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Philip Delamotte photographs of the Crystal Palace, Sydenham

Copyright English Heritage.NMRA rare set of early photographs of one of the most important buildings of the 19th century has been acquired by English Heritage. Purchased in 2004, they show the colossal scale and amazing variety of displays designed for the education and recreation of the nation at the Crystal Palace in Sydenham, south London. These images of c 1859 show the Palace at the height of its international fame: nothing had ever been devised like this structure and its amazingly varied contents.

The prefabricated iron and glass structure derives from the original designed by Sir Joseph Paxton for the Great Exhibition held in Hyde Park in 1851. This temporary building was enlarged and re-sited in an elaborate park as a permanent attraction: it was probably the largest building ever disassembled and re-erected elsewhere. Within the Crystal Palace, the ten Fine Arts Courts brought to popular attention a sense of the history of design.

These photographs were taken by Philip Henry Delamotte (1821-89), famous for taking some of the first photographs ever to have systematically documented the construction progress of any building by recording and publishing the reconstruction at Sydenham in 1853-4. It is thought that the set depicted here were taken about five years later - and certainly before 1866 when a fire destroyed one fifth of the building. Most known images of the Palace derive from engravings or lithographs, so these photographs add greatly to our knowledge. The original prints have been digitally enhanced to show as much detail as possible.

The Palace was destroyed by fire in 1936. Today only the park and a few of its attractions survive - including the magnificent set of life-size prehistoric monsters.

English Heritage wishes gratefully to acknowledge that this set was purchased with the aid of the Crystal Palace Foundation and the London Development Agency.

Author: Ian Leith

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