‘A complete and universal collection’
Gottfried Semper and the Great Exhibition
Pages 13

In the spring of 1851 London witnessed an event described by Queen Victoria as

‘The most beautiful and imposing and touching spectacle ever seen’.1 The Great

Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations opened in May and closed six

months later, having been visited by almost one fifth of Britain’s population. The

Great Exhibition presented an encyclopaedic overview of human ingenuity in

the midst of the unfolding industrial revolution – machines and weapons, art

and architecture, possible and impossible products of industry including

‘philosophical instruments’ such as the ‘expanding figure of a man composed of

7,000 working parts’. Artefacts were assembled from past and present, far and

near, on an unprecedented scale, comprising more than 100,000 objects from all

corners of the world. Among the incredulous audience witnessing the Hyde Park extrava-

ganza was a young and ambitious German architect, Gottfried Semper. Temporarily stranded in London as a political refugee, Semper found opportunity both for employment and contemplation at the Great Exhibition. Organising several of the national exhibits, he had intimate knowledge of the display and ample time to reflect on its significance.2 His verdict was mixed. He lamented the vacuous historicism of the mass-produced goods, their borrowed styles and faux materials. Yet he admired the comparative principle upon which the exhibition was based, seeing its comprehensive overview of human ingenuity as a possible key to contemporary design. This hope would become a predominant aspiration in Semper’s theoretical work, pursuing as he did a ‘method of inventing’ for modern architecture. The following chapter investigates this aspiration as it came to expression in the Great Exhibition and in texts inspired by the event, shedding new light on the inherent modernity of nineteenth-century historicism and encouraging reconsideration of the often misconstrued relationship between historicism and modernism.