East-West: Room 9

Telescope View Great Exhibition
Frank Cadogan Cowper, ‘Lucretia Borgia Reigns in the Vatican in the Absence of Pope Alexander VI’ 1908–14
Frank Cadogan Cowper
Lucretia Borgia Reigns in the Vatican in the Absence of Pope Alexander VI 1908–14
© The estate of Frank Cadogan Cowper
Frederic, Lord Leighton, ‘Lieder ohne Worte’ exhibited 1861
Frederic, Lord Leighton
Lieder ohne Worte exhibited 1861

Lane’s Telescope View of the Ceremony of Her Majesty Opening the Great Exhibition of All Nations 1851

Lent by the Victoria and Albert Museum

The Great Exhibition (or Crystal Palace Exhibition) was held in London’s Hyde Park from 1 May to 15 October 1851, and was a showcase for Imperial Britain’s expertise. This ‘peepshow’ was created as a souvenir for the event and offers a perspective view of the giant glass pavilion where it was held.

It was 563 metres long by 138 metres wide and enclosed 934,560 cubic metres of the park, accommodating whole trees and including a Grand Avenue as well as upstairs galleries. The ultimate Victorian spectacle, over half of the exhibits came from Britain and its Empire and it was visited by six million people.

What does the scale and content of the Great Exhibition of 1851 suggest about the way Victorian Britain saw itself?

Joseph Nash, The Indian Court at the Great Exhibition 1854

Coloured lithograph paper
Lent by the Victoria and Albert Museum

This lithograph shows the opulence of the Indian Court display at the Great Exhibition of 1851, which sat at the centre of the Imperial exhibits. It contained jewellery (including the Koh-i-noor diamond presented to Queen Victoria in 1850), fabrics and clothing, as well as the decorated and stuffed elephant seen in this picture.

Rather than simply a celebration of ownership, the Indian exhibits provided: ‘[the] most valuable hints for arriving at a true knowledge of those principles both of Ornament and Colour in the Decorative Arts’. After the exhibition closed, £1,500 was spent by the newly founded Victoria and Albert Museum to purchase objects from this display.

Frank Cadogan Cowper, Lucretia Borgia Reigns in the Vatican in the Absence of Pope Alexander VI 1908–14

© Tate

Lucretia Borgia was a source of fascination for the Pre-Raphaelites and the scandal of her presiding over the Papal court is highlighted here by the surrounding ranks of scarlet cardinals. To her right is a group of figures of quite different appearance, representing people from non-Christian lands.

Cowper carefully reconstructs the ornamental finery of their costumes to indicate their religious and ethnic identities. Pope Alexander VI was widely criticised for a perceived willingness to negotiate with non-Christians.

Frederic Leighton, Lieder ohne Worte 1860–1

© Tate

Who is this contemplative girl? And where is this painting set? The voluminous luxury of her clothing, the robed figure behind her and the decorated vessels all suggest a particular location that has provided endless fascination for Western Europeans – the harem.

Certainly the indolence of the scene, coupled with the fountain and architecture, are redolent of the stereotypical pleasure-palace that transfixed so many European artists and writers from the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries. The harem was also a key setting for works like ‘The Arabian Nights’ (a copy can be seen in Room 4).