The Opening of the Great Exhibition by Queen Victoria on 1 May 1851
- Place of origin:
London, England (probably, painted)
Henry Courtney Selous, born 1803 - died 1890 (painter (artist))
- Materials and Techniques:
Oil on canvas
- Credit Line:
Given by Warren W. de la Rue
- Museum number:
- Gallery location:
The Victorians frequently commissioned large commemorative oil paintings of significant events, and many pictures of the Great Exhibition were made. This one was originally executed for commercial purposes, so that prints reproducing it could be made and sold. Sometimes an artist could make more money from the reproduction rights than from the sale of the original painting.
Henry Courtenay Selous (1803-1890) was a London painter of genre, landscape and historical and literary subjects. He was the son of the painter George Selous and was a pupil of the painter John Martin. In 1843 he won a œ200 prize at the Westminster Hall Cartoon Competition. He produced illustrations for the Art Union and illustrated many books.
The International Exhibition of Arts and Manufactures, the Great Exhibition, was initiated by Prince Albert and housed in a vast glass structure, the Crystal Palace, erected in Hyde Park. The painting shows the Archbishop of Canterbury blessing the Exhibition. Commissioners, ministers and dignitaries surround the Royal Family. More than 25,000 people attended the opening day. The artist included Sir Henry Cole, later the first director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, in the group on the left.
Place of Origin
London, England (probably, painted)
Henry Courtney Selous, born 1803 - died 1890 (painter (artist))
Materials and Techniques
Oil on canvas
Marks and inscriptions
'H C Selous 1851-2'
Height: 169.5 cm, Width: 241.9 cm estimate, Depth: 9 cm framed, Height: 210 cm framed, Width: 282.5 cm framed
Object history note
Given by Warren W. de la Rue, 1889.
The International Exhibition of Arts and Manufactures, the "Great Exhibition", was initiated by Prince Albert and housed in a vast glass structure, the "Crystal Palace", erected in Hyde Park.
Henry Courtenay Selous (1803-1890) was a London-based painter of genre, landscape, historical and literary subjects, who also worked as a panorama painter. He was the son of the painter George Selous and pupil of John Martin.
Of the many views produced of the Great Exhibition, this is one of the most impressive and, through prints made of it, also one of the best known. The painting was exhibited at no. 4, Trafalgar Square from 25th May 1852; there is an admission ticket to the exhibition in the National Art Library. The painting was described in the Art Journal in August 1852 as follows:
'Mr Selous has painted the subject of the opening of the Great Exhibition, selecting that part of the ceremony when the Archbishop of Canterbury is offering the benedictory prayer. The time could not be more judiciously chosen, as it affords the opportunity of bringing forward the illustrious personages who figured prominently on that occasion, grouped together in all the magnificence of costume and dress, but in an attitude of perfect repose, and the countenances expressive of agreeable and devout expression.'
The writer concludes: 'It will form an interesting memorial of an event that for many years to come will lose little of its attractiveness in the estimation of thousands.'
In the composition, the Royal Family is surrounded by Commissioners, Ministers and dignitaries. Individual sittings with Selous were given by many of the figures depicted; the painting functions as a large group portrait. The group of four men wearing court dress in the left foreground of the picture are, from left to right, Joseph Paxton with his hat under his arm; Charles Fox, whose firm built the Crystal Palace; the bearded Owen Jones, who designed the colour scheme of the building; and Henry Cole, the first director of the South Kensington Museum (later renamed the V&A).
The identity of the man in Chinese dress who stands in the group on the right of the painting with foreign commissioners and chairmen of juries has been subject to debate, as no official Chinese delegation attended the opening of the Great Exhibition. In a printed key to Selous's painting, published in a newspaper in 1852 (V&A museum number 329:1-1889), his name is given as Hee Sing, and a note records that he 'happened to be present on the occasion', implying that he had no official position in the opening ceremony. However, it has recently been suggested that this man can be identified as Mr Xisheng (alternative spelling Hesing), who arrived in England in 1848 onboard the first Chinese ship to have entered British waters, the Keying. A medal in the collection of the Shanghai History Museum, bearing a portrait of Xisheng, records this event with the following inscription:
'MANDARIN HESING OF THE CHINESE JUNK
THIS REMARKABLE VESSEL IS A JUNK OF THE LARGEST CLASS, AND IS THE FIRST SHIP CONSTRUCTED BY THE CHINESE WHICH HAS REACHED EUROPE, OR EVEN ROUNDED THE CAPE OF GOOD HOPE. THIS JUNK WAS PURCHASED AUGUST 1846, AT CANTON, BY A FEW ENTERPRISING ENGLISHMEN. SHE SAILED FROM HONG KONG 6TH DECEMBER 1846 ROUNDED THE CAPE 31ST MARCH 1847 ARRIVED IN ENGLAND 27TH MARCH 1848'
A medal struck in 1848 in the collection of the National Maritime Museum, London, also commemorates the arrival in England of Xisheng onboard the Keying (NMM museum number MEC 1349). On the obverse of the medal is a portrait of Xisheng and the legend 'MANDARIN HESING OF THE CHINESE JUNK'.
