Thursday, February 23, 2012

The 1853 Dublin Exhibition of Art-Industry

Illustration: Central Hall of the Dublin Exhibition, 1853.

With the publicity surrounding the ground-breaking Great Exhibition held in Hyde Park, London in 1851, publicity that has made it as enduring an event today as it was one hundred and sixty one years ago, it is often tempting to think that it was the only significant event of its kind in Britain for some time after 1851. However, another international exhibition was held a mere two years after London, this one in Dublin.

The Exhibition of Art-Industry opened in Dublin on 12th may 1853 within the Irish Industrial Exhibition building which had been especially commissioned and built for the occasion. The Exhibition was in fact a grander version of exhibitions that had been running on a regular basis for a number of years and were part of the Dublin calendar of events. However, previous exhibitions had been limited to products that had been produced in Ireland, not internationally.

Illustration: Items from the Hall of Irish Antiquities at the Dublin Exhibition, 1853.

Apart from the fact that the Dublin Exhibition building was only a quarter the size of the original Crystal palace building in London, the event was very similar in many respects to the Great Exhibition of 1851. That exhibition was used very largely as a platform to project the image of Britain to the world; the Dublin event equally gave Ireland the chance to project its own unique identity on to a potentially international stage. 

Although all or most of the internationally staged exhibitions of the last century and a half have used the event to highlight the achievements or flavour of a particular nation or region, they have usually been organised by sovereign states. The Dublin event of 1853 gave what was perceived by many in Europe and North America as a subjugated sovereign state, the opportunity to have a voice independent from Britain and more importantly London. In this respect, the feel and flavour of the Dublin Exhibition was very different from that of London. The Roman Catholic Church for example, played a much higher profile than it would have been allowed to have done in London, and although Pugin's Medieval Court was both tolerated and indeed popularised and admired by the crowds, it was contained and portrayed by the press as being shorn of any real Catholic influence or idealism.
Illustration: Contemporary Irish jewellery inspired by the Celtic traditions of Ireland shown at the Dublin Exhibition, 1853.

Interestingly, there was a Medieval Court at the Dublin Exhibition, and although Pugin himself had died the previous year, his collaborator John Hardman produced the Medieval Court for Dublin. It is highly probable that had Pugin lived he would have been enthusiastically involved in the Dublin exhibition along with its more overt Catholicism. An interesting description of the Medieval Court from a London perspective can be found in a copy of The Civil Engineer and Architect's Journal for May 1853:

The medieval court has been fitted up with great care and elaboration. Window of stained glass, representing a number of figures of saints, serve to throw "a dim religious light" on altars, crucifixes, paschal candlesticks, credence tables, priests' vestments, lecterns, chalices, ciboriums, monstrances, triptics, and other "furniture" of a Roman Catholic church. Mr Hardman of Birmingham, who has the charge of this department, has had the roof painted and gilded with various designs suited to ecclesiastical decoration, so as to give to the medieval court almost a sacred character in the eyes of Roman Catholics, who enter it with looks of reverence that ill accord with the fiery glances of puritanical visitors.

As with the previous exhibition of 1851, the Dublin event was a strange combination of the contemporary industrial and the traditional craft. many of us would not necessarily see this as being a natural or comfortable combination, but many in the mid-nineteenth century saw no real problem in both admiring the significant strides made by Victorian technology whilst also admiring the traditions of the decorative arts.

Illustration: Contemporary and antique Irish jewellery at the Dublin Exhibition, 1853.

The Dublin Exhibition therefore highlighted in a series of exhibits, features of traditional Irish decorative life that was very much part of the pre-English and Scottish interference in Ireland, namely its Celtic heritage. One of the obvious contributors to the history of both European and world decorative art, Ireland was seen by many as the natural home of Celtic decoration and ornament. Therefore, examples of Celtic art that were both traditional and of contemporary inspiration were included in the exhibition. Some examples of the intricate Celtic inspired jewellery work that was on display at the exhibition are featured in this article.

