Kate Nichols: ‘Greece and Rome at the Crystal Palace: Classical Sculpture and Modern Britain, 1854-1936’

Kate Nichols: Greece and Rome at the Crystal Palace: Classical Sculpture and Modern Britain, 1854-1936, Oxford, OUP, 2015

Crystal Palace. / Greek Court, South Side. Print after photograph by Philip Henry Delamotte, from: Pictures of the Crystal Palace, London 1854. © Trustees of the British Museum.

During the last twenty years there has been a strong shift in attitude towards the presentation, preservation and study of plaster cast collections. Long neglected, they now find themselves the object of increasing attention among curators, conservators and researchers alike. Kate Nichols contributes to this development with an analytical monograph on a lost and nearly forgotten collection, bringing to the fore the complexity of its historical reception. 

Crystal Palace was a vast Victorian cast iron and glass building that housed the largest plaster cast collection in Great Britain, if not the world, together with ethnographic collections and shops. Originally part of the 1851 Great Exhibition, the building had been transferred from Hyde Park to Sydenham, South London, where it was expanded and fitted with historicizing interior architecture to accommodate carefully composed collections (carefully described in 2006 by John Kenworthy-Browne, whose work Nichols ignores). It opened in 1854. After twenty years as an extremely successful visitor venue, the palace experienced a long decline before it burned down in 1936. 

A central theme in Nichols’ study are the aims of the private Cristal Palace Company: to entertain and instruct all classes with the ambition to improve them as humans and create discerning consumers of well-designed commodities. Responding to well-known 19th-century preoccupations, Nichols focuses on the reception of the Greek and Roman Courts in the Fine Arts section that also included Egyptian, Pompeian, medieval, Renaissance and Italian Courts, as well as a full-scale reproduction of the Alhambra. She draws out the strong archaeological considerations of the Palace’s architects Owen Jones and Matthew Digby Wyatt whose architectural contributions oscillated between authentic reconstruction and informed invention. Other sections were ethnographic displays that included painted life casts and stuffed animals, pointedly considered by Nichols in the context of the reception of idealizing human forms in the Greek and Roman Courts. Finally, there was a large section dedicated to the sale of lamps, clothes and pottery. Visitors were supposed to improve their taste in the Fine Art Courts before shopping for beautiful furnishings to adorn their home. Nichols discusses the organiser’s’ educational strategies, mentioning, e.g., the initial absence of labels, which she relates to the reception of Montessori. In the context of the Bilderfahrzeuge Project, this is reminiscent of Aby Warburg’s 1905 exhibition of reproductions of Albrecht Dürer’s drawings at the Hamburg Volksheim, an institution dedicated to the improvement of the working classes. There, too, the absence of interpretation and guidance was perceived as problem.

Nichols contrasts her own approach with notions of the afterlife of the antique – and again one might think of Warburg – seeing the Palace’s reception rather as a conversation that is equally determined by pre-existing conceptions and knowledge of its many visitors. To evaluate this, she examines middle class diaries, a working class autobiography, letters and petitions by MPs and workers’ representatives and articles from the popular press, always conscious of the impossibility of giving a representative selection of voices. As to the often unconventional cultural baggage of the historical beholders, we learn about other ways in which visitors may have come across ancient sculpture, e.g. by watching actors in fleshling tights posing as Graeco-Roman sculptures in commercially minded cultural entertainment shows.  

Nichols examines the implications of the Palace’s strategies and responses to them. As to the bringing together of all classes, she discusses the effects of the mingling of the social classes, analysing the depiction of visitors in the popular press and pointing to the palace’s architecture that with its raised galleries and bridges encouraged social surveillance, turning audience behaviour into a self-conscious spectacle. While there were positive comments how in Sydenham society came together, Nichols analyses multiple areas of conflict. Nudity in Greek sculpture, e.g., while not an issue where exposure to it was reserved to the “educated classes”, was here met with a variety of concerns, leading e.g. to a complaint from bishops and peers that prompted the company’s management to introduce fig leaves to cover male nudity, while later in the century Nichols detects a greater acceptance at least towards female nudity in sculpture. 

If it was one of Nichols aim to add to our knowledge of the 19th-century British “Museumslandschaft” a distinct and overlooked component, then her book does this in an exemplary fashion. Beyond this it is a significant contribution to the study of the multi-faceted history of the reception of plaster casts.

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