Documents in the Royal Archives at Windsor Castle record that Queen Victoria visited the Chinese ship on 16 May 1848, just a few weeks after its arrival in London. Xisheng was subsequently invited to the opening of the Great Exhibition, which he attended as a member of the group of foreign dignitaries. The painting shows him wearing Chinese official clothing even though he was not an official delegate of the Manchu government.
In 2010 this painting was lent to the Shanghai Expo, and following this the Shanghai Museum commissioned a full-scale copy to be made. This was painted in the UK, partly in front of the original painting in the V&A, and shipped to Shanghai in September 2011.
Oil painting of the the Great Exhibition. British, 1851-1852. Painted by Henry Courtney Selous.
Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)
Catalogue of British Oil Paintings 1820-1860, Ronald Parkinson, Victoria and Albert Museum, London: HMSO, 1990, pp. 257-58
The following is a slightly abbreviated version of the original catalogue entry :
"SELOUS, Henry Courtnay (1803-1890)
Born 1803 son of the painter George Selous of a Jersey Huguenot family; changed his name to Selous about 1834. Entered RA Schools, won medals from the Society of Arts. Worked as a panorama painter, won prize in Westminster Hall competition 1843, painted fresco in Law Society library, Chancery Lane, 1844. Exhibited 34 works at the RA between 1818 and 1885, 23 at the BI 1819-58, and nine at the SBA 1827-31 and 1874-5. Subjects include animals, portraits, landscapes, historical and literary. Designed illustrations for books and for the Art Union. Published fiction as Kay Spen 1868-72. Married a daughter of the enamel painter H P Bone; and his daughter Miss J Selous was also an exhibiting painter. Died Beaworthy, Devonshire, 24 September 1890.
LIT: The Times 7 October 1890, p9 (obit); Illustrated London News 11 October 1890, p454 (obit with portrait)
The Opening of the Great Exhibition by Queen Victoria on 1st May 1851 329-1889 NegJ623
Canvas, 169.5 X 241.9 cm (66¾ X 95¼ ins)
Signed and dated 'H C Selous 1851/2'
Given by Mr Warren W De la Rue 1889
The picture shows a moment in the opening ceremony on 1 May 1851 of the International Exhibition of Arts and Manufactures initiated by Prince Albert in the vast glass structure of the Crystal Palace erected in Hyde Park. Sir Henry Cole recorded in his diary 23 June 1851 'To Mr Selous' Studio for portrait'; he appears in the group on the left. There are further references on 26 June and 5 July, then on 11 July 1851: '[At Great Exhibition] Building. Queen came & inspected Selous picture'; on 23 and 30 July he records having his portrait repainted. Finally, he made two visits to see the painting: on 25 February 1852 'Prince critical about Lloyd's & Wylde's position in the picture of the Exhibition', and again on 24 May 1852. The Athenaeum reviewed the painting when it was on display in Trafalgar Square (presumably at the RA, then in the NG building) before it was engraved: 'It is impossible for the spectators not to feel the solemn grandeur of the scene. Yet the airy lightness and vast extent of the building are admirably preserved'. The Art Journal noticed the finished painting in August 1852:
Pictures of this class, which may be called scene pictures, are, for the most part, of such a character as to leave the artist little room for inventive display; they are facts and must be treated as such, consequently the difficulties by which they are surrounded to render them even pleasing to the tutored eye, are not easily overcome. Mr Selous has painted the subject of the opening of the Great Exhibition, selecting that part of the ceremony when the Archbishop of Canterbury is offering the benedictory prayer. The time could not be more judiciously chosen, as it affords the opportunity of bringing forward the illustrious personages who figured prominently on that occasion, grouped together in all the magnificence of costume and dress, but in an attitude of perfect repose, and the countenances expressive of agreeable and devout expression. The view is taken from a point near where stood the crystal fountain, looking northwards. The centre of the picture is occupied by the Royal party and their attendants, the right by the foreign commissioners, chairmen of juries, &c, and the left by the ministers of state, the royal commissioners, and the executive officers. The artist has done all that could be done with so impracticable a theme, throwing into it as much picturesque display as the subject woud admit. Most of the persons introduced, including those of the various members of the Royal Family, sat to him for their portraits, and we must acknowledge he has been very happy in preserving their likenesses. The picture was, we believe, painted for Messrs Llovd, who purpose having it engraved. It will form an interesting memorial of an event that for many years to come will lose little of its attractiveness in the estimation of thousands.
