Crystal Palace Park

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One of my favourite pieces of the puzzle that is London history is the Crystal Palace, so it’s high time Crystal Palace Park – its last resting place – made an appearance in this blog. Designed by Joseph Paxton (immortalised in the stone bust pictured below), and made from plate glass and cast iron, this huge greenhouse-like structure was the former home of the the 1851 Great Exhibition, held in Hyde Park, and later moved south to Sydenham.

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This move followed a heated debate about the future of the Palace at the end of the temporary exhibition. At this point it was re-designed and rebuilt on a much larger (and I personally think more attractive) scale – the move and rebuilding costing a massive £1,300,000. This new version opened in 1854 and was to host numerous concerts, fireworks displays, exhibitions, and feature a Natural History Collection and a number of ‘Fine Art Courts’, where visitors could walk amongst replicas of architecture, sculpture and decorative arts from various eras and cultures.

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The 1911 Festival of Empire was held in the park, and saw the construction of three-quarter size replicas of all of the Commonwealth countries’ parliament buildings, as well as an Australian vineyard, an Indian tea plantation and a south African diamond mine. A miniature railway was built to transport visitors between the various sites.

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Tragically, despite the efforts of 89 fire engines and 381 firefighters, the Palace was lost in a massive fire on the night of 30th November, 1936. The two giant water towers – designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel to cater for the massive amount of water required for the Palace’s extensive water features – were the only Palace buildings left standing. These were later demolished during the Second World War as it was thought that German aircraft might use them as landmarks. The base of one can still be seen just outside the Crystal Palace Museum.

IMG_3358And there are plenty of other remains still scattered around the park: many of the terraces, a number of the sphinxes, several of the statues, including the particularly striking headless one above, to name but a few. These now languish in a rather splendid state of decay and are my favourite feature of the park.

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A hugely popular feature of the park today is the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs – life-sized models designed by Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins, arrayed around a lake in the south-east corner of the park. These constitute the first ever sculptures of dinosaurs, unveiled in 1854 as part of the renovation of the park. In fact, they are not actually all dinosaurs – some are extinct animals. In true Victorian style, Hawkins threw a dinner for 21 guests inside one of the models on New Year’s Eve in 1853. At one point the models were so neglected they were covered with foliage, but were restored in 1952 and again in 2002.

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The park is also home to London’s largest maze, first built in 1879 and then re-created in 1987 and refurbished in 2009. There are of course other newer features of interest within the park, not least of which is the ultra-modern Concert Platform, designed in 1997 by Ian Ritchie Architects:

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The Crystal Palace National Sports Centre, in the middle of the park, is probably not generally considered to be the its most appealing attraction, but I feel it has a certain brutal, modern appeal:

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If you’d like to learn more about the Crystal Palace, drop by the Crystal Palace Museum in the south-west corner of the park. Housed in the former Crystal Palace Company’s School of Practical Engineering, this museum may contain only one room but the information within it is comprehensive: if you visit here knowing nothing about the Crystal Palace you will leave knowing just about everything you should! It’s open Saturdays and Sundays, 11-4 summertime and 11-3:30 in winter.

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The Crystal Palace is back in the news again of late due to plans by a Chinese company to rebuild it (in its massive, original size) in the park. I don’t feel well equipped enough to comment too much on this highly controversial project (please feel free to leave your own thoughts below) but it would be a huge loss if the remaining statuary was not preserved and if too much of the park was lost to public access. On the upside, the plan would reinstate Paxton’s Grand Central Walk, a promenade that once ran along the centre of the park and was later obstructed by the sport centre. A petition raising concerns about the development can be found here. In the meantime, these photographs capture the park as it is now – and may not be forever…

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Museum of Childhood

Mosaics created by female students from a South Kensington mosaics class.

If you’re interested in architecture then the months of March and April 2012 are a great time to visit the V&A Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green, as it is holding architectural tours and a small exhibition to celebrate its 140th birthday. I visited this week and was particularly interested to learn more about the museum’s fascinating history and its many links to the Crystal Palace.

