RIHA Journal 0302 | 31 May 2024

'Buried Empires': Showmanship and the Staging of Aesthetic Knowledge at the Sydenham Crystal Palace, 1854–1855

Karen Burns

In June 1854, the second Crystal Palace opened at Sydenham in South London. The media reported keenly on Sydenham’s large-scale archaeological reconstructions known as the Fine Arts Courts. These exhibits were designed by prominent design reformers as a means to improve public knowledge and public taste. However, the Courts attracted frequently hostile reviews from notable art critics who derided the displays as entertainment spectacles. This essay reevaluates the Courts by examining their deliberate showmanship. I trace the origins of the Sydenham display techniques in the archaeological representations made by the Sydenham Court designers for the London print, performance, and exhibition markets. Following the lead of historians of popular science, this essay emphasises the significance of popular formats and popularisation in Victorian visual culture and knowledge formation. It examines the reconstructions as visualising technologies designed to popularise, stage and communicate Victorian visual knowledge. I argue that both designers and showmen presented a virtual past through shared strategies of showmanship, the staging of expertise, and dramatic, poetic narrative. The Sydenham Fine Arts Courts were complex visual commodities, offering both instruction and diversion. Some Victorian critics found these aims mutually incompatible.


[1] When the second Crystal Palace opened at Sydenham, South London in June 1854, the metropolitan press paid keen attention to the large-scale reconstructions of architectural antiquities in Sydenham’s ten "Fine Art Courts" (Fig. 1). The Courts were reproduced in newspapers, periodicals, prints and photography across the globe, and their media fame probably shaped the popularity of the period room as a display format for nineteenth-century museums and exhibitions.1 However, when Sydenham first opened, contemporary reviewers in the periodical press were frequently hostile. Art critics derided the displays in anti-theatrical terms as an "attractive spectacle to the greatest number", as "scenic effects" that are comparable to "Madam Tussaud’s waxworks", and as a "panorama".2 The snobbish dismissal with which the Sydenham Courts were often confronted by contemporaries has given way in recent scholarship to a more appreciative approach to culture and knowledge popularisation.3

1 Crystal Palace, Sydenham, after 1854, undated, unauthored stereoscope. Bromley Local Studies and Archives, Bromley, England (photo: Bromley Local Studies and Archives)

2 The Egyptian Court in the Crystal Palace, Sydenham, 1854–1862, glass stereograph, sheet 8.4 × 17.3 cm. Wellcome Collection, London, no. 567779i (photo: https://wellcomecollection.org/works/duhhct59)

This essay explores Sydenham by examining the significance of popular formats and popularisation in Victorian visual culture. It approaches cultural forms as "neither corrupt nor authentic" in themselves and sidesteps the hierarchies that attribute a positive cultural value to some modes whilst assigning negative evaluations to other formats.4 Sydenham’s archaeological reconstructions are understood as a visualising technology, concerned with producing, staging, communicating, and popularising aesthetic knowledge (Fig. 2). The Courts will be situated within a longer series of archaeological reconstructions that the Sydenham designers produced for the London print and entertainment markets between 1848 and 1853. Across varied formats and diverse sites, these reconstructions used recurring communication strategies of showmanship, staged expertise, and dramatic, poetic narrative. I argue that these media forms were complex visual commodities. They challenge period and current cultural hierarchies assigning cultural value to some forms and sites over others.

[2] The Sydenham Courts can be understood within a broad analytic category of knowledge formation. 'Knowledge' as an organising idea offers a history from which the popular has not already been excluded.5 Knowledge making can be understood as a set of communicative practices.6 Communication provides a broad integrating frame for unifying a diverse set of activities which are often conventionally designated as expert or amateur.7 The emerging role of experts, and the authorisation and contestation of knowledge formats was part of the Sydenham story.8

