India, on display : The Great Exhibition of 1851

Between May 1 – October 11, 1851 more than six million people flocked to London’s Hyde Park to see ‘wonders from across the world’. The Great Exhibition of the works of Industry of All Nations was meant to be a global display of art and manufacturing. The Crystal Palace, a specially constructed glass and iron structure created to house the exhibition was spread over 19 acres!


The exhibition, regarded as the brainchild of Prince Albert, was inaugurated by Queen Victoria. Famous visitors to the exhibition included: William Thackeray, Charles Darwin, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Lewis Carroll and Charlotte Brontë.

On display were objects from Britain’s colonies and other countries of the world – from manufacturing machinery to steam hammers; there were inventions and discoveries, furniture, fine textiles, pottery, laces, clocks, toys, colourful glass and much more.

Pictures of the Exhibition, 1851

Amidst jewellery, there was the world’s greatest diamond – the Koh-i-Noor!

The ‘Great Diamond’ belonging Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the ‘Koh-i-Noor,’ or Mountain of Light was the center of attraction. Hundreds of people stood on line each day to view the diamond, hoping the sunlight streaming through the Crystal Palace might show its legendary fire.


Imagining India

Unlike the rest of Britain’s colonies, India did not represent itself at the exhibition; it was presented by the ‘East India Company’. John Forbes Royle, a botanist employed by the company, was charged with organising the Indian display. Prominent objects on display included a needlework carpet cover from Lahore and a bed from Kashmir with a bedstead of solid silver! Indian Maharajas also sent some gifts to be displayed. Like this set of aroma-oils!


A View of the Indian Court (Tent)

This part of the pavilion showcased embroidered Elephant Trappings, State Punkhas, Carved Rosewood Furniture, Costume of an Indian Chief, the King of Oudh’s Crown, and an Ivory Throne gifted to the Queen by the Maharaja of Travancore.


Here’s a closer look at the Ivory Throne, now part of the Royal Collection Trust, UK. After the exhibition, Queen Victoria had written to Maharaja of Travancore:

“Your Highness’s chair has occupied a prominent position amongst the wonderful works of art which have been collected in our metropolis and your highness’s liberality and the workmanship of the natives of Travancore have received due admiration from the vast multitude of spectators.”


Then there was the collection of Armoury from various territories in India. There were hunting saddles, punkhas (fans), and a jewellery case!


There were also, models of ships, netting and fishing equipment on another end of the pavilion.


What’s interesting is the depiction of Indians in the scene – wonder if they were actually present, or if it’s just to make for a pretty picture! Here’s another view by artist Walter Goodall. In this one, you can spot two women looking closely at hookahs on display!


An embroidered carpet from Lahore, a Bed from Kashmir and a bedstead made of pure silver!

Can you spot all these in the picture below?


On the table on the right of the picture, you can also spot small figurines. According to the Catalogue of the exhibition, these were “groups of figures illustrative of Indian manners” !

The exhibition also offered a glimpse into Raw Materials from various parts of India : Ivory, Horns, Metallic Ores ; and the ‘rude Tools of the Natives’.

Pictures of the Exhibition, 1851

The exhibit also included Indian pottery and tribal costumes.

Pictures of the Exhibition, 1851

India of 1851 provided a source of artistic inspiration and innovation.

On a visit to The Great Exhibition, Lockwood Kipling is said to have been so greatly inspired by Indian craftsmanship, that he decided to pursue a career in design!

Bracelet shown at the Great Exhibition, made in Rajasthan, India, ca.1850. The bracelet is inset with diamonds and enamelled on the outside in a vibrant translucent royal blue. Indian jewellery was often enamelled on the inside as well to protect the soft gold from damage caused by contact with the wearer’s skin. The inside of this bracelet is enamelled with a scroll pattern of green leaves and red flowers on a white ground. Pigeons and green and red parrots peck at the leaves. The item now forms part of the V&A’s collection.

Design reformer and interior decorator of the Crystal Palace Owen Jones marvelled at India’s textiles and workmanship. He felt, Indian design ‘will afford most fruitful lessons, not only to the students, but to every cultivated mind’

India’s wealth and splendour drew one and all to the pavilion. A Russian journalist is said to have remarked:

‘What richness! What perfection of workmanship! What brilliance and harmony of colour!’

The Indian display is supposedly the only imperial display that he thought worthy of coverage!

The French were proud to have equalled the quality of Indian production and design.

The Official Catalogue lauded the principles of Indian design acknowledging that in ‘the management of colours, the skill with which a number of them are employed, and the taste with which they are harmonised . . . Europe has nothing to teach, but a great deal to learn’

But there are always more ways than one, to see:

Many found India’s display to be incongruous with the vision of a progressive civilization. After all, the Industrial revolution sought to make things available for the ‘ordinary people’ as well. In India on the other hand, thousands engaged in creating things of beauty for one person.

Indian craftsmen, while being lauded by some were found to be unable to engage in large scale industrial production; thus representing Indian crafts as a sign a ‘backwardness’.

The Legacy of the Great Exhibition

Pictures of the Exhibition, 1851

The exhibition generated a profit of nearly 1,86,000 pounds. This was used to establish a ‘cultural quarter’ in London’s South Kensington; the Victoria & Albert Museum, is among the institutions that was founded using the funds.

Note: Most pictures used, are from Dickinson’s Comprehensive Pictures of the Great Exhibition of 1851

Respond to this article:

Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

Frequently Read Together

Have something to say? Add a comment!x