Sunday, 2 March 2014

Progress; empire; art; whatever?

by Daniel Stephen
Palgrave Macmillan, £65.00, September 2013, 978 1 137 32511 2

From the 1851 Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations, held at the Crystal Palace in London, to the 1900 Paris Exposition Universelle, international exhibitions were the show-stopping marvels of the time. In a subfusc age, they were the blingy, multi-coloured rainbows of enterprise, the seductive handmaidens of trade and commerce. They were the panoramic glory of the second half of the nineteenth century, packed with steam gadgetry, chemical fantasies and human exotica. Not only did these showcases of industrial enterprise attract displays and tourists of all classes from all corners of the globe, they also projected the economic, social and political aspirations of the exhibiting nations, or at least their rulers. Daniel Stevens quotes Umberto Eco’s apt description of these overwhelming commodity spectacles as ‘the Missa solemnis of traditional capitalist society’ and he isn’t far wrong. Exhibitions were pure ideology, deployed under the guise of an enhanced familiar space; they were, ostensibly, all about trade, commerce and profit.

They were also one of the principal mechanisms for the visual and technological education of their visitors. Until the Education Acts of the 1870s and 80s, education remained a privilege, rather than a right; the exhibition phenomenon became a significant, progressive, driver in changing attitudes to technical education. Quite deliberately, the 1851 exhibition spawned what became the Victoria & Albert and Science Museums whilst, in Sydney, the 1879 Sydney International Exhibition delivered the New South Wales Technological, Industrial and Sanitary Museum, an ungainly title for a radical production, one that soon after was truncated to the Technological Museum, notwithstanding the fact that, as the original title suggested, it collected almost everything. 

However, by 1900, the allure of exhibitions was diminishing, even if attendance rates remained significant. Increasing numbers of manufacturers were becoming reluctant to be involved in these spectacles on the grounds that the format had lost its novelty, other kinds of advertising had improved and the ‘surroundings’ of the exhibitions were more suited to entertainment than trade. Other disincentives for attendance included: a decrease in the value of awards; the trouble and expense of participation, particularly if the exhibitions were located outside Europe; the danger of goods being copied by competitors; and, not least, the assertion that many manufacturers were apparently ‘too busy to attend’. (Great Britain. International Exhibitions Committee, Report […] with reference to the participation of Great Britain in great international exhibitions. Cd 3772 (London: HMSO, 1907), pp. 3-4.).

The official British response to this conundrum was to reconfigure the nature of the country’s participation in international exhibitions by establishing a central organisation within the Board of Trade, the Exhibitions Branch, which would regulate and organise British involvement in international exhibitions, by being more selective about where it showed and by focussing on specific themes and emphasising particular aspects of British life. World War One put a stop to these activities and, in 1919, responsibility for the Exhibitions Branch was transferred to the recently formed Department of Overseas Trade, a miscegnated administrative confection, invented to satisfy the influence of business interests in the post war coalition government.

The design of the cover for the official guide reflects initial attempts
to invest the appearance of the exhibition with a sense of modernity
The 1924-25 British Empire Exhibition held at Wembley was one of the more tangible results of this administrative rethinking although Stephen fails to identify this specific institutional context in his account, notwithstanding the fact that the first general manager of the exhibition, Ulick Wintour, was the foundation director of the Exhibitions Branch until the start of the First World War. Instead he focuses on the political and economic contexts of a loss-making exhibition that, rather than acting as the celebration of empire its organisers sought, revealed its economic inadequacies, political rifts and fundamental racism. While the - mostly British - visitors to the exhibition were ‘suggestively shown ways in which the British Empire seemed strong, secure, productive, even glamorous, and a force for “good” in an uncertain world’, the non-white subjects of empire found its approach humiliating, demeaning and exploitative while the overseas ‘Britons’ of the book’s title, the inhabitants of the ‘white dominions’, were, on the whole, unimpressed.

Unidentified designer, British Empire Exhibition, 1924. Dobson, Molle & Co. Ltd, London. The official map to the exhibition reverts to an ersatz sense of traditionalism in keeping with political changes made to the exhibition's governance in 1922.
Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. Eph-D-EXHIBITION-1924-01-map

Stephen lists an impressive bibliography of material relating to the exhibition and those involved with it, while simultaneously ignoring official publications. Most of these references are, by necessity and, speculatively, geography, somewhat tangential because very little of a critical nature has been written about the Wembley exhibition itself and the surviving archival material remains largely unexplored. Probably the most incisive text to date is Ann Clendenning's recent on-line essay for the Branch Collective 'On the British Empire Exhibition 1924-25', which would seem both to post-date Stephen's publication and to flag the future publication of her own book on the subject. However, like Stephen, Clendenning disregards the key role played by the arts at the exhibition not only in the way they were used to define its overall image but also how they were deployed as material manifestations of Britishness in the overall perception of the exhibition. 

Palace of Arts [British Empire Exhibition, Wembley, 1924], Fleetway Press.
Brent Archives, London
The relatively modest, but nonetheless  monolithic, Palace of Arts was probably one of the Wembley exhibition's more successful venues, notwithstanding an entry surcharge of 6d (about $2.50 in today’s terms). While its popularity was probably due to a pastiche eighteenth century neo-classical doll’s house - the Queen’s Doll’s House designed by Edwin Lutyens – rather than a pastiche renaissance-revival painting ‘Service and sacrifice’ by the now almost forgotten society artist Alfred Kingsley Lawrence (1893-1978), the arts – fine and applied - had formed a core element of the British exhibition strategy since the surprising profitability of the British Art Exhibit at the 1906-07 Christchurch New Zealand International Exhibition. Sadly for the overall appearance of the exhibition, the sacking of Wintour by Conservative party interests in 1922 led to the dilution of his concept of a visually coherent, almost modernist, space of ‘concrete buildings of Egyptian dimensions’ and its replacement by an overwhelming atmosphere of twee traditionalism, interspersed by moments of colonial exotica.

