J.R. Piggot, Palace of the People: the Crystal Palace at Sydenham, 1854-1936 (London: Hurst and Company, 2004). 240pp., 50 clr plates, 110 b/w illus. Index and Bibliography. ISBN 1850657270. £22.50
Scholars of London are increasingly interested in the society and culture of its suburbs, and many have argued that the city’s physical and cultural expansion in the mid-nineteenth century was facilitated by the profit motives of the railway companies. If this is true, then a study of the Crystal Palace at Sydenham is a model of the way that metropolitan pleasures became suburban ones at the instigation of railway entrepreneurs. As J.R. Piggot shows, in this fascinating book, the plan to move the Crystal Palace, site of the Great Exhibition of 1851, from Hyde Park to ‘an obscure railway station’ at Sydenham was taken by ‘a consortium of railway proprietors and others’ who had made substantial profits from selling return tickets to the exhibition itself. This time, however, the flow of visitors would be from London rather than to it, a movement that reflected the growth of the suburbs in the century more generally. Indeed, in its early years, the Sydenham Crystal Palace drew large quantities of travellers from London but, as Piggot shows, it did not remain profitable for long, and became a financial liability for its owners well into the 1920s, when its fortunes were reversed ‘by an outstanding manager, Sir Henry Buckland’ whose work there was, of course, ended by the fire of 1936 that destroyed the Palace. Yet the company’s financial losses contributed to the growth of the new suburb at Sydenham and Upper Norwood, an area now known as Crystal Palace, when in 1874 part of the Palace’s grounds were sold off to provide housing. Piggot also shows how the Palace became a centre for suburban social and cultural life with its many festivals, exhibitions, concerts, and dramatic productions vying with outdoor firework displays, acrobatic spectacles, and ballooning events. But the book’s real strength lies in its analysis of the art, architecture, and design of both the palace itself and its many events and festivals, and Piggot’s contention that the ‘Palace had a crucial influence on museums and the display of architecture, sculpture, and natural history’ is well-supported in the two chapters on ‘The Fine Arts Courts’. In these, the many illustrations directly support the argument. In other chapters, however, the illustrations, while often very interesting indeed, play a less crucial role, although most readers will certainly enjoy them for their own sake. Indeed, the book as a whole is enjoyable and illuminating, combining a scholarly attention to detail with a readable and engaging style. Yet there are some omissions. In particular, given the book’s title, it would have been useful to hear more about what ordinary Londoners and local residents made of the Palace, and how they worked its attractions and diversions into their lives. And readers interested in Literary London in particular will be disappointed that more attention is not paid to the way the Palace worked on the literary imagination. These caveats aside, however, this is a fine book, and one that deserves to be read not just by art historians, museologists, and residents of Upper Norwood, but by all interested in late-Victorian and early-twentieth century culture.
To Cite This Article:
Brycchan Carey, ‘Review: J.R. Piggot, Palace of the People: the Crystal Palace at Sydenham, 1854-1936’. Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 2 Number 2 (September 2004). Online at http://www.literarylondon.org/london-journal/september2004/carey.html. Accessed on [date of access].