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Great Exhibitions

The devastating rivalry between Britain and France during the Napoleonic Wars gave way to more cordial relations later in the century. Napoleon III spent his exile in London, and his seizure of power was financed by his English mistress. Impressed by the modernisation of London and the Great Exhibition of 1851, he set about modernising Paris and launched an exhibition in 1855 to celebrate the consolidation of his empire.

Edmond Renaudin, Paris - exposition

Edmond Renaudin, Paris - exposition, ou, Guide à Paris in 1867. Paris: C. Delagrave, [1867]. Shelfmark: 7957.aa.61. Palais de l'Industrie, Champs Elysées, p. 366. Copyright © The British Library Board

Paris had staged the first exhibition of new technology in 1798, on the Champ de Mars. Exhibitions of increasing size had been held in 1839, 1844 and 1849. In 1855 thirty-four nations exhibited in a specially built Palais de L'industrie in the Champs Elysées, covering 168 thousand square metres. Technical novelties included aluminium sheets and Goodyear waterproofs. Not much more than three million of the twenty-five million cost was recouped.

After the London 1862 South Kensington exhibition, Paris responded in 1867 with an exhibition on the Champ de Mars and the Billancourt island, which covered 687 thousand square metres. The Parc des Buttes Chaumont was laid out in celebration, and, enlivened by the music of Offenbach, Paris seemed the pleasure capital of the world. France was confident of its technological superiority over Prussia, and Offenbach mocked Prussian militarism, leading to a fatal enthusiasm for war with Prussia.

L'exposition de Paris 1889

L'exposition de Paris 1889. Paris: à la libraire illustré, [1889]. 2 vols. (40 periodical numbers). Shelfmark: 7957.h.4. Palais des industries diverses, p. 1. Copyright © The British Library Board


London held annual exhibitions between 1871 and 1874, but it took until 1878 for Paris to recover from the siege and Commune and stage a magnificent exhibition. It covered 800 thousand square metres on the Champs de Mars and the rising ground opposite, on which was built the Moorish style Palais de Trocadéro, replaced in 1937 by the Palais de Chaillot. The most memorable feature of the 1889 Paris exhibition was the Eiffel tower, originally intended to be dismantled afterwards. 960 thousand square metres spread over the Champ de Mars, the Trocadéro, the Invalides Esplanade and along the Quai d'Orsay. Twenty-nine states exhibited, but the great monarchies declined to attend an exhibition which marked the first French revolution.

Harper's guide to Paris and the Exposition of 1900

Harper's guide to Paris and the Exposition of 1900. London: Harper, 1900. Shelfmark: Part of the ground plan, p. 140. Copyright © The British Library Board

The summit of exhibition pride was reached in 1900, when the exhibition spread along both sides of the river, linked by the magnificent Pont Alexandre III, named for the Tsar who had concluded the Franco-Russian treaty. The exhibition halls known as the Grand Palais and the Petit Palais were built for this exhibition and still remain. Art Nouveau style was mixed with pavilions reflecting national styles from around the world, illuminated by the wonders of electricity. The novelty of moving pavements was recorded on film which still survives. All these wonders were recorded in the splendid illustrated magazines then being produced in London and Paris, and in catalogues and guides purchased by the British Museum for the library collections. English visitors could reach Paris in ten hours and take a guide in English with them.

Books on the exhibitions can be found in Explore the British Library by searching in the "organisation" field under the following headings
Exposition Universelle de 1855
Exposition Universelle de 1867
Exposition Universelle de 1878
Exposition Universelle de 1889
Exposition Universelle Internationale de 1900

Unfortunately, many of these items are in the destroyed shelfmark ranges of 7953 to 7959, although some have been replaced. Readers may therefore also wish to consult the collections of the National Art Library within the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Illustrated papers available in the News Collection can be traced in Explore the British Library and include the following:

The Illustrated London news, 1842- .
The Graphic, 1869-1932.

L'illustration, 1843-1944. Shelfmark: F.63.
L'Univers illustré, 1858-1891. Shelfmark: F.41.
Le Figaro illustré, 1883-1911. (English edition 1887-8, 1892, 1898, 1900-1903.) Shelfmark: F.51. A special volume Figaro-Exposition, 1889. Shelfmark: F.misc.191.


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