World’s First World Fair: The Palace and the Water Lily

The building’s chief architect, Joseph Paxton, was not an architect by training. He was a gardener.

By Eric Bies in 3Quarks Daily: May of 1851, London, the world’s first World Fair. Just about Anyone who was (or was bound to be) Anyone was in attendance at the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations—a mouthful—among them: Charles Babbage, Charles Darwin, and Charles Dickens; Charlotte Brontë, Lewis Carroll, and George Eliot; Karl Marx, William Morris, and Alfred Tennyson; Tolstoy (a playboy, beardless and boyish) and Flaubert (accompanied by his mother).

If we were there we could have followed them: down the paths and over the lawns—beneath the little boys perched in the trees—thousands of visitors, many of whom had patronized this stretch of Hyde Park in the past, now encountered a new kind of structure rising from the green. Taking it all in, the word “magnificent” sprang to mind; in a chorus they called it the Crystal Palace—and no wonder, with its million square feet of floor space and monumental façade of leaping glass and iron.

What all went inside? Apart from the full-grown trees and gallant blocks of statuary, a quick glance at a single page of the Exhibition’s Official Descriptive and Illustrated Catalogue instantly gluts the eye. This taxonomical mountain of close-set type, ranging over 3,000 pages in four volumes, threatens an avalanche of things: a portable steam engine, a hydraulic seed press, a pedestal planisphere, a bath of enameled copper, Irish bog-yew furniture, a triform railway signal, crystals of sulfate of iron, an overshot water-wheel, a hydraulic lifting jack, a low-bodied dog cart, a self-acting duplex lathe, an India-rubber air-gun, a liquid manure cart, a sheep-dipping apparatus, bar and frame beehives, an imitation oak timepiece, a black marble timepiece, a couch designed for invalids, a salinometer, an electric telegraph, racing whips, a pyro-pneumatic stove-grate, ornamented fire-dogs, a copper coal-scuttle, vulcanized valve-cocks, an Etruscan tea-urn, serpentine obelisks, a battle-ax, a shield of deer-skin, a bark canoe, a scale model of the steam-ship Medea—and much, much more.

Of course, such a spectacle came with its detractors. Take Thomas Carlyle, who mocked the structure’s crystalline shimmer for its resemblance to the sudsy substance of a soap bubble. Or John Ruskin, who, having just published the first volume of The Stones of Venice, shrank from the sheer quantity of artless glass. Or, yet, Fyodor Dostoevsky: touring London a decade later, he took one look at the polished sprawl (which, meanwhile, had been torn down and rebuilt on the other side of the Thames) and stuck out his tongue.

The building’s chief architect, Joseph Paxton, was not an architect by training. He was a gardener. And though Victoria’s England could not quite call itself the Quattrocento, the era remained capable of embracing a polymath spirit (the nineteenth being perhaps the last century to do so). A handful of figures from the period meet the description; few are as readily granted membership to that class of Copernican minds, restless and ingenious in equal measure, as Paxton, the man Charles Dickens dubbed “the busiest in England.”

Recognized as the head gardener for the 6th Duke of Devonshire, he had made his name overseeing the vast estates at Chatsworth House in Derbyshire, quick to render the place a notable tourist destination for the surpassing beauty of its grounds. For Paxton, no request, no challenge, from the Duke would go unanswered. Project by project, the necessity of excellence prompted not only the design of sublime landscapes and intricate waterworks but some of the first modern greenhouses. His innovative use of glass and iron in particular, manifested in the invention of a ridge-and-furrow roof, supplied a novel solution to the ongoing question of preservation—neither a new question, nor one for which the existing solutions had advanced much further than those at hand at the time of the Crucifixion, when Tiberian horticulturists contrived sheets of mica to shelter the Roman Empire’s first oranges. In Paxton’s case, the question came down to comparable parameters: how to guard his powerful employer’s exotic and fragile investments (orchids, ferns, palms) against the harsh Albion weather. For just as Queen Victoria’s empire was finding purchase in the military conquest of distant peoples in distant lands, so squads of imperial plant hunters were combing the hemispheres for new and unusual species.

On the morning of his forty-sixth birthday, two years prior to the Great Exhibition, Paxton paid a visit to William Hooker at Kew Gardens. Hooker, who had been serving as the first director of the Royal Botanic Gardens for the better part of the decade, had requested Paxton’s expert assistance for a special assignment. In brief, he had come into the possession of a batch of seeds retrieved from the humid heart of South America. Having successfully propagated these, he intended to pass the torch to Paxton—to see if he could bring about the genuine article: a first flower. This was not just any plant, after all; it was an extremely rare specimen of water lily, known then as the Victoria regia.

Botanists had been describing the plant since the turn of the century. Indeed, other specimens had preceded Hooker’s. But every previous effort to attune the plant to the local climate had ended in failure. As it stood, the challenge was unmistakable: to advance the science, certainly, but also to make one’s name in an unprecedented fashion; to assert that very real right to brag—or to be defeated. For Hooker had offered up seedlings to others, too, not a few of them being Paxton’s (and the Duke’s) rivals. Little surprise, then, in the spirit of public competition, that Victoria regia soon became the talk of the town. And while “Who would do it?” was being bandied about the madding crowd, the question of “Could it be done?” sent shivers down interested spines all across the country. Even Emerson in America could report that Thoreau was staunchly stalking and seeking out the plant’s elusive green form in his Concord ponds…

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Honorary contributors to DesPardes: Adil Khan, Ajaz Ahmed, Anwar Abbas, Arif Mirza, Aziz Ahmed, Bawar Tawfik, Dr. Razzak Ladha, Dr. Syed M. Ali, G. R. Baloch, Hasham Saddique, Jamil Usman, Jawed Ahmed, Ishaq Saqi, Khalid Sharif, Majid Ahmed, Masroor Ali, Md. Ahmed, Md. Najibullah, Mustafa Jivanjee, Nusrat Jamshed, Shahbaz Ali, Shahid Hamza, Shahid Nayeem, Shareer Alam, Syed Ali Ammaar Jafrey, Syed Hamza Gilani, Mushtaq Siddiqui, Shaheer Alam, Syed Hasan Javed, Syed M. Ali, Tahir Sohail, Usman Nazir