The main building at the Museum of Childhood actually started its life as a temporary home for the treasures that were being kept after the 1851 Great Exhibition, held in the Crystal Palace at Hyde Park. Its construction was modelled on that of the Crystal Palace and it is one of the oldest surviving examples of a pre-fabricated iron-frame building. It turned out that the structure was leaky, fluctuated highly in temperature and the roof had almost rusted away by the time it was dismantled – in other words, not the ideal museum storage facility! It was also not popular with locals, whose nicknames for it included the Iron Museum and the Brompton Boilers.

Modern mosaics on the Museum's new facade (2005-2006), in front of the original structure.

When the South Kensington Museum (now the V&A) was complete and the structure no longer required it was offered to any borough in London that would care to use it as a museum. Bethnal Green was the only area to put up its hand, so it was dismantled and transported eight miles to the east by horse and cart in the late 1860s. At this point an architect – James William Wild – was finally called in (the original structure was designed by engineers) to design the new red-brick exterior that was built around the iron structure. Wild had visions of a great learning hub in the east and designed a much larger complex including a school room and library, but like many architectural dreams it was never fully realised. You can see a drawing of how it would have appeared – complete with neo-classical columns – in the current exhibition.

Aware of the area’s working class population, the Bethnal Green Museum initially opened free of charge on three days a week from 10am to 10pm to allow working people the chance to visit. The original collection opened in 1872 and focused on food, animal products and French art from the 1700s, while the museum later hosted a number of important national collections  – such as the National Portrait, Pitt Rivers and Wallace collections – while they sought permanent sites. The museum’s focus on children began to build slowly from the 1920s, and it officially became the Museum of Childhood in 1974 under the V&A directorship of Sir Roy Strong. Don’t miss its lovely collection of dolls houses on the top floor – I’m also a big fan of the Chinese rock gardens and model theatres on display.

'The Eagle Slayer', John Bell

Although a fair amount of the museum’s history is covered in the foyer exhibition, if you can make it to an architectural tour on a Thursday afternoon you will learn even more. For example, the fleur-de-lis iron railings around the museum also came from the Crystal Palace, while The Eagle Slayer statue by John Bell now found in the cafe area was originally exhibited at the Great Exhibition. A fountain from the 1862 International Exhibition also used to be housed in the front courtyard. This was removed in the 1930s as it was breaking down due to the pollution in the area – it was stored off-site for safe keeping and promptly ‘mislaid’. So if you stumble across a large majolica fountain in your travels you know where to return it to…

Architectural tours run on Thursdays in March and April from 3.30-4pm – no need to book, just turn up at the information desk.
The 140th Anniversary display will be on show until the 8th of July.

http://www.museumofchildhood.org.uk/

Fencing from the Crystal Palace

Vintage postcards: Crystal Palace

So to the second instalment of the Londonphile’s vintage postcard series. This dramatic postcard depicts the events of the night of 30th November 1936 when the Crystal Palace was destroyed by fire. Designed by Joseph Paxton, and made from plate glass and cast iron, this massive greenhouse-esque structure was the former home of the the 1851 Great Exhibition, held in Hyde Park.

At the completion of the Exhibition there was a quite heated debate about what to do with the Palace. Eventually it was decided that it would be relocated and rebuilt on a much larger scale, and to a significantly different design, in Sydenham Hill – a plan that ultimately cost £1,300,000 (that’s £96.5 million in today’s terms). This new version opened in 1854 and was host to numerous concerts, fireworks displays, cat shows and the like.

Sadly, despite the efforts of 89 fire engines and 381 firefighters the Palace was lost to the nation in a matter of hours on that fateful night in 1936. Thousands of people, including Winston Churchill, flocked to Sydenham to watch the massive conflagration, while others gathered on higher ground, such as Hampstead Heath, for a view. The glow from the flames was said to be visible from as far away as Brighton and across eight counties.

The two giant water towers – designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel to cater for the massive amount of water that the Palace required for its extensive water features – were the only buildings left standing (you can see one at the back of the picture). Brunel had been called in for a re-design after the original towers collapsed under the weight of the water. However, even these were later demolished during the Second World War as it was thought that German aircraft might use them as landmarks. The final sting in the tail was that the entire structure was horrifically under-insured for the sum of just £110,000.

This post serves as a preview of sorts, as I will visit the old Crystal Palace site later in the year and write a more lengthy piece on this fascinating building, its story and what remains today.