What Was the Crystal Palace?

Unveiled during the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London’s Hyde Park, the Crystal Palace was once a star feature in the United Kingdom.

May 15, 2023By Rosie Lesso, MA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine Art


The Crystal Palace was a vast exhibition hall once set inside Hyde Park, London. Built in 1851 to host the United Kingdom’s first international trade fair, the Great Exhibition of 1851, the palace was a marvel of Victorian engineering, the largest building in the world at the time, designed by the esteemed architect Sir Joseph Paxton. His design featured more than 60,000 glass panes, and a 128-foot-high ceiling, creating a dazzling, light-filled arena for showcasing the latest technological and industrial developments. Originally intended as a temporary structure in London, the palace was moved to a new location in Sydenham, Kent, where it remained until 1936, when it tragically burned down during a fire. Despite being surrounded by danger, death and controversy, the Crystal Palace remains a true icon of British architecture. We track its history and cultural significance. 


An Impressive Structure to Show to the World

crystal palace great exhibition
The Crystal Palace interior during the Great Exhibition of 1851


The idea for the Great Exhibition, and the Crystal Palace, came from the British Royal Society of Arts (RSA). After visiting the impressive Paris World Fair of 1849, RSA member Henry Cole suggested the notion of Britain hosting their own event to Prince Albert, head of the RSA and patron to the arts. Prince Albert agreed to an international showcase that could bolster Britain’s political relationship overseas, and present a vision of Britain as a place of progressive technological advancement. Countries who took part included France, Russia, the United States, Egypt and Turkey. Sir Joseph Paxton was commissioned to create the Crystal Palace to house the vast range of material for the display, based on his earlier experiments with glass house construction. The location for a brand-new exhibition space was a 22-acre plot in Hyde Park, London.


A Temporary Palace in Hyde Park, London

crystal palace joseph paxton
The Crystal Palace by Joseph Paxton, 1851


It took just five months for the Crystal Palace to be completed, and it opened to the public on the 1st of May 1851. More than six million visitors made their way here to marvel at the building and its ingenious exhibits, approximately one third of the British population at the time, a testament to its widespread popularity. However, the future of the building became a subject of fierce debate. Paxton desperately wanted his building to remain in place as a winter palace, but despite his fierce protestations, the government arranged for its removal.


A Palace in Penge Place Estate, Sydenham

crystal palace interior
The interior of Crystal Palace


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Paxton and a group of businessmen were able to secure a new location for Crystal Palace in Sydenham, Kent. The entire palace was removed piece-by-piece and transported to the new location. Paxton even redesigned the building as a larger version of the previous one, with extensive park grounds surrounding it. The new Crystal Palace was unveiled in 1954, with Queen Victoria present to announce its official opening, and more than 40,000 people there to witness it. Due to its grand scale, the building was a prominent landmark that could be seen from London, and which also offered views out to the city. Inside, the palace held a range of historical and modern exhibits. Meanwhile the park grounds were set up as a place for learning and leisure, with water towers, a huge aquarium and a dinosaur park.


A Disaster-Prone Building

the crystal palace london fire
The fire at the Crystal Palace in 1936, that destroyed almost the entire building


Unfortunately, despite its standout success, the Crystal Palace became a magnet for a series of disasters which eventually led to its complete demise. In 1861, strong wind caused significant damage, and in 1866 a fire ravaged through the Crystal Palace, destroying the north wing. Due to financial constraints, only part of the palace could be repaired, leaving it smaller than before. In 1892, a tragic hot air balloon accident happened here, and a few years later a visitor was trampled to death by an escaped elephant.


By 1911, the palace was in dire financial constraints, partly because the sheer size and ambition of the building and its grounds were almost impossible to maintain. In 1936 the worst disaster yet befell the Crystal Palace; a huge fire broke out, destroying almost the entire building and its exhibits. It was never rebuilt, however Crystal Palace Park remains a popular and protected site that is open year round today.

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By Rosie LessoMA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine ArtRosie is a contributing writer and artist based in Scotland. She has produced writing for a wide range of arts organizations including Tate Modern, The National Galleries of Scotland, Art Monthly, and Scottish Art News, with a focus on modern and contemporary art. She holds an MA in Contemporary Art Theory from the University of Edinburgh and a BA in Fine Art from Edinburgh College of Art. Previously she has worked in both curatorial and educational roles, discovering how stories and history can really enrich our experience of art.