3: Influential early exhibitions

© Bob Denton 2018
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In the 18th century many European associations were formed to further the interests of The Arts and industrial arts. To pursue this interest many of them arranged for fairs and exhibitions that would present the current processes and movements to their members and to broader audiences. This was also a peak time for European imperial expansion and these associations and events often took on something of a nationalistic tone, or if we try to be more charitable, these had a civilising dimension.

London and Paris were to be at the forefront of these developments.

3.1     1760/1, London, RSA exhibition

See The Society for the Encouragement of Arts… (1761)

One claimant to be the first formal exhibition was a series of events held by the ‘Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce’. Founded in 1754, its first meeting was held at Rawthmell’s Coffee House in Covent Garden.  It subsequently ran events.

‘First meeting of the Society at Rawthmells Coffee House’, Anna Zinkeisen,
Source: RSA, an historical review, 1954

Seventeenth and eighteenth-century coffee houses in England were effectively the ‘talking shops’ and exhibition venues of their time exploring new ideas and devices.

Map of RSA’s early meeting places – Source: D G C Allan, RSA

The Society first wrote to companies to submit entries for assessment in 1756 and again in 1757 and later began to exhibit these. The society later received a royal charter in 1854 and became known as the RSA (Royal Society of Arts), its headquarters façade states ‘Arts and Commerce Promoted’. Today the RSA has 27,000 fellows drawn from seventy countries, among its august alumni are Charles Dickens, Adam Smith, Benjamin Franklin, Karl Marx, William Hogarth, and in more recent times Stephen Hawking and Tim Berners-Lee.

In the late eighteenth century the RSA made annual awards for inventions and notions in Agriculture, Chemistry, Colonies, Manufacture, Mechanics, the Polite Arts, and Trade.

RSA’s original medal

It held its first contemporary art exhibition in 1760 at its Great Room, just 24m x 12m (80’ x 40’) in the Strand opposite Beaufort Street, It attracted 69 participants that included Gainsborough and Reynolds, some 130 works on show. It was open from 9:00–14:00 and ran for a fortnight. There was some dissent about charging admission, resolved by selling the catalogue for sixpence. Some 6.582 catalogues were sold contributing a net £100. One estimate claimed a total 20,000 visitors.

The next year, 1761, it held a more general exhibition in a warehouse adjacent to its headquarters, featuring its award-winning equipment, with volunteer artisans in attendance to explain the exhibits.  Because they were charging for catalogues the artists refused to join them and a group later broke away to form the Society of Artists of Great Britain. It ran for four weeks from 7am to 1pm.

From 1761 the Society purchased all of the machinery and mechanical inventions which entered its competition and merited a prize. Based on the RSA’s educational objectives their shows offered free entry, though they took income from sales of catalogues. Some members proposed catalogue purchase should be obligatory, others that their cost should be higher.

A split ensued, the Royal Academy [‘RA’] was formed and began to run its own exhibitions from 1769. The RSA focused on production techniques and the RA on fine art.

© Bob Denton 2018
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3.2     1790, Paris, Fête de la Fédération and 1790s’ Festivals

Across the Channel the increasingly financially challenged Ancien Régime was being confronted with new social and political ideas, many of these jointly developed with American Republican thinkers. The Americans had recently gained independence from Britain. The Bastille was stormed on the 14th July 1789, more about a symbolic anti-royalist gesture, but following this the French Revolution was in full flow as they overthrew their royalty and nobility. This was also an era of high tariff barriers for the movement of goods and this was disrupting both European domestic and export trading.

It was soon realised that without the nobility and the clergy there was something of a hole in the fabric of French society, which needed to be filled. The revolutionaries adopted a familiar theme of the Roman Empire, somewhat disparagingly referred to as ‘bread and circuses’, as the proletariat was provided with a new series of regular rituals and festivities. Of course, the longest lasting of these was to be the celebration of Bastille Day.

A prompt example (albeit with less durability) was the Fête de la Fédération, held on 14th July 1790 when men and women, retailers and labourers were encouraged to create platforms and grandstands on the Place de la Bastille and along the Champs-Elysées. The event included music and dancing, military exercises and speeches.

The Fête de la Fédération – image is a watercolour by Antoine-Jean Duclos

Across the ensuing decade there were a series of ideological events launched to keep the citizenry aware of revolutionary progress. A 1793 the ‘Festival of Unity’ followed on from the abolition of royalty and the storming of the Tuileries Palace. The 1793 ‘Festival of Reason’ celebrated the move away from religion as churches were transformed into Temples of Reason, Notre Dame in Paris having its altar re-dedicated to Liberty.

Maximilien de Robespierre created the 1794 ‘Festival of the Supreme Being’ to institute a new state religion as they launched a new decimalised Republican Calendar, establishing a day of rest every ten days. Citizens were expected to run commemorative events, the one in Paris being the largest of course. The festival featured five statues of the inharmonious concepts – Ambition, Atheism, Discord, Egotism and False Simplicity. Robespierre theatrically approached the statue of Atheism with a flaming torch, his ‘Flame of Truth’ set the statue on fire, eventually to reveal beneath ‘Atheism’ a fireproof statue of ‘Wisdom’, though it emerged rather burned and blackened from the display.

The 1796 ‘Festival of Victory’ was to celebrate military victories in Italy, this was followed by the ‘Festival of the Foundation of the Republic’. The 1798 ‘Festival of Liberty and Reason’ continued the process, seeking to underline the new regime’s values and beliefs.