On reflection, the Dublin exhibition was perhaps not as internationally successful as the organisers would have hoped and wished. On the whole the London press gloated on the fact that the Dublin event lost money and was under-represented internationally. They seemed at great pains to portray Dublin as an after-event to the London exhibition of 1851. Many in London found the idea of any form of subsequent exhibitions as a pointless exercise as the feeling was that the earlier exhibition had defined the contemporary moment of the mid-nineteenth century and that that moment had been largely seen as British, and as an international industrial event there seemed little point in Dublin restating the facts that had already been made. However, the Dublin press were equally exuberant and positive that an event on such a scale had been organised entirely within Ireland. There were in fact significant entries from France, Belgium, the Netherlands, some of the German states including Prussia, as well as the United States. The British Empire was also represented, particularly India which made as impressive an impact on the public as it had in London in 1851. English and Scottish textile companies were particularly well represented as a number saw the event as a means of competing with the relatively large Irish textile industry. Significantly, what much of the London press perhaps failed to understand was the significance that could be accrued through self-publicity by holding an event on an international scale as well as the potential in trade. Therefore, international exhibitions have been held constantly since that point in the mid-nineteenth century and are the mainstay for many industries today.

Illustration: Contemporary jewellery and copies of antique Scottish jewellery at the Dublin Exhibition, 1853.

As far as Dublin, and more importantly Ireland as a whole was concerned, the feeling was that they were heavily unrepresented as far as trade and industry were concerned. That they were politically and socially subsumed within the artificial empire-making conglomerate that had become the United Kingdom, was blatantly clear, that the identity of their trade and industry was also largely hidden within the UK, was perhaps not so clear. Ireland was often portrayed and imagined by London as little more than a backward colony of the British Empire suitable only for raw recruits for its empire-building army, and although technically seen as an important and integral part of the United Kingdom, practically it was often treated as being near non-existent.

Although much of Ireland was not to see any real practical disengagement from the United Kingdom and the British Empire until well into the twentieth century, events such as the 1853 Dublin Exhibition of Art-Industry did produce the beginnings of a separation of identity on the world stage, if not in London. The event and others like it across Ireland began to create a contemporary awareness in the concept of Ireland as a state rather than a region, and a state that could contribute towards the contemporary world, whether through the traditions of its own unique decorative crafts, or its contemporary industry and technology.

Further reading links:


Eli said...

I love Irish ornaments! Thanks a lot!

pansypoo said...

heysti feel teevee has effected design devolution as well. but then the internets is making the boob tube less attractive

Heckety said...

This is fascinating, and your comment about Ireland using this Exhibition to begin asserting her own identity makes complete sense historically.
The first engraving of the Hall bears many design similarities to the present Exhibition Hall of the RDS. Do you know if the original building survives, and if so, what it is now?

Thank you for this article, it is very interesting to me!

John hopper said...

Like most international exhibitions, the hall was dismantled when the exhibition ended. I can't find out what happened to the pieces and no one seems to know, perhaps it was sold as scrap to try to recuperate some of the original expense.

It is a fascinating exhibition, partly for coming along so close behind the Great Exhibition of 1851 and partly for being held in Dublin. It is a shame that it is not better known. I only hope I did it some kind of justice.

textilehistorIE said...

High five! Great post. Delighted to have a post from you on Dublin! I was on the cusp of looking into this event in more detail myself; if I have anything to add, I'll come back and add another comment. Hurrah! :)

John hopper said...

Thanks very much for your comment. I have also wanted to feature the Dublin exhibition of 1853 for some time, but it took a while to get the right illustrations together. It many ways it gives a fascinating insight into trade and industry in mid-nineteenth century Ireland. I hope to include articles at a later date concerning the substantial Irish textile industry.

textilehistorIE said...

That sounds great John, am very much looking forward to it.