James Cowan opined in 1910 that ‘New Zealand has had a weakness for Exhibitions from the first’, but its capacity to either host them locally or attend them internationally has always been circumscribed by distance, inadequate organisation, insufficient funding and a certain degree of naivety. Between 1865 and 1930, there were four so-called ‘international’ exhibitions held in New Zealand. The first, the New Zealand Exhibition, held in Dunedin in 1865, was organised by the Otago Provincial Council; the second, the first New Zealand and South Seas Exhibition of 1889, again organised by local interests, was held in the same city; the 1906-07 New Zealand International exhibition moved north to Christchurch and, for the first time, saw the involvement of the state; and the second New Zealand and South Seas Exhibition of 1925-26 was again held in Dunedin and locally organised. Notwithstanding their titles, they weren’t  particularly ‘international’. While they all sought to emulate the grandeur and excitement of the European and American spectacles, these simulacra ended up being more akin to a few muttered prayers in non-conformist chapels than grandiose masses in increasingly over-ornamented cathedrals of the Eco metaphor.

James Weaver Allen, Dunedin Exhibition building 1865.
Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. PA2-0012
Other than the New Zealand government and a few, token, local manufacturers and primary product convertors, the exhibitors at the New Zealand exhibitions tended to be from either Britain or its colonies and their principal concern seems to have been with seeing off any competition for their products rather than in entrancing New Zealand visitors with the fruits of their enterprise or engendering further trading opportunities. The country was, after all, a captive market for British goods.

New Zealanders in the late nineteenth century wishing to see something a little more spectacular than the local efforts without having to travel to the other ends of the earth were able to assuage their desires by simply crossing the Tasman. International Exhibitions were held in Sydney in 1879 and in Melbourne in 1880 and 1888. Most of the New Zealand exhibitions were held in temporary structures; only the 1865 exhibition was displayed in a building with any claim to architectural merit or permanency. Although intended by its architect, William Mason, to be converted into a market building following the exhibition, the edifice was ultimately transformed into the Dunedin Public Hospital, which, tragically unregarded, was demolished in 1930; that's what usually happens to New Zealand's built heritage. By contrast, the Australian venues, in Sydney and Melbourne, were architecturally sophisticated, grandiose, permanent structures and they attracted significant numbers of overseas exhibitors including those from France, Belgium, Switzerland, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, the United States and Japan. To the despair of its inhabitants, the Sydney venue, the timber-built Garden Palace in the Botanic Gardens, combusted three years after the exhibition’s close.

Campbell-Gray Ltd, New Zealand pavilion [British Empire Exhibition, Wembley, 1924], Fleetway Press.
Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. Eph-POSTCARD-Ellis-11
New Zealand was an eager recruit to the Wembley Exhibition. Stephen highlights the country’s somewhat ingenuous enthusiasm for this project of imperial consolidation when he notes that the ‘New Zealand premier (sic) W F Massey expressed hope on Wembley’s opening day that the exhibition would help in “peopling the empty spaces overseas with energetic and enterprising British citizens”’. It was not to be. Perhaps unmoved by serried displays of refrigerated butter and cheese, ‘the largest item of the Dominion’s trade’ - a refrigerated life-size butter cow was, unfortunately, trumped by the Canadian refrigerated life-size butter statue of the Prince of Wales in First Nation drag, the ‘refrigerated cabinet containing specimens of sporting fish caught in New Zealand rivers and bays’ and ‘the finest collection of red deer heads presented to the British public’, the New Zealand pavilion failed in its attempts to attract immigrants to ‘better Britain’, or, more accurately, an agriculturally-inflected, reproduction Britain, located in a slightly alien and definitely distant environment. Nor for that matter, despite the existence of state-subsidised travel, were many New Zealanders inspired to visit the exhibition and those that did seem to have been underwhelmed by the way they were represented. 

The British Empire Exhibition at Wembley wasn't much of a success generally, notwithstanding a decision to extend it for a further season in 1925 in a vain attempt to break even financially. But, as the 1924 Board of Trade Committee on Industry and Trade reported in 1929, 'exhibitions have not in recent years yielded practical advantages to British participants commensurate with the expense occurred'.  (Great Britain. Board of Trade, Final report of the committee on industry and trade. Cmd 3282 (London: HMSO, 1929), p. 169).

However, in keeping with his reticence in identifying the part played by the arts at Wembley, Stephen makes no mention of a contemporaneous international exhibition, one that was not only profitable but also adjudged to have been a roaring success: the Paris Exposition internationale des arts décoratifs et industriels modernes. Where the exhibition at Wembley sought to project an untenable fantasy of empire, the Paris one was a fantasy of imperial proportions, one that popularised not only commercial modernity - hence the term 'art deco' - but also architectural modernism, thanks to the effrontery of Le Corbusier's Pavillon de l'Esprit Nouveau and the revolutionary constructivist Soviet pavilion of Konstantin Melnikov. The British exhibited in Paris, albeit to no great acclaim; the New Zealanders seem to have been barely aware of the exhibition's existence until long after the event.

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