Saturday, February 26, 2011

In The Crystal Palace: what's in a name?

As you can tell from the previous post, Robin and I recently opened a new Etsy shop together. I thought I'd write a little bit about the sources of inspiration connected to the shop's name. We kicked around a few other names for the shop before choosing In The Crystal Palace. We wanted a name with a clear Victorian association, and something that suggested a poetic, mysterious, and other-worldly atmosphere. We are also huge fans of Joseph Cornell's (1903-1972) work. His construction (below) ties these ideas together beautifully:

Joseph Cornell, Untitled (Pink Palace), c. 1946-48, Construction, 10 x 16 7/16 x 3 1/4 in.

As luck would have it, we went to Barnes and Noble in Hilton Head, SC earlier this week and bought Bill Bryson's (1951 -) new book, At Home: A Short History of Private Life. Can you guess what subject Mr. Bryson writes about in his first chapter? The Crystal Palace. Here's an excerpt:

"In the autumn of 1850, in Hyde Park in London, there arose a most extraordinary structure: a giant iron-and-glass greenhouse covering nineteen acres of ground and containing within its airy vastness enough room for four St. Paul's Cathedrals. For the short time of its existence, it was the biggest building on Earth. Known formally as the Palace of the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations, it was incontestably magnificent, but all the more so for being so sudden, so startlingly glassy, so gloriously and unexpectedly there. Douglas Jerrold, a columnist for the weekly magazine Punch, dubbed it the Crystal Palace, and the name stuck.

The finished building was precisely 1,851 feet long (in celebration of the year), 408 feet across, and almost 110 feet high along its central spine--spacious enough to enclose a much admired avenue of elms that would otherwise have had to be felled. Because of its size, the structure required a lot of inputs--293,655 panes of glass, 33,000 iron trusses, and tens of thousands of feet of wooden flooring--yet thanks to Paxton's methods [Joseph Paxton (1803-1865) English architect, designed the Crystal Palace], the final cost came in at an exceedingly agreeable £80,000. From start to finish, the work took just under thirty-five weeks. St. Paul's Cathedral had taken thirty-five years.

The Crystal Palace was at once the world's largest building and its lightest, most ethereal one. Today we are used to encountering glass in volume, but to someone living in 1851 the idea of strolling through cubic acres of airy light inside a building was dazzling--indeed, giddying. The arriving visitor's first sight of the Exhibition Hall from afar, glinting and transparent, is really beyond our imagining. It would have seemed as delicate and evanescent, as miraculously improbable, as a soap bubble. To anyone arriving at Hyde Park, the first sight of the Crystal Palace, floating above the trees, sparkling in sunshine, would have been a moment of knee-weakening slendor."

And then it all burned down . . .

Watching the blaze, Winston Churchill said, "This is the end of an age."

(Source for image: Joseph Cornell, edited by Kynaston McShine, essays by Dawn Ades, et al., published by The Museum of Modern Art, New York © 1980; Source for quote: At Home: A Short History of Private Life by Bill Bryson, published by Doubleday, New York © 2010)

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