Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace was one of the world’s most inspiring buildings.
From the opening of the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park to its final demise, its compelling glass and iron design and awe-inspiring vastness attracted the attention of photographers on the ground and in the air.
Here we take a look at some of the remarkable photographs of the life and death of the Crystal Palace that can be found in the Historic England Archive.
The Great Exhibition
The 1851 Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations was an important event for photography. Photographic equipment and photographs were exhibited, including some lent by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, who were keen patrons of this relatively new invention.
The building itself – the largest in the world at the time – and the tens of thousands of objects on display were documented by amateur and professional photographers, and their images were distributed worldwide. However, an unfortunate incident occurred when photographer Nicolaas Henneman broke some fingers off a statue when moving it to a better position to photograph it!
Photographs were used to illustrate the official ‘Reports by the Juries’ – books listing the categories of objects on display at the Great Exhibition and the awards given. However, each book required printing individual photographs that had to be inserted into each volume.
Our image above isn’t a photograph but a print made from an engraving, made from a daguerreotype – one of the first photographic processes. Engravings could easily be printed multiple times and used to illustrate books, whereas photographs could not. This image was one of many used to illustrate Tallis and Strutt’s ‘History and Description of the Crystal Palace’, published in 1852 and 1854.
The move to Sydenham Hill
The Great Exhibition was an enormous success. Over six million people visited it during its 140-day run, from 1 May to 15 October 1851; this was the equivalent to almost one-third of the population of Great Britain.
A group of businessmen proposed that the Crystal Palace be relocated to Penge Place on Sydenham Hill, a suburban area in southeast London. The Illustrated London News reported that the Palace’s designer, Sir Joseph Paxton, described the location as ‘the most beautiful spot in the world for the Crystal Palace.’
The reconstruction of an enlarged Crystal Palace for recreation and education began in 1852. Two years later, on 10 June 1854, Queen Victoria officially opened the new Crystal Palace at a grand ceremony attended by 40,000 people.
Photography was to play an important role in the transition from Hyde Park to Sydenham. The photographer and artist Philip Henry Delamotte was commissioned to record the taking down of the Palace and its reconstruction in its new home.
Delamotte also photographed the Crystal Palace after it had been built and filled with exhibits in themed ‘courts’. The Historic England Archive holds a collection of forty-seven albumen prints taken by Delamotte around 1859. Digitally enhanced scans of the prints can be viewed on the Historic England website.
The Archive also holds a small collection of four hand-coloured transparencies of Delamotte photographs. These re-imagine the vibrancy of the décor and exhibits on display at the Crystal Palace soon after it opened at Sydenham.
The fire of 1866
On 30 December 1866, a fire destroyed the north transept of the Crystal Palace. The Alhambra, Assyrian and Byzantine Courts were damaged, as were the Abu Simbel figures, colossal reproductions of the seated figures of Ramses II from the temple at Abu Simbel in Egypt.
The Crystal Palace was costly to maintain and repair, and despite its early popularity at its Sydenham location, finances were tight. As there were insufficient funds to rebuild the areas damaged by the fire, only the North Nave, the Alhambra, and Byzantine Courts were restored.
The Crystal Palace survived its financial difficulties and continued to receive visitors until 1915, when it was used as a depot for the Royal Navy. Following the war, the building was restored and witnessed yet another royal opening in June 1920. As well as hosting concerts, displays and festivals, it was, for a brief period, the home of the newly founded Imperial War Museum.
Aerial photography: The Crystal Palace from above
Photographers took to the air as early as 1858, and tethered balloon flights were regularly undertaken from the site of the Crystal Palace at Sydenham.
This photograph is believed to be the earliest known surviving aerial photograph of the Crystal Palace. It is a lantern slide used in Cecil Victor Shadbolt’s illustrated lecture ‘Balloons and Ballooning, Upward and Onwards’.
The Crystal Palace and Crystal Palace Park were popular subjects for Aerofilms Limited, the country’s first commercial aerial photography company. Established in 1919, the firm photographed the site in the 1920s, 30s, 40s and 50s. You can see a selection of Aerofilms photographs of the Crystal Palace in Britain from Above.
The fire of 1936
The Crystal Palace’s ultimate demise happened dramatically on the night of 30 November 1936.
A small fire grew into the biggest peace-time conflagration in London in the 20th century, laying waste to one of the marvels of the Victorian age. Predictably, the fire’s aftermath was photographed from the ground and the air.
The fire started in the administrative offices and rapidly spread as a strong wind advanced the flames through the tunnel-like structure. Glass melted, and ‘the great iron framework of girders and pillars writhed and twisted like a soul in torment.’
When the transept roof collapsed, the flames shot up to a height of ninety metres. The fire could soon be seen from miles away. Masses of people crowded nearby streets. Crowds gathered as far away as the Palace of Westminster, Hampstead Heath and on the South Downs near Brighton. The crews of eighty-nine fire engines from all over south London tried desperately to save the building, but they could not prevent its destruction.
After the fire
The Crystal Palace site continued attracting photographers despite the fire destroying one of the country’s most photogenic buildings.
The site was highly sought after, and numerous suggestions were made about what to do with the site. Some wanted it rebuilt, other suggestions included using the site for a hospital, a university and a film studio.
None were built, and following the outbreak of the Second World War, the site was used as an anti-aircraft gun emplacement and military store. Fearing their use as markers for German bombers, Brunel’s water towers were demolished. Rubble from the blitzed buildings of London was used to level the site.
After the Second World War, London’s South Bank, rather than Sydenham, was chosen as the site of the 1951 Festival of Britain. A proposal for the Crystal Palace Park to become the new home for the Festival’s Dome of Discovery and Skylon was also rejected, as was a plan for a building to celebrate the new Millennium.
Whilst Crystal Palace Park attracted new investment – the National Recreation Centre and a Concert Bowl were added in the 1960s – the site of Paxton’s gem remained empty, apart from the addition of a television transmitting station in the 1950s. However, surviving elements of the Crystal Palace, such as Paxton’s garden terraces and the remains of one of Brunel’s water towers, continued to attract photographers. The Historic England Archive’s Paul D Barkshire Collection includes large-format photographs that convey a bleak, ruinous, unloved site in the 1980s.
More recently, our photographers have recorded elements of the Crystal Palace site’s heritage that have been considered ‘at risk’, and those structures that have been given recognition for their architectural and historical significance, such as the Pedestrian Subway built in 1865 to link a new railway station to the Crystal Palace.
For 170 years, photographs of the Crystal Palace in all its guises have delighted, educated and shocked viewers. The Historic England Archive is a great place to find images of this iconic structure, from the age of the daguerreotype to the modern digital photograph.
The Historic England Archive
We hold an outstanding range of photographs, plans and drawings in our public archive, covering England’s historic environment. You can browse thousands of historic and modern photos.