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AN exhibition will be mounted early next year at the Dulwich Picture Gallery (February 4 to April 18) to mark the 150th anniversary of the completion of Caxton’s masterpiece, the second Crystal Palace at Sydenham, which stood on the horizon just above the gallery for more than 80 years until a shocking fire destroyed it in 1936.

Twice the size of the Hyde Park structure, the Palace was the world’s first fair and the first industrial exhibition venue. It was on a colossal scale, with a winter garden full of astonishing exhibitions and statuary, displays of architecture, industry, ethnography and natural history, with its park laid out as a “living encyclopedia” full of life-size models and “extinct animals”. The fountains, water temples and cascades were intended to surpass Versailles, and for 30 years the palace and gardens drew an average of two million open-mouthed visitors annually.

In his excellent book, Jeffrey Auerbach says: “The Great Exhibition was the single defining event for 19th century Britons,” and it surely was, with more than 100,000 exhibits, sent in by almost 14,000 exhibitors, selected by hundreds of committees from Britain, its colonies and dependencies and many other countries, becoming, in the words of one commentator, “the alphabetised list of exhibits stretching from ‘Absynthium’ provided by a Sardinian, to ‘Zithers’ sent in by two Viennese manufacturers”. And all we – at the end of the 20th century – could think up was the ghastly Dome experience.

With masses of illustrations and much archival research, the author discusses why the palace was such a success, what it meant to the millions who visited it and what it came to mean to later generations.