On the night of the 30 November 1936 the skyline of South London was altered for ever when the Crystal Palace was comprehensively destroyed by fire. For many older, longstanding residents, being roused from their beds as children to witness the historic sight remains a powerful memory nearly seventy years on. Despite our proximity to the site many of us may have little understanding of how the Palace came to be built there in the first place or of its importance in the social and cultural life of South London during the eighty two years of its existence. Such ignorance can now be banished: to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the opening and in conjunction with the recent exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery which he curated, Jan Piggott has written what must be the definitive book on the subject.

The outstanding success of the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park in 1851, which attracted six million visitors during the five months it was open, ensured that the subsequent fate of Paxton's ground-breaking iron and glass building would be a matter of national concern. Unlike the financially disastrous Dome a century and a half later, for which no long term use has yet been found, Paxton's glasshouse was snapped up by a consortium of railway entrepreneurs who saw it as a profitable destination for excursion traffic. One of them had just bought an estate south of Dulwich, Penge Place, which would, and did provide an ideal site in which to erect the Crystal Palace, as it had been dubbed when it first appeared in Hyde Park.

It is sad to discover, on reading Jan Piggott's book that Joseph Paxton, whose novel design for the 1851 building, based on his experience of constructing the Great Conservatory at Chatsworth which had proved to be a welcome alternative to the Exhibition Commissioners' decided design, bore considerable responsibility for the financial problems that beset the Palace once it was re-erected at Sydenham. Not only was the building 50% larger than the original, but Paxton's extravagant plans for the fountains and cascades in the grounds bordered on the megalomaniacal. Paxton intended the waterworks at Sydenham to outshine those at Chatsworth and even at Versailles; as a consequence they, and Brunel's towers supplying them with water, cost more than the rebuilt Palace and all its contents put together. Dr Piggott wryly comments that the 'waterworks were not universally admired, particularly by anxious investors'.

As with the Dome, the number of likely visitors was over estimated, as was the number of exhibitors renting stands. There are parallels too with the Channel Tunnel: both it and the Palace is/was well used but the initial outlay on each was so excessive that a stable financial infrastructure is/was an elusive dream. There were always insufficient funds for maintenance at the Palace and in 1909 the Crystal Palace Company was declared bankrupt. In the short term the Palace was rescued by a white knight in the shape of the Earl of Plymouth who paid £230,000 to save it from demolition. It was placed in the hands of trustees and its running costs - and the major costs of long overdue renovation - were met by the taxpayer and the ratepayer.

It is ironic that it was only in the last twenty years of its existence that the Palace was ably and successfully managed. Sir Henry Buckland devoted himself to its restoration to its former glory. The Pompeian and Egyptian Courts, for example had been closed for decades but in 1935 they were re-opened, having been meticulously restored. In the following year, Buckland wept openly as the Crystal Palace burned, saying; "I am afraid it is Crystal Palace's last and biggest firework show of all".

The coexistence of architectural courts displaying the civilisations of past eras with firework displays encapsulates the dilemma and tension that beset the Palace throughout its life:- was it to be an "illustrated encyclopaedia" to educate and elevate the masses, or a palace of the people, providing popular entertainment? Could it be both? Dr Piggott examines the conflicting aims of its original sponsors who wished to introduce the " one shilling visitors" in particular to the architectural and sculptural glories of past civilisations, and to make a profit for the shareholders and themselves. Statues, tropical plants (thanks to Paxton's influence) and ethnographic displays jostled cheek by jowl with opportunities for everything from ice-creams to heavy machinery (the latter from the Industrial Courts). Even the Park had an educational aim, beyond its horticultural displays. How many of us visiting one exhibit surviving from the original layout, the Extinct Animals (aka the dinosaurs) near the lake, realise that we are experiencing the first rung in an evolutionary ladder which once culminated in the multi-faceted achievements to humankind as collected and exhibited in the Palace at the top of the hill ?

We go to see them because they are different, and fun, the same reasons that motivated the majority of the Palace's visitors during the eighty years of its existence. As the South Kensington museums - themselves the fruit of the 1851 Exhibition and built from its profits - became more established in the 1860's and 70's the financial problems of the Crystal Palace at Sydenham became more acute and the pleasures provided by the latter became less high-minded. Brock's elaborate firework displays, of which there were 1,500 between 1865 and 1936, proved very popular and must have had a great deal to do with the saving the Crystal Palace Company from earlier financial collapse, according to the Pictorial World in 1887. They were joined by ballooning ascents, dramatic and musical productions and even the Football Association Cup Final for twenty years from 1894-1914.

Palace of the People is a thoroughly researched, beautifully written and lavishly illustrated book. We are fortunate that photography, then in its infancy, experienced a growth sprint between 1851 and 1854, and that Philip Delamotte was appointed the official photographer at the Palace. To him we owe a photographic record of the Palace at all stages of its reconstruction at Sydenham, of the Architectural and the other Courts and of significant ceremonial events enacted there.

On 17 June, one hundred and fifty years and one week after the official opening of the Palace by Queen Victoria, Dr Piggott will be leading a historical walk through the Crystal Palace Park (see 'What's On' page 8 ); reading this book beforehand will prepare you for the pleasures in store.

Hilary Rosser

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