[3] The Fine Arts Courts were part of a larger archaeological turn that sought to popularise and communicate the value of archaeological knowledge through the medium of reconstructed antiquities. Key members of the Sydenham design team developed visual technologies of archaeological reconstruction for the London exhibition and print markets between 1848 and 1853. These diverse formats of print and exhibition are uneasily categorised as either expert or popular, or as archaeologically authentic reproductions or inauthentic speculative reconstruct-ions.9 Viewing Sydenham within this longer history of the production of antiquity and its reception, foregrounds the exceptional hostility the Crystal Palace Courts attracted. At Sydenham, the displays aimed for both knowledge popularisation and leisure time entertainment, but some Victorians saw the fields of instruction and diversion as morally incompatible. The Sydenham Courts, panoramas, stage sets and independent commercial guidebooks to Sydenham were complex commodities, providing education and entertainment through multiple visual and auditory media.10 These artefacts confirm the intersection of multiple media in Victorian visual consumption.

Promoting aesthetic knowledge

[4] In 1854 Matthew Digby Wyatt (1820–1877), architect, design reformer and designer of a number of the Sydenham exhibits, wrote in his general Sydenham guidebook, that people had not yet recognised the Fine Arts as "inexhaustible sources of innocent, and at the same time stimulating pleasure. To supply such a defect, it has become imperatively necessary to popularise them".11 Wyatt and his fellow Victorian design reformer Owen Jones (1809–1874) were capitalising on a long-standing interest in aesthetic knowledge. From the mid-eighteenth century, British artists and critics had exhorted the value of art for the aesthetic education of citizenry. They urged the moral and commercial benefits of "educating taste". The mid 1830s focussed this interest in a 1835–1836 Select Committee inquiry into "Arts and Their Connections with Manufactures", which included scrutiny of the role of public art galleries and print and cast reproductions in circulating works of art.12 After the Select Committee, the market for aesthetic knowledge also expanded and 'experts' addressed broader audiences with a conscious rhetoric of popularisation. In the early 1840s art historian and writer Anna Jameson (1794–1860) promised readers that her handbooks to greater London’s public and private galleries would provide "popular and concise explanations" to the "uninitiated".13 In 1839 Samuel Carter Hall founded The Art Journal and reflected years later "I had to create a public for art[my italics] […] My duty was to make the work respected as well as popular".14 The Sydenham Crystal Palace of 1854 also promoted their exposition as contributions to the reformist drive for art education for a broader public; an aspiration endorsed by commercial guidebook writers who shared the popularising aims of the Crystal Palace Company. Routledge’s Guide to the Crystal Palace and Park at Sydenham (1854) cast Sydenham as an heir to the movement to popularise scientific knowledge, noting that the project would achieve, "What the Polytechnic Institution in 1838 and the popular lectures of Dr. Myers first accomplished for science – rendering it attractive and intelligible".15

[5] At the Sydenham Crystal Palace, Jones and Wyatt presented architectural antiquities as a new medium for communicating design reform. The reform project had been largely concerned with modern manufactures and historical decorative arts although it always supported art as an instrument for improving public taste. At Sydenham reformers allied themselves with other experts who were also popularisers. Anna Jameson wrote the guidebook to the free-standing sculpture collection and artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins (1807–1894) who amongst other things had produced a drawing book for the education market, worked on the geology display. The new direction for reform offered by Sydenham was overseen by architects Owen Jones and Matthew Digby Wyatt. They centred architecture and architectural ornament as the primary sites for the knowledge and practice of design. Jones noted in 1854 that "The several styles of architecture have uniformly been the result of the religion, habits, and modes of thought of the nations which produced them" and "the decorative arts are of one family and must go hand in hand with their parent architecture".16