Sir Francis Graham Moon (1796-1871), who seems to have been the first owner of the painting, was a printseller and publisher, and it seems likely that he bought - or commissioned - the work to have it engraved: the print by Samuel Bellin was published by T Boys in 1856 (Moon was a partner in Moon, Boys & Graves, of Pall Mall). Moon's obituary in the Illustrated London News (28 October 1871, p399) stated that he specialised in prints of contemporary history such as the 'Waterloo Banquet at Apsley House'. The elaborate composition of the picture, and the Queen's sitting for her portrait in it, have bestowed upon the painting an official status.
An engraved key was published [museum number: 32A-1889], identifying all the principal figures; of particular interest are the portraits on the right of the last owner, Warren De la Rue, together with his wife. A scientist and inventor (he exhibited the first envelope-making machine in 1851) Warren De la Rue was juror and reporter in the 1851 committee for class 29. Also, in the right foreground, is [...] Hee Sing 'who happened to be there on the occasion' [....]
The artist's daughter, Miss Jane Poyer Selous, wrote on 8 April 1925 that the painting contained 'portraits from life of everyone who was present and gave sittings to my father'. She also recorded: 'I have the original sketch (in oil) made by my father during the progress of the opening ceremony which shown to the Queen decided her to sit for her portrait, with the rest of the Royal family'.
PROV: Sir Francis Graham Moon; his sale, Christie's 13 April 1872 (226), bought McLean £50; Warren W De la Rue, who presented it to the museum 1889
EXH: ? British Empire Exhibition Wembley 1924-5 (not in Palace of Arts catalogue)
ENGR: Samuel Bellin, publ T Boys 1856
LIT: Athenaeum 5 June 1852, p633; Art Journal 1852, p262;Sir Henry Cole Fifty Years of Public Work 1884, I, p179; C Wood Victorian Panorama 1976, repr frontispiece and (detail) pl 11
Expo 2010 Shanghai China. World Exposition Museum ISBN: 9787532140503.
Julius Bryant, ed. Art and Design for All. The Victoria and Albert Museum London: V&A Publishing, 2011. ISBN: 9781851776665.
The Victoria and Albert Museum: Art and Design For All (Museum of Applied Arts, Budapest 14/06/2012-16/09/2012)
The Victoria and Albert Museum: Art and Design For All (Kunst und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland, Bonn 18/11/2011-15/04/2012)
Shanghai Expo (World Expo Museum, Shanghai 01/05/2010-15/11/2010)
A Grand Design - The Art of the Victoria and Albert Museum (Victoria and Albert Museum 12/10/1999-16/01/2000)
Labels and date
This famous image of the opening ceremony shows the Archbishop of Canterbury blessing the Exhibition. The Royal Family is surrounded by Commissioners, Ministers and dignitaries. More than 25,000 people attended the opening ceremony. This picture was originally painted with a view to its commercial possibilities and many prints were made of it. [27/03/2003]
Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations
Canvas; Oil colour
Men; Figures; Costume; Women; Victoria, Queen; Crystal Palace; Albert Francis Augustus Charles Emmanuel (Prince of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, Prince Consort of Queen Victoria of Great Britain,); Great Exhibition Building; Sing, Hee; Hesing; Xisheng
Royalty; Sculpture; Paintings; Fashion; Formal wear; Great Exhibition; The Great Exhibition