Elaborate gilded mirrors, antique chests and antique balloon back dining chairs … In 1851, Cumbrian visitors could see these and many more wondrous things, in the Great Exhibition of London. Now, a rare and lavishly illustrated photographic record of the exhibition, by W.H. Fox Talbot, has been sold at Bonhams. The book, which realised £216,000 with premium, was Talbot’s own magnificently bound presentation copy, given to his daughter, Matilda.
W.H Fox Talbot was a pioneer who invented the calotype, the early photographic process used in the book. Called “Reports by the Juries on The Subjects in the Thirty Classes into which the [Great] Exhibition was Divided,” 130 copies in total were printed – of which 15 were offered to Talbot in lieu of payment. They regularly turn up at photographic sales, though no complete sets survive. The volume sold at Bonham’s was one in a set of four, each comprising 154 mounted calotypes, plus further illustrations.
The volume is a priceless record of British steam technology and engineering of the time. However, the Great Exhibition was also a showground for the decorative arts, with furniture galleries displaying artefacts from exhibitors around the world, as well as from Britain. Visitors from Lancashire would have seen antique desks “japanned” to look like ebony, antique chests in Gothic Revival style, and Victorian balloon back dining chairs with Louis XIV rococo lines.
The aftermath of the Great Exhibition had a tremendous impact on furniture in Lancashire, with the Victorian dining chairs and antique oak pedestal desk designs recreated in mass-produced form in factories. Look for exhibition-quality fine furniture, such as Victorian mahogany partners desks, in Preston antique dealers.
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