[6] The archaeological art mission of the Sydenham Crystal Palace found potent form in the ten Fine Arts Courts constructed from plaster casts. These large-scale exhibits were rooms, or suites of interconnecting rooms that housed free-standing sculpture and models. Each separate court was designed in a historic architectural style and the Courts were idealised as a historical sequence, although the physical placement of Courts confounded this ideal. On the west side of the northern nave they built the Egyptian, Greek, Roman, the Alhambra (the Nasrid Palace, Granada) and Nineveh (Mesopotamia) Courts and on the east side of this northern nave they constructed the Byzantine, Medieval, Renaissance and Italian Courts (Fig. 3). The Pompeii Court was located in the south nave since it was converted to a Fine Arts Court when construction was already underway. A set of modern French, Italian, English, and German sculpture galleries bounded the central transept. The northern transept near the Nineveh Court contained an avenue of sphinxes flanking a sixty-one-foot installation of four seated figures from "Aboo [sic] Simbel in Nubia".17

3 Ground Plan of the Crystal Palace, in: The Crystal Palace Penny Guide, ed. Crystal Palace Company, Sydenham 1863, p. 2 (digital image: courtesy of HathiTrust)

[7] The archaeological Courts made predominant use of the visual technology of reconstruction. Geology provided an important precedent. The emergence of huge public interest in geology was fuelled by its promoters’ use of literary and pictorial "visualising moments", textual and illustrative reconstructions which "helped to focus and define the past".18 The Sydenham collaborators noted the impact of geology. Digby Wyatt’s 1854 guide to the Crystal Palace declared that "In Geology the student’s imagination is no longer called upon to clothe with fleshy and muscular tissue the fragments of skeletons which our national collections have alone hitherto provided for his study."19 In 1850 James Fergusson, designer of Sydenham’s Assyrian Court, borrowed the geological metaphor for archaeology, arguing, "[…] at Persepolis we have the bones of a palace without the flesh, at Nineveh – the flesh without the bones".20 Geological writers and illustrators produced dramatic images of vanished worlds which publicised geology "in spectacular and theatrical forms" that helped garner significant "cultural authority" for the discipline.21 This technique of visualising moments entailed some risk. The boundary between geology, popular geology and science fiction was mutable. There was no firm line dividing "cautious restoration" from "full-scale voyages back in time".22 After the opening of the Sydenham Courts, experts and sceptics focussed on this problematic boundary, but the archaeological reconstruction as both a voyage back in time and an expert format had already been entangled in a series of projects leading up to Sydenham.

Popularising archaeology in print culture, 1848–1853

[8] In the years before Sydenham’s opening in 1854, archaeology was also seeking cultural authority and public recognition for its projects. Popularisation was part of its appeal to a broad public who would fund expensive editions of British archaeological research.23 Key members of the Sydenham design staff participated in these projects to promote and popularise archaeology. They helped to develop the visualising technologies of reconstruction in print and three-dimensional formats. In the years between 1848 and 1853, architect Owen Jones, together with the self-trained architect James Fergusson who would design Sydenham’s Assyrian Court, the Egyptologist Joseph Bonomi who would collaborate on the Egyptian Court, George Scharf who would work on the Greek, Roman and Pompeii Court guides, and Jones’s assistant Albert Henry Warren, were engaged in various presentations of archaeology for the commercial print and entertainment markets. As a group their primary contribution was the production of illustrations for the publication of Austen Henry Layard’s Assyrian expeditions. Scharf and Bonomi also provided knowledge of antique architecture and material culture for the design of sets and images in the panorama and theatre market. Publisher John Murray, with whom Owen Jones had a long-standing business relationship, funded and issued five books on Austen Henry Layard’s Mesopotamian expeditions in the years 1849 to 1854, and lent some illustrations for the guide to the Sydenham Assyrian Court. Joseph Bonomi brought Layard’s shipments to public attention with a series of anonymously authored articles in the Illustrated London News and the Athenaeum in 1847 and 1848.24 With growing public acclaim for Layard’s expeditions and an appetite for the artefacts he brought to Britain, Murray realised that there was an audience for archaeological tales. He stepped in to fund the expensive publication of a folio of Layard’s expedition drawings (Monuments of Nineveh) after Layard’s request for government financing was rejected. In order to offset the costs, Murray asked Layard to write a narrative of his experience which became Nineveh and Its Remains (1849).25 A brief examination of these publications reveals the interdependence of experts, the entertainment market, and publics. These reconstructions and the development of the experts’ own scientific knowledge were fuelled by complex emotional investments.

