization, but more a theatrical approach to it. From west to east the flooring of the Palace was slightly inclined, as the Companion, puts it: ‘like the stage of a theatre’. What I find particularly fascinating about the Palace though was that they built an engine house nearby in order to power an on site printing press. It was effectively the site of its own dissemination. Made by serial production, it was mediated by serial production.
What is astonishing about the coverage of the newspapers is not simply that they covered it a great length but that they covered it chronologically. Of course the state opening would get a big notice but papers like the Guardian published the daily experiences of their reporters at the Exhibition, noting meticulously, firstly the weather (of course) and then the shifting patterns of interest in different areas of the event.
“The room for the reception of agricultural implements attracted but little regard, their contents having a more immediate interest for those who it may be supposed are deferring a visit to London until a reduction in the price of admission… shall have placed its advantages more within reach.”
The French may have held several exhibitions in Paris in the earlier part of the century but the English seized the opportunity to firstly internationalize the event and secondly mediate it. Different publishers, all with familiar names, vied with each other for supremacy. W.M. Clark’s The Crystal Palace and Its Contents: An Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Great Exhibition of 1851 was published in weekly parts from October 1851 to March 1852. It opens with an exhaustive list of the contents of the book and the exhibition. In its Introductory Address, the editor suggests that ‘the advantages intended to society through this great undertaking will mainly depend upon the record of important facts eliminated, and the valuable examples presented to observation.’
A whole industry of printing, publishing and journalism stepped up to try and cover the scale of the Exhibition. Two official catalogues were made: a large one and a smaller condensed one. In the introduction to the former, Robert Ellis the editor of the official Catalogue narrates meticulously how four different forms were edited down to make the main catalogue and then the second condensed version of a portable size. The construction of the catalogue is part of the event. ‘The danger of inaccuracy also in the scientific descriptions and in their literary construction required attention,’ he writes, adding a note of drama. ‘A number of scientific gentlemen’ were convened to proof the pages. 48 pages of advertisements are added to the catalogues 320 pages of description.
The range is what is most staggering about the reportage on the event, with every conceivable reader catered for. Most spectacular though is architect Sir Matthew Digby Wyatt’s The Industrial Arts of the Nineteenth Century, which is effectively one of the most ostentatious but superbly, delivered pieces of lithography ever, performed by Day and Son. Showing selected items from the Exhibition which had been produced by a team of 20 draftsmen and a large number of lithographers, it featured astonishing prints of items entitled, ‘Specimens of painted lacquer work from Lahore,’ ‘Window Ornament from Tunis,’ ‘The Crystal Fountain by F & C Osler of Birmingham. From 1st October 1851 to 7th March 1853, 160 colored lithographed plates of the highest quality were published.
The Post-script to the collected lithographs explains the purpose as not primarily concerned with informing a public but in showing off a production skills. “Shortly after the opening of the Great Exhibition, the Publisher called upon the author and stating his desire to demonstrate, upon a great scale, the capabilities of colourprinting as an auxiliary to industrial education requested him to undertake this work,” writes the editor. He then goes on to explain the publishing process. Originally the publishers intended to serialize the work in 38 parts, once every two weeks, but then realized they wanted to serialize the publishing in five larger parts so found themselves having to increase the number of smaller parts to forty, selling them for 7 shillings and 6 pence each. The first number appeared on the 1st of October and the last will have been published on the 7th March 1853. Jones calculated that it had required 25 tons of stone to create the lithographs.
In Society of the Spectacle Guy DeBord notes, ‘in a world that is truly upside down the true is a moment of false.’ And much as satirists have been having a field day pointing out the disparities between reality and reportage during the #hackgate scandal it is only in the pages of the Radical progressive magazine Punch that we really understand and appreciate the Great Exhibition in context. Initially the satirical magazine had derided the project but as it opened and was received well by the very proletariat that Punch wished to see enfranchised the magazine changed tack and acknowledged its generally positive impact. Indeed the magazine used it as a stick to beat other less efficient institutions.
The satirical magazine notes ‘that we are this year treated with the meeting in London of two very striking extremes in the shape of the Exhibition of Industry at Crystal Palace, and the Exhibition of Idleness at the Palace of Westminster.’ The magazine uses the Palace as a means of criticizing the delay in getting the budget passed. ‘It is expected that by the time our visitors arrive from aboard, the arrangement of doing nothing will be quite complete.”
In another issue the magazine notes that thanks to the Great Exhibition the year of 1851 “seems to the Year of Expectations”. It goes on to note “Everyone is expecting something! Every lodging-house-keeper is expecting to let her lodgings at three and four and five times the normal rent… Every bigoted Englishman … expects to see every foreigner with long moustachios, long beard and long hair and dirty habits.’ It concludes: ‘we can only say that amongst so may expectations more or less fragile that it will be a very great wonder if a few of them are not broken.’
The British press is often typified by its extremes: from its most scurrilous publications like the now defunct News of the World to organs such as the BBC who at their best provide exceptional reportage. What makes British media so rich is its profusion, partly because of class distinctions. The contradictions that arise from this relationship gives the papers their bite whilst also making them at times, tiresomely self-referential. Just as publishers in the 1850s realized new ways of turning the Great Exhibition into a serial publishing event, so wiley editors of respectable papers have realized today that leaks now come in large format and that if you release them slowly using online and social media network dissemination, followed by analysis in print, you can ride the surf of a scandal for much longer.