The Art of the Book: Illustrating the Industrial Arts

In 1853, Matthew Digby Wyatt published The Industrial Arts of the Nineteenth CenturyA Series of Illustrations of the Choicest Specimens Produced by Every Nation at the Great Exhibition of Works of Industry (London: Day and Son) in two volumes. Large in format, these handsome books are filled with intricate colour reproductions of a small selection of some of the art objects and industrial manufactures from the 1851 London exhibition. Born in 1820, Digby Wyatt was an architect and art writer, who also served as Secretary to the Executive Committee of the Commissioners of the Great Exhibition. In addition to helping realise the design of Joseph Paxton for the exhibition hall, he was also responsible for arranging the many thousand exhibits in its galleries and halls and so was well-placed to compile these luxurious books.   

Frontispiece to Matthew Digby Wyatt, Industrial Arts of the Nineteenth Century, UCD Special Collections.

Held in the summer of 1851, the ‘Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations’ came about through the efforts of Prince Albert and Henry Cole with the purpose of showing innovations of manufacturing and design from Britain and countries around the world. Over 100,000 items were on display, ranging from raw materials, machinery, manufactures and the fine arts: visited by six million people over the course of its run, the profits of the exhibition were used to establish the South Kensington Museum, now the Victoria and Albert Museum. To house the thousands of exhibits, and to facilitate so many visitors, Joseph Paxton was commissioned to create a purpose-built exhibition hall for Hyde Park. At the time, Paxton was well-known as a gardener rather than as an architect, but had created glasshouses from new building materials, including cast iron and plate glass. This would be his inspiration for the Crystal Palace: using panes of glass and cast-iron beams and pillars, materials that could be made quickly and cheaply through mass-production and pre-fabrication, the exhibition hall was erected in less than a year.  

Steel engraving: Crystal Palace, 1851 exhibition by J. E. Mayall – Wellcome Collection, United Kingdom – CC BY.

Shortly after the Great Exhibition opened, Day and Son publishers suggested to Digby Wyatt that an illustrated volume showcasing the treasures of the exhibition would make for a worthy project. Not only would it create a lasting souvenir and record of some of the items displayed, but by using the latest innovations in colour printing methods, could in and of itself exemplify industrial progress. For The Industrial Arts of the Nineteenth Century, the printing processes selected was chromolithography: a relatively recent invention, but one that could achieve detail and effect for colour illustrations. 

A planographic rather than intaglio printing method, all lithographs are based around the antipathy of water and oil. A smooth, moistened limestone block is prepared with lithographic ink, the water repelling it from negative areas, and then printed from a flat-bed press. For chromolithography, this process is complicated by the fact that a different stone is used for each layer of colour and detail: not only did the printer have to perfectly match the position of the paper on each stone (known as the ‘register’) but they also had to give great attention to the order that each colour was printed as ‘since it is obvious that the last printed, by its greater or less degree of opacity, may tend to kill all that has been done before.’1  

Perhaps aware that some readers of the volumes would not be aware of the intricate chromolithograph process, Digby Wyatt gave a succinct overview in his introduction of how the plates were created. Starting with initial drawings of each object (made by a team of at least seventeen artists), the process of creating the chromolithograph could then begin. The drawings were then traced and retraced onto the stone, before the inking and pulling processes were completed. The task of printing each plate (totaling 160 across the two volumes) for Digby Wyatt’s publication fell to three printers: named in the text as Mr Francis Bedford, Mr Sleigh, and Mr Vinter. The most intricate plate required fourteen printings, with the average number being seven: in total this required 1069 stones, weighing in at 25 tons, using 17,400lbs of paper.2 

In addition to the printing of the chromolithographs, a separate team was responsible for the letterpress descriptions, including several authors who assisted Digby Wyatt with the texts, typesetters, and printers.  

John Jabez Edwin Mayall (English, 1813 – 1901), The Crystal Palace at Hyde Park, London, 1851, Daguerreotype, Getty, 84.XT.955.

Among the items selected by Digby Wyatt for the first volume of the Industrial Arts was ‘The Crystal Fountain’, made by F. and C. Osler of Birmingham. This magnificent glass fountain had been prominently placed in the transept of the exhibition hall: as the letterpress description notes, ‘It would be difficult to imagine a central ornament more appropriate for a Palace of Glass, than a Crystal Fountain’.3 Created from over four tonnes of crystal-glass, with the principal dish measuring more than eight feet in diameter. The chromolithography, made by Bedford, captures the intricate detailing of the fountain’s highly ornamented structure, complete with soft water falling from the spouts. Even in this illustration, the scale of the fountain is clear: but comparison with a contemporary daguerreotype showing the transept, replete with visitors and statuary encased within the glass exhibition hall, further emphasizes its placement. If can also been seen in the steel engraving above. Perhaps of particular interest to Irish readers of the volumes is the inclusion of John Henry Foley’s A Youth at a Stream, cast in bronze by John Ayres Hatfield. Foley, born in Dublin, created several sculptures seen in in his native city, including the statues of Oliver Goldsmith and Edmund Burke in front of Trinity College, and the O’Connell Monument.  

From The Official Catalogue of the Great Industrial Exhibition, Dublin 1853.

After the success of the 1851 Exhibition, similar large-scale events were held in other European cities. Ireland was not immune to their attractions: in 1853 the Irish Industrial Exhibition took place on Leinster Lawn, funded by the railway magnate, William Dargan. Although the catalogues and other publications for this exhibition were not as lavish, this illustration shows that Dubliners enjoyed their own glass exhibition palace, and the treasures it held. Part of the Royal College of Science for Ireland Library, these volumes are available for consultation in the UCD Special Collections Reading Room.

This post was researched and written by Kathryn Milligan, Library Assistant, Special Collections. 

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