[9] Victorian audiences expected to have knowledge presented and consumed in instructive and attractive ways.26 Murray’s Monuments of Nineveh publication managed this combination by fusing the archaeological narrative, the travel genre and the scientific work on identification and reconstruction of antiquities. Publisher John Murray employed Scharf to enhance Layard’s drawings as well as illustrating Layard’s narrative with views embellished with ethnographic detail. The expensive visual technology of chromolithography, a new colour plate reproduction process, further transformed Monuments of Nineveh (1849) into a luxurious visual commodity. Murray had paid Owen Jones in December 1849 for four colour plates, and the sumptuous frontispiece of Monuments of Nineveh (1849) is designed in the signature style Jones brought to his title pages.27 The frontispiece is a reconstructed composite – which foreshadowed the technique used at Sydenham. It fuses key Assyrian motifs taken from various archaeological finds into a combined doorway, frame, entablature and dado setting (Fig. 4).

4 Owen Jones (attrib.), frontispiece to Austen Henry Layard, The Monuments of Nineveh, London 1849, chromolithograph, 56 × 38 cm. New York Public Library, New York City, Digital Collections

Jones had been working with reconstructive visual technology from the early 1840s. His collaboration with Joseph Bonomi on chromolithographed illustrations for the second series of Sir John Gardner Wilkinson’s Manners and Customs of the Ancient Egyptians was published by Murray in 1841.28 For Wilkinson’s book, Bonomi and Jones produced a colour reconstruction of columns. In Monuments of Nineveh they were much bolder and depicted a completely reconstructed doorway. The frontispiece gave the book a distinctive graphic identity and immediately located the reader within a 'lost' world.

[10] In Monuments of Nineveh, Jones, Bonomi and another artist developed archaeology’s capacity for "pictorialising moments" by reconstructing an interior of a "Hall in an Assyrian Temple" (Fig. 5). Their interior was not a reconstruction of an excavated room, but a reconstituted generic interior style described as "Hall in an Assyrian Temple or Palace, Restored from Actual Remains, and from Fragments Discovered in the Ruins".

5 Owen Jones, Joseph Bonomi and Carl Hambuch, "Hall in Assyrian Palace Restored", in: Austen Henry Layard, The Monuments of Nineveh, London 1849, plate 2, chromolithograph, 56 × 38 cm. New York Public Library, Digital Collections

The reconstruction of style rather than specific site was a significant step. It was authorised by Layard, who noted, "I have endeavoured with the assistance of Mr. Owen Jones to give my work on the Monuments of Nineveh a representation of a chamber or hall as it originally appeared."29 Jones and Bonomi created their reconstruction from the most visually arresting of Layard’s Mesopotamian finds: the repeating motif of the painted and glazed clay tile image of the king and his retinue and the large human-headed winged lion-men from the Northwest Palace of King Ashurnasirpal II. They also used wall tiles that had been found in different rooms.30 Reconstruction was a key part of architectural knowledge and an important tool in the recovery of a period architectural style rather than the resurrection of a single building or single space. The reconstruction of a generic period style would be contested at Sydenham, as we will see, by knowledge experts from the visual arts who brought other methods and values to their evaluations. The visualisation of an origin moment was a technique for producing knowledge, and this pictorial sense of the past also infused 'expert' and popular imaginings.