It was in 1797 that the notion of industrial exhibitions was first mooted (see below), this sought something more fruitful than ‘bread and circuses’, yet it was still conceived to be a spectacle, that would include processions and other entertainments.

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3.3     1789 Geneva and 1790 Hamburg

It was not all about London and Paris, several small exhibitions of industrial products were held elsewhere in Europe. These were referred to as ‘Products in Industry’ exhibitions, one was held in Geneva in 1789 and another in Hamburg in 1790.

Geneva’s motto post tenebras lux meaning ‘after darkness, light’ reflects upon the Enlightenment and proves an appropriate maxim for exhibitions. But little can be discovered of the Geneva event, just the bare fact that there was a trade exhibition of industrial products held in 1789. This is of course the date of their neighbour’s Revolution, which would reach them three years later (1792) and in 1798 the Directory annexed it, declaring it as part of the département du Léman. It was not until 1814, after its liberation by Austrian troops, that Geneva fully joined the Swiss Confederation.  

Hamburg had been granted the right to hold a trade fair by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV back in 1365. Charles was also the King of Bohemia, Wenceslaus (though not the one in the Christmas carol). This traditional fair was held for three weeks around the date of Pentecost. It featured traders and craftsmen, wines, oils, spices, jewellery and fabrics. This approved fair split into three annual fairs, one still held close to Pentecost. Being a trading port, it was already well served with raw materials, in 1383 the City Council of Hamburg, , five years after the death of the emperor,  discontinued the fairs ‘for the benefit of the citizens of Hamburg’, protecting the from imports.

In 1790 the Patriotic Society in Hamburg created the ‘Hamburg Crafts Exhibition’ of raw materials for trade manufacturers and raw material suppliers. It was held at the Great Hall of the Ratskeller (the city hall cellar). It was founded, in part, on Enlightenment principles by seeking to replace the motivation of competition with the notion of cooperation for the greater good of the city. This first event had sixty exhibitors on the theme of improving the quality of handicraft products. The first event was most successful with painters, draughtsmen and architects. This focus on artistic exhibits led to the establishment of the Hamburg Art Society in 1817. The fair was held every few years each attracting a different set of trades.

Hamburg Council did not become directly involved until 1863 when an ‘International Agricultural Exhibition’ co-located with the ‘Hamburg Trade Exhibition’. The success of both events plus the growth of railways opened new trade routes (beyond its port) and prompted the city to establish itself as a centre for trade exhibitions. It took until 1897 for them to establish a permanent site that consisted of an 8,000 sq m main building set in parkland. The ‘General Horticultural Show’ was held there in 1897.

Both Geneva and Hamburg were annexed by the French around these dates and it is perhaps this fact that has led some sources to suggest that they were to inspire the 1798 Paris exposition.

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3.4     1791, Prague, Waarenkabinet

see Societe d’Encouragement de l’Industrie National, Geneva (1789)

The Geneva and Hamburg ‘Products in Industry’ events were organised on quite a small scale. As a result, many claim that it was the 1791 Prague event, the Waarenkabinet (Industrial Exhibition) that was the first true industrial exhibition. This event was retrospectively recognised, somewhat arbitrarily, by the Bureau International des Expositions (‘BIE’) as having been the first World Fair. (The BIE was not formed until 22 Nov 1928, today 170 member-countries have signed up to the BIE Convention.)

This industrial exhibition was held to coincide with the coronation of King Leopold II in 1791 in Prague, then part of Bohemia within the Habsburg monarchy. Prague was at the time ‘German’ soil. Leopold was the Holy Roman Emperor, king of Bohemia, Croatia, Germany and Hungary (among many other territories), Grand Prince of Transylvania and Archduke of Austria (his complete title ran to well over 100 words).

The event was held at the summer refectory of the Klementium, the Clementine Jesuit College in Prague. At one time this was the third largest Jesuit college in the world, today it hosts the National Library of the Czech Republic.

The Estates of Bohemia commissioned Mozart to compose an opera for the event. He completed ‘La clemenza di Tito’, in just eighty day. – just as well he did it quickly because he had died by December.

Klementium east entrance
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Klementium east entrance and baroque library hall (Source; Wikimedia Commons)

The event’s intention was to strengthen Czech identity, thus somewhat anti-Habsburg. Its catalogue sought to recover the spirit of Czech national arts, and re-publicise authentic Czech traditions and heritage. Exhibitors were Czech manufacturers from within forty-nine sectors – encompassing textile samples, knitted buttons and lace, the works of Czech goldsmiths and jewellers, to glassware and mirrors. The event prompted the foundation of the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague in 1799.

Klementium Baroque library hall
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Given the above paragraph, we should ask whether this truly a World Fair? It referred to itself as a ‘collection of goods’ rather than an ‘exhibition’. Its Czech-only exhibitor profile is at odds with the BIE acclaim. Perhaps its visitor profile might justify this, but visitor data was not found.

Leopold and his wife, Maria Luisa of Spain, ceremonially visited the event. Leopold was an absolute monarch at a time when this notion was already becoming unpopular in Europe. His sister Marie Antoinette, as wife to Louis XVI of France, was tried and guillotined two years after this event. But by then Leopold had died suddenly, the suddenness leading some to suggest that he was poisoned.

A century later, 1891, a General Global Exhibition was held in Prague. By then King Joseph II had refused to be crowned as the Czech king, so its focus on Czech identity was still relevant. But, many potential German exhibitors boycotted it, so once again the claim of ‘Global’ might be queried.

© Bob Denton 2018
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