Joseph Paxton drew this sketch on a sheet of pink blotting paper while attending a board meeting of the Midland Railway company. It is a rough scale-drawing of a massive cast-iron and plate-glass building to be erected in London’s Hyde Park to house The Great Exhibition of 1851. Known as the Crystal Palace, Paxton’s building went from this sketch to a fully costed plan within two weeks, and from plan to completion in nine months. 

Officially known as The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations, the purpose was to display the wonders of technological and aesthetic innovations from around the world - as Alfred Lord Tennyson put it, ‘All of beauty, all of use/That one fair planet can produce’. Across a floor space of almost 20,000 square metres, more than 60 nations displayed the latest in industrial design. The exhibits included rail engines of every type, prototype bicycles (‘velocipedes’), raised ink (the forerunner of braille), high-speed printing presses, as well as jewels, textiles and artworks. The Exhibition attracted six million visitors in five months.

Who was Joseph Paxton?

Before designing the Crystal Palace, Joseph Paxton (1803-1865) had been head gardener at Chatworth House in Derbyshire. The structure of the Crystal Palace is effectively a massive expansion of the greenhouses Paxton built there. Its modular structure meant that it could be quickly dismantled and rebuilt, and in 1852 it was moved to Sydenham in South East London, where it survived as a popular cultural and sporting venue before burning down in 1936. Its extensive remains are still visible in what is now known as Crystal Palace Park.