[11] The lure of the past as a vanished world awaiting rediscovery was visualised in the frontispiece to Austen Henry Layard’s expedition report, Nineveh and Its Remains: A Narrative of An Expedition to Assyria During the Years 1845, 1846 & 1847. Recording the moment of "Lowering the Great Winged Bull" (Fig. 6), the viewpoint of George Scharf’s image exactly replicated the viewing position of Jones’s and Bonomi’s restored hall (Fig. 5).31 This visual link between the buried and the reconstructed interiors reinforced the drama of recovery and affirmed the logic of archaeological retrieval as a means for conjuring up a vanished world. A shared expert and popular desire for an immediate and pictorialised past was evident in the 1853 adaptation of Jones’s and Bonomi’s reconstruction, which was used for Charles Kean’s theatrical staging of Lord Byron’s Sardanapalus (Fig. 7). The stage set and Layard illustration (Fig. 5) are quite similar and the stage set may have proclaimed its authoritative status by quoting so closely from the expert interior. Both images produced a glorious full-colour rendition of the past.

6 George Scharf, "Lowering the Great Winged Bull", frontispiece to Austen Henry Layard, Nineveh and Its Remains, London 1849, frontispiece, vol. 1. New York Public Library, New York City, Digital Collections

7 Frederick Lloyds, design of a stage set for Lord Byron’s Sardanapalus, directed by Charles Kean, ca. 1853. Victoria and Albert Museum, London, D.14447-1901 (photo: V & A Museum)

[12] The cross-fertilisation of visual traditions in generating reconstructions was also evident in James Fergusson’s work. The relationship between James Fergusson and Layard began around mid-1850, eventually leading to a collaboration on the Sydenham Court. Fergusson established his credentials with an 1851 Murray publication, The Palaces of Nineveh and Persepolis Restored, which included a black and white view of a restored section of the Palace Court of Khorsabad. For Layard’s A Second Series of The Monuments of Nineveh (1853) Fergusson produced a more ambitious colour reconstruction of the original citadel of Nimrud towering over the river Tigris.32 In his Discoveries Among the Ruins of Nineveh and Babylon (1853), Layard wrote of Fergusson’s colour plate "The Palaces of Nimrud Restored": "I have endeavoured, with the able assistance of Mr. Fergusson, to convey in a coloured frontispiece to the Second Series of my larger work on the Monuments of Nineveh, the general effect of these magnificent edifices when they still rose on their massy basement, and were reflected in the broad stream of the Tigris."33

[13] Fergusson’s colour reconstruction fused different visual traditions. A self-trained architect, Fergusson appears to have drawn on Romantic artist John Martin’s dramatic apocalyptic painting of The Fall of Babylon (1819) for his reconstituted palace. Martin’s large-scale paintings were well-known, having been publicly exhibited and acclaimed. His images were further circulated through prints (and plagiarised copies) of his Illustrations of the Bible in the years 1831 to 1835. Martin’s paintings and prints influenced the views painted in the panorama market.34 His works blended dramatic staging with the scriptural narratives of the catastrophic destruction of biblical cities. One historian of archaeology has argued that archaeology as a cultural product has always existed within a dramaturgical imagination.35 Catastrophe, ruination and the revelation of buried empires were dramatic narrative forms that helped promote the popular appeal of archaeology. Fergusson’s view would have resonated with this visual narrative tradition. His depiction of a flourishing Nineveh was portentous of its coming decline.

Entertainment markets, 1850–1852

[14] Archaeology was a cultural product that could be consumed in edifying and entertaining ways, across the different but intertwined markets of print culture and performance.36 Reference to expertise and the use of experts formed an essential part of the claims to legitimacy and instructive potential made by the theatre and panorama makers. Three of the Sydenham design team used their expertise as illustrators of antiquity to work across both the print and entertainment markets. Sydenham collaborator George Scharf worked as a consultant on Charles Kean’s Shakespeare plays at the Princess Theatre (1851–1857) where he provided 'correct' classical costumes and scenery.37 Joseph Bonomi was part of a team, together with Jones’s assistant Albert Henry Warren, that provided archaeological and historical detail for a Grand Moving Panorama of the Nile in 1850 at the Egyptian Hall, a private exhibition space in Picadilly. One broadside advertising the Nile panorama was brilliantly illuminated in blue, maroon and gold, and prominently decorated with Egyptian motifs such as hieroglyphs and lotus plants. It promoted the panorama as "Painted by" Henry Warren (the artist and father of Albert), Joseph Bonomi and James Fahey.38 Another promotional bill emphasised the Nile panorama’s educational potential and proclaimed it "will be found to form a most complete and instructive illustration of the collection of Egyptian antiquities in the British Museum".39 Murray’s Nineveh publication formed the basis for Robert Burford’s Panorama of Nimroud (sic) which opened in Leicester Square in late December 1851. Although Layard was consulted on this production, no evidence exists of his involvement with the design of the panorama, but it appears to be based on the Murray images provided by Scharf. Layard and his aristocratic relations visited this panorama three times over the course of its very popular season of eighteen months. His repeated visits suggest he was satisfied with the production.40

