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Saturday, April 05, 2008


From tea shops to the Olympic Games. Joseph Lyons, perhaps the biggest name in British catering (a company with some 700 subsidiaries, as well as being computing pioneers, but that's another story), organised the catering for the 1891 'Venice in London' exhibition, stage-managed by the master showman Imre Kiralfy (even his mausoleum is impressive). Thanks to Heraclitean Fire for digging out the original programme and flyer for the Venice event from the British Library's collection.

Kiralfy was the man who made Earl's Court the capital's exhibition centre, along with nearby Olympia, before moving to White City in 1907 and creating a purpose-buit showground that formed the backdrop of the 1908 Olympics.

Kiralfy, together with his brothers Arnold and Bolossy, were a cross between David Copperfield, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Frank Gehry and Steve Wynn, a genuinely trans-Atlantic business of spectacle making. Their works included: Gorgeous Durbar at Delhi, Nero, or The Destruction of Rome, Fall of Babylon, Venice, the Bride of the Sea, and The Orient (the accompanying publication for which was subtitled 'A mammoth and original terpsichorian and lyric spectacle and water pageant'). Kiralfy also collaborated with the World's Columbian Exhibition in Chicago in 1893. This was to be a formative influence on Frank Lloyd Wright, who worked with Louis Sullivan from 1888 to 1893 (when he was sacked). Sullivan was the creator of the mighty Transportation Building with its 'Golden Doorway', a piece of work that could serve as a symbolic gateway to early American modern architecture in the USA.

Often two productions ran at the same time, incredible given the sheer scale of each event. On 18 May 1895, the New York Times' 'England and Continent' diarist was reporting that 'Imre Kiralfy's stupendous "Empire of India" show, at Earl's Court, to be opened next week by the Duke of Cambridge, bids fair to be the most successful thing of the kind yet attempted here. His brother Bolossy's enterprise of "The Orient" at the Olympia has, meanwhile, been experiencing steady hard luck and threatens to come to grief altogether.

(The same column also notes the veritable menagerie being assembled at the Crystal Palace, then in its final location in Sydenham: '... some seventy Somalis are giving an exhibition of savage life in East Africa. They have a village, with actual native huts, working men at trades, dromedaries, ostriches, and other animals tethered near by. Brigands come and try to steal these; the villagers resist them; European hunters intervene, for all the world like cowboys, and the thing ends in a grand caravan, the procession including a magnificent collection of wild beasts.')



(The 19th century 'Spectacle' is chronicled in Spec-ology of the Circus, Part One at the fantastic Circus Historical Society (check their photography and illustrations archive). The article recalls the contemporary advertising for Imre Kiralfy's London production of Nero: "A Titanic, Imperial, Historical Spectacle of Colossal Dramatic Realism Gladiatorial Combats and Olympian Displays. Indisputably, Immeasurably, Over-whelmingly the Most Majestic, Entrancing, and Surpassingly Splendid and Realistic Spectacle of Any Age.")

(These theatrical spectacles were precursors to the more serious and high-minded international exhibitions that characterised the first decades of the twentieth century, lingering throughout the century as a symbol of modernity and futurism and are increasingly well-documented online (Expo 67 especially so).)

(For a bit more on the kind of people who worked with Kiralfy, we recommend this fabulous piece of amateur historical investigation, 'Finding Our Grandfather in the Attic,' by Arlene Wright-Correll. It builds a vivid picture of the life of an animal tamer at Bostock Circus at the turn of the century, amongst characters like Clyde Beatty, whose name lives on today ('He used to walk into a cage filled with up to 40 wild animals, armed with nothing but a whip, a wooden chair and a gun loaded with blanks').)
*

Perhaps Kiralfy's greatest achievement was the The Franco-British Exhibition 1908, held at the same time as the 1908 Olympics at Kiralfy's new 'White City': ' One night I lay awake in bed and, as if by magic, I saw stretched out in my mindís eye, an imposing city of palaces, domes and towers, set in cool, green spaces and intersected by many bridged canals. But it had one characteristic which made it strangely beautiful. Hitherto I had dealt in colour in the shimmering hues of gold and silver. This city was spotlessly white. I saw it all in an instant, and the next day I had jotted down the scheme of what London was to know as the "White City".' (the exhibition was also the site of early photographic manipulation, as postcard sellers cut and pasted images of visitors to other shows in order to populate sparse images of exhibition grounds taken before they'd opened).

Not everyone was so taken by the plethora of wonders placed before them. Punch noted drily that "Venice in London" was bereft of the Italian city's plagues of mosquitoes ('Could I quiver concealed by yon mimic Rialto, Till I swooped with a warrior's music and swing, Were I only allowed, as I ought, and I shall, to, Be avenged on your barbarous hordes with my sting'). But there was no denying popular taste. The exhibitions shaped the perception of the modern age and its wonders, artist and engineering, as well as presented a largely stereotyped view of the world as seen from the peak of Empire. It's also significant as to how the modern map of London ended up being shaped by these exhibitions, with both 'White City' (named for the sparkling paint finish on the Indian-inspired pavilion buildings) and 'Crystal Palace' becoming London districts.

*



The Venice spectacle is especially interesting from a modern perspective. Canals have a troubled relationship with urbanism. In London, they were industrial conduits, now mostly filled in and covered over as the factories and workshops they served moved out. But the canal is also romance, and the floating city of the Adriatic was high in the popular imagination of the time, thanks largely to John Ruskin's Stones of Venice. As Kiralfy noted in his own Reminiscences: 'It was while I was staying at Barnumís place at Bridgeport, Connecticut, that the idea of "Venice" flashed across my mind, not a "Venice in Italy" but a Venice transported to London. I took out a scrap of paper, an envelope, from my pocket, and then and there schemed out my idea. My mind went back to my studies of Venice thirty years before, the whole thing as it should be rose up before me, and down it went, even the details, on the back of that envelope. When "Venice" attracted its thousands and hundreds of thousands to Olympia in 1892, it had all arisen naturally from my plans on the back of that envelope.'

These were not the chlorinated waterways of Las Vegas's Venetian, all muscled gondoliers and pocket Rialto bridges. Nor was it was the doomed romanticism evident in sources as varied as Thomas Mann, Nicolas Roeg and even David Chipperfield. In fact, it was something in between. The Victorians were not just big on theme parks, but themes in general, and entertainment, romance, death and industry were frequently brought together in comprehensive but rather graceless synergy in objects like the Albert Memorial.

The inversion is that the modern theme park now occupies the grand houses and parks that had their final fling in the Vicotrian era, employing the very people who would have flocked to the popular entertainments at Earl's Court, etc, etc. While there's not enough space in the UK for theme parks to become abandoned (I, II, III, IV), the architectural losses were the fading, crumbling country houses (see Lost Heritage, 'a memorial to the lost country houses of England'), which gives some indication of what was deemed important throughout the twentieth century.

The flooded, sunken city is a popular theme (taken from 'London 'flooded' in disaster film', July 2007) in popular culture and to a more death-centric culture Venice represents a half-way house between the cataclysm of fatal, irreversible immersion and damp, ongoing romantic gloom. The If London Were Like Venice article from 1899, with its marvellous illustrations of a sunken city, followed the Kiralfy show, fusing its imagery with a speculative view of a changed capital. This sort of thing still appeals very much to the meteorologically obsessed British, see Ballard's Drowned World (1962) or BLDG BLOG on British Hydrology, the use of Google Maps to illustrate global Sea Level Rise (via Inkycircus).

As we write, the Olympic torch is preparing to make its way through a freshly snow-covered city. It will probably look spectacular. Kiralfy would have been proud.

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