Great Exhibition

Interior of Crystal Palace

Watercolour of proposed interior of Crystal Palace 1850

Watercolour by William Simpson (1823-1899)
Designer: Owen Jones (1809-1874)
Copyright: V&A Images. Museum number: 546-1897


Owen Jones, the London-born architect and designer of Welsh descent, was asked to decorate and plan the layout of the 1851 Great Exhibition building. He wrote to 20 architects and decorators asking for their suggestions, however no one agreed so Jones invented his own system.

Jones's scheme for the interior

Jones opted for a vibrant colour scheme using only primary colours. His controversial plan caused much debate, prompting him to defend his views in a lecture before the Institute of British Architects on 16 December 1850. Jones proposed the use of stripes of red, yellow and blue, derived from his belief that during all great periods of art only the primary colours were used.

Following the lecture the Royal Commission accepted his scheme without modification. Large appliqué hangings were also used in the upper levels as a simple and inexpensive form of bold decoration. The interior design of the Crystal Palace went on to become much admired. Jones himself became one of the most influential design theorists of the 19th century, playing a key role in the formation of the South Kensington Museum.

The opening ceremony

The opening ceremony of Crystal Palace took place on 1 May 1851. It was an incredibly grand affair, with more than 25,000 people. Queen Victoria, who opened the exhibition, later wrote in her diary: 'It was the happiest, proudest day of my life, and I can think of nothing else'.

Six million people came to visit over the next six months of the exhibition's run. They came to see more than 14,000 exhibitors, displaying all types of craft and manufacture: paintings, sculpture, tiles, machinery, textiles, and food produce.