[15] These crossovers and relationships between the Murray commercial publications and the entertainment world reveal entanglements between experts and purveyors of entertainment. The investment of desire by mid-century Victorians in visualising moments – in picturing the past and imaging the moment of 'discovery' and retrieval – was not clearly divided between experts and lay communities, or between scientific and theatrical formats. Rather, modes of presentation were interrelated. Newspaper reviewers staged their authority. They presumed that readers were in possession of cultural knowledge and referenced authoritative textual sources. After a private viewing of the Panorama of Nimroud on December 18, 1851, The Illustrated London News declared that the vista was "sketched with a fidelity which strikes every spectator who has read Layard and the other authorities […]".41

[16] Authority was also staged by the entertainers. The showmen of science publicly staged their knowledge and fashioned status and authority for their presentations.42 Showmen sought to present, and their audiences sought to consume, information in attractive and intelligible ways.43 In the handbill advertising his 1853 adaptation of Lord Byron’s Sardanapalus, theatrical entrepreneur Charles Kean quoted at length from Joseph Bonomi’s Nineveh and Its Palaces (1852). The Times reviewer praised the play for not being a "mere gaudy spectacle, but for using his stage for the purpose of historical illustration" which exactly "suits such an information age". It declared that the production completed Layard’s Assyrian studies and "presents a more animated picture of ancient life than would be afforded by the engravings in his book or the sculptures in the British Museum" and noted that it was by "making his theatre do the work not only of the theatre but also of the panorama and the lecture-room that Mr Kean has secured a success".44 The lecture room used techniques of performance and showmanship to engage audiences. Turning science or archaeology into a lecture room or panorama commodity did not "imply levity or exclude serious reflection".45 In her critical evaluation of the ways in which the Crystal Palace has been interpreted through twentieth century discourses of mass culture, Kate Nichols observed that this long-standing viewpoint has identified popular culture with commodification and aligned commodification with a loss of authenticity.46 A more useful term to describe these archaeological reconstructions in the print and theatre markets might be as "complex commodities".47

The archaeological model on display

[17] Three-dimensional archaeological models offered another visual precedent for Sydenham. Archaeological models were exhibited in both private and public spheres in small-scale reconstructions that fused both education and entertainment. Knowledge embodied in models was encountered in research, lecture room and leisure settings.48 From the 1760s, cork models of decayed ancient buildings were purchased for elite private collections. A popular public exhibition of cork archaeological models, sometimes accompanied by dramatic lighting and simulated eruptions, was presented by Richard Du Bourg (1738–1826) in multiple London locations over a forty-year period, from the 1780s to 1819. This display sought to engage a broad public in classical history, some forty-odd years before Sydenham.49 Du Bourg’s exhibition became one of London’s key sights. In 1807 a Birmingham family visiting the metropolis described them as "remarkably well done".50

