Great Exhibition

Competition proposals

Sketch designs and telegram regarding the building for the Great Exhibition of 1851

Pen and ink on pink blotting paper, mounted with a telegram from Joseph Paxton
Copyright: V&A Images. Museum number: E.575-1985


In March 1850 an international competition for the Exhibition building was launched. The profile of the project was so high that despite only one month being given 245 designs were received.

Two designs were picked out by the judges to be of special interest: one by Richard Turner of Dublin, and one by Hector Horeau of Paris. Both were iron and glass buildings, but both were ultimately rejected.

The building committee - which included the architects Charles Barry, C.R. Cockerell and T.L. Donaldson, as well as engineers Robert Stephenson and Brunel - decided to produce its own design. This was drawn up under the supervision of Owen Jones and M. Digby Wyatt, and published in the Illustrated London News on 22 June 1850.

This large iron and glass building, with a huge iron dome, would have been very expensive and slow to build. Rumours of the committee's uncertainty reached the gardener and greenhouse designer, Joseph Paxton and he began to form his own idea.

Joseph Paxton

Representing his employer, the Duke of Devonshire, Paxton sat on the Board of Directors of the Midland Railway. He was therefore aware of the latest developments in railway construction. During a board meeting in Derby on 11 June 1850 Paxton sketched his first thoughts for the exhibition building: a side elevation and cross section.

Paxton spent the next eight days drawing up his ideas and then presented them to the commission. The design was published in the Illustrated London News on 6 July 1850. It immediately gained public support. The key difference to his glass and iron structure was that it was made from prefabricated sections and could therefore be erected very quickly.

Paxton, the ‘art architect’

On 15 July the plan was officially accepted, as confirmed in a telegram sent to Paxton’s wife. There was some upset in the architectural world that an architect had not won the competition, in particular this was expressed in the Builder. Years later the journal’s obituary of Paxton described him as an 'art architect'. The use of a non-professional architect to design the site became a common complaint made against various later developments in Albertopolis, such as the South Kensington Museum (which later became the Victoria and Albert Museum), and the early designs for the Natural History Museum and Royal Albert Hall.