Searching for the Crystal Palace

The Crystal Palace, 1851.
The Crystal Palace from the northeast from Dickinson’s Comprehensive Pictures of the Great Exhibition of 1851, published 1854. Reproduced from Wikimedia Commons.

I’m ashamed to say that it took me ten years, from the time I first moved to South London, to finally visit Crystal Palace Park, and more importantly, the grounds and remains of the Crystal Palace itself. A surprising laxity, given my fascination with architectural archaeology and cultural history.

Both the birth and the death of the Crystal Palace fascinate me. Its creation for the Great Exhibition in 1851, stands as a decisive moment in the history of Great Britain, the history of the British Empire and thus, the history of the modern world. The Great Exhibition, like the Parisian arcades of the same era, is widely perceived by historians as being a pivotal event at the birth of modernity, ushering in the age of commercial culture, global economy and our insatiable appetite for spectacle.

The moment of the final demise of the Crystal Palace, as it succumbed to the flames atop Sydenham Hill in November 1936, fascinates me for more personal reasons. As a fifteen year old, my Grandfather witnessed the fiery demise of the Palace from his home in New Cross. Despite the fact that several decades separate my own existence from the cease-to-existence of the Crystal Palace, this kindred connection somehow draws me closer to its reality. Furthermore, for someone like myself who grew up amid the anonymous suburban landscape of southeast Essex, it is gratifying to know that my immediate ancestors, as Londoners, bore witness to such monumental events in the city’s recent history.

On a blazing-hot July afternoon, I venture out from my quarters in the new estates of Penge, which stand in the shadow of Sydenham Hill. I need only walk a short distance to reach the Park’s Penge gates. Here, I enter the Park at its lowest point, heading in an straight line towards its summit. The first phase of this journey takes me along a wide tree-lined avenue, whose burgeoning green canopy sways gently overhead in the warm summer breeze. At the end of the avenue I reach two flights of crumbling concrete steps which zigzag up to the walkway which bisects the National Sports Centre. On my left is the Crystal Palace athletics stadium where Michael Caine uttered the immortal line ‘you’re only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!’ To my right stands the Centre’s main sports complex, a vast amalgamation of concrete and glass built in the 1960s. I’m undecided as to whether this listed structure is now an anachronism, a ‘monstrous carbuncle’ amidst the park landscape, or whether it remains a futuristic vision. Beyond the walkway, the path rises again. Walking through the Sports Centre car park, I am confronted by an absurd and oversized bust of Palace architect Joseph Paxton, who scowls in disapproval at his current predicament. Beyond the car park, I ascend the final flight of steps which terminate at the ornamental grounds in which the Crystal Palace once stood.

Crystal Palace Park, London. June 2008.
The view from the top of Crystal Palace Park, London. June 2008.

All that remains of the Palace are its concrete foundations and the terraces and ornamental gardens which surrounded it. I find an appropriate place to stand in the centre of the site, from which I can appreciate the sheer scale of the building that once stood here. I try to imagine myself standing in the central boulevard that ran through the main axis of the Palace. I picture the full-grown trees, industrial machines mounted on ornate carved wooden plinths, and a host of other manufactured curios and objects collected from the remotest corners of the British Empire. Around them stand throngs of Victorian visitors, presumably sweating profusely in their garb as they are subjected to the intensity of the sun’s rays refracted through the weightless glass roof above them. Unable to sustain the illusion, I wander ‘outside’ and inspect the sorry remains of the sculptures and statues that line the outdoor terraces. On one hand these figures did well to survive the intense heat and calamity of that November night in 1936. But then again, maybe this survival was their misfortune, for once the main attraction to which they owed their existence was gone, time took the opportunity to humiliate them further. Many figures have had their heads knocked off, and from their innards now protrude beer cans and other detritus. Only the sphinxes that guard the upper terrace steps have managed to maintain some semblance of dignity. They are particularly redolent as they stare out unblinkingly across the south London landscape, almost as if they were expecting the glories of the Empire to imminently reappear on the distant horizon.

Crystal Palace Park, London. June 2008.
Monument to the Crystal Palace, Crystal Palace Park, London. June 2008.

Upon a grassy hill above the terraces, stands a solitary section of cast-iron frame, marking the site of the Palace. Standing anonymously, with nothing to indicate what it is or what it once was, it keeps its remarkable history to itself. Dwarfing and intimidating this sole vertical reminder of the Crystal Palace is the nearby television transmission tower; a monument to the new cult of distraction which superseded the old Victorian notion of spectacle and—so I have always thought—London’s answer to the Eiffel Tower. Curiously, the BBC first began broadcasting its television signal from the Alexandra Palace in North London in the same month that the Crystal Palace self-combusted; an intriguing case of presentiment perhaps?

Descending from these heights of Upper Norwood, back towards the mundane reality of events in Penge, I am overwhelmed by a sense of anti-climatic disappointment. Surely this site deserves more recognition than it presently receives? True, the Crystal Palace can be viewed as a symbol of our nation’s exploitation of the resources and peoples of its Empire. But then again so can most of our great cities, and we don’t find ourselves embarrassed by their architectural splendour and cultural achievements.

Note: This article was updated on 16th February 2010, amending details relating to the cast-iron column commemorating the Palace, and its position in relation to the Palace. Thanks to John Greatrex for the correction.

© Mark Hobbs 2010.

The Crystal Palace Museum:

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