[18] In the second half of the 1840s, in the wake of increased scholarship on the Parthenon and its marbles, physical archaeological models could be used to provide an imaginative medium of speculative reconstruction. In 1846 the British Museum purchased a large model (six feet by three feet, or 182 cm by 91 cm) of the restored Parthenon created the year before by sculptor Richard Cockle Lucas (1800–1883). His model reconstructed the Parthenon sculptures and modelled them in wax.51 The museum exhibited it in the Elgin Marbles Room where it was acclaimed as a huge public success and discussed across diverse sites from The Civil Engineer and Architect’s Journal to The Artizan magazine.52 There were dissenters. On February 9, 1846, Lucas presented a paper on his model to the Institute of Architects. He was met with a robust response from the Foreign Secretary of the Institute, Thomas Donaldson, who had served on the 1836 Committee to determine whether the Elgin Marbles and other Greek Statuary in the British Museum had been coloured. Donaldson ruthlessly questioned the accuracy of numerous architectural details, dismissed its "feeble" polychrome scheme, suggested Lucas should have kept to sculpture and declared that the model impugned the knowledge and research of the British architectural profession.53 The criticism had some effect. By 1848 the model had been moved to the adjacent Phigalian Saloon.54 However visitors continued to admire it and Routledge’s Guide to Sydenham approvingly noted that the British Museum’s two models juxtaposed the "ruinous state" with "a beautiful restoration".55 Lucas’s work revealed, or capitalised on, a public appetite across a wide social spectrum for "restored models" as a visual technology for picturing the past. Yet as Lucas and the British Museum discovered, the exhibition of restorations invited expert scrutiny by inadvertently providing a public space for vocal dissent over reconstruction choices. The friction between Lucas and Donaldson was underpinned by a clash of disciplinary knowledges and methods. Despite expert disputes, the exhibition of models of antiquity and archaeological reconstructions seems to have played a role from the very late eighteenth century in popularising knowledge as well as producing expert knowledge. However hostile critique, as we will see, could also cast these entangled histories into a binary system.

Showmanship and the performance of expertise, Sydenham, 1854

[19] In the late 1840s the drawn, chromolithographed, and three-dimensional archaeological restorations were transformed by a new plaster medium that enabled an innovative, cheaper, faster and more durable technology for plaster moulding.56 This technique allowed the Sydenham designers to reconstruct and present archaeological and architectural knowledge at the scale of rooms, interiors and facades. There is no doubt that the designers deliberately used the tactics and aesthetics of showmanship. As the period photographs document, the Sydenham nave was filled with luxuriant tropical foliage and ponds. In this setting the archaeological exhibits could be 'discovered' as lost sites buried in jungles (Fig. 8).

8 Art Courts at Sydenham Crystal Palace, ca. 1859, photographer Philip Henry Delamotte (attrib.). Top left: Foot of Abu Simbel and Nineveh Court (mislabelled as Egyptian Court) | Top right: Nineveh Court| Bottom left: Monti’s Fountain and Nineveh Court| Bottom right: Nineveh Court, albumen silver prints from glass negatives, 7.9 × 8.1 cm each. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gilman Collection, Museum Purchase, 2005, acc. no. 2005.100.801 (14a-d) (photo: The Met Museum)

The entrance ways and exteriors of the displays used visually arresting and well-known artefacts. Winged bulls and gigantic figures crowned the entrance to the Nineveh (Assyrian) Court. An avenue of sphinxes led to the Egyptian Court. The brilliantly coloured diapers of the Nasrid Palace interior were relocated to the exterior of the Alhambra Court(Fig. 9). The display of the towering Abu Simbel façade close to the Assyrian Court used scale to produce a dramatic effect (Fig. 10).

9 The Alhambra Court at Sydenham Crystal Palace, undated photograph. Bromley Local Studies and Archives, Bromley, England (photo: Bromley Local Studies and Archives)

10 The Nubian Court at Sydenham Crystal Palace, ca. 1854, lithograph, tint with one stone tint. Victoria & Albert Museum, London, SP.682:2 (photo: V & A Museum)

Wyatt and Jones had already worked on the interior of the Great Exhibition where they had also made key choices for visually arresting displays, such as the orientalist suite of Courts around the transept crossing and the use of large statuary and enormous objects to fill up the main aisles. But the vivid, visual reconstructions of a vanished past in Sydenham brought peril. In a parallel field of reconstruction, geologists who called up images of lost worlds feared being challenged as fantasists.57

[20] The popularisation of science in the Victorian period frequently raised questions about the status of the knowledge on display. Popularisation provoked questions about the authority and expertise of the showmen. The official handbooks to the Courts were an important space for demonstrating the designers’ expertise. These guides documented, often in elaborate detail, the visual and textual sources used to construct the displays. The guides included careful enumerations of the scale at which source material was reproduced. The official handbook to The Nineveh Court in the Crystal Palace, authored by Austen Henry Layard, opens with a performance of his expertise:

The Nineveh or Assyrian Court in the Crystal Palace has been erected from the designs and under the immediate superintendence of Mr. Fergusson, a gentleman who has especially devoted himself to the study of Assyrian architecture, and has spared no pains to examine and compare every fragment of architectural and ornamental detail, as well as every monument which might throw light upon the subject, discovered during the researches of M. Botta and the Author in Assyria, and to consult all the authorities on the question in this country and in France.58

[21] A concern with sources, site documentation and scale all reflected the knowledge formats and techniques of the discipline of architecture. Architectural methodology underpinned the project of reconstructing period styles rather than striving to reproduce one building as a Court. A limited range of prototypes was generally used as the basis for the stylistic depiction of one Court and its interior.59 The archetypal approach underlined the terminology used by the designers in their guides to the Courts. They noted that one display was the "illustration of one phase of art", and observed of another that it provided "as exact an idea as possible".60 An emphasis on archetypes rather than individual specimens was scholarly and pedagogical. Reconstruction furnished an opportunity for generating new knowledge; particularly of those periods of architecture awaiting extensive scholarly work to determine the elements and operations of their period style.

[22] The Sydenham strategy of displaying a period style rather than recreating individual buildings provoked one of the sharpest conflicts between the designers and critical literary and art reviewers. The latter’s aesthetic knowledge systems placed a high premium on the individual work of art. Fragmentary survivals were cherished as an original remnant. Key art and literary critics derided the Sydenham 'composites', but the architectural press was supportive.61 Viewing the Courts’ reception through the lens of knowledge formation allows us to recast these debates beyond the binary of false versus truthful representation, as some critics averred, and to see this contest instead as the clash of different disciplinary knowledge systems. Kate Nichols has observed that the Courts never attempted to conceal the illusion of reconstruction, but this strategy was overlooked by hostile reviews.62 The art critic William Rossetti (1829–1919) viewed the speculative expert reconstructions through his disciplinary lens when he observed that the Sydenham displays obtained "what is assumed to be an improved general appearance at the expense of positive fact".63 As hybrid interdisciplinary objects melding architecture, sculpture and image, the Courts held different meanings for distinct social groups and failed to satisfy a number of these audiences.64

[23] As new audiences for aesthetics came under scrutiny, unsympathetic evaluations often used the trope of the uninitiated viewer who would mistake the reconstructed archetypes for replicas of once extant buildings.65 The polarisation of the debate concealed the shared concern of architects and art and literature critics with the nature and status of visual truth.66 Training audiences in their judgement enabled spectators to become confident about the reliability of their own visual experience. Sydenham architect Matthew Digby Wyatt emphasised that judgment would be fostered through comparison of works, and quoted Francis Bacon’s remarks on "materials for comparison and experiment".67 Readers of the general guide were introduced to the comparative method as a technique for training. The editor Samuel Philipps opined:

This bringing together and into series the great examples of art, so that comparison may enlarge and amend our judgment, is perhaps the greatest aim achieved by the Crystal Palace.68

Owen Jones wrote that the spectator will have "an opportunity of examining side by side portions of the building of every age".69

[24] The Crystal Palace designers used a range of visual strategies to further this aim of knowledge cultivated through comparison. An enfilade view from one court to the other, as seen in the photograph from the Alhambra Court’s Court of the Lions, literalised the ideal of the visual series (Fig. 11).