I had a lot of comments about the recent posts on the RHS gardens in Kensington which were used as the centrepiece for the 1862 International Exhibition.  The concept of a world expo was then comparatively novel. There had only been the Great Exhibition of 1851 and France’s attempt to outdo that with the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1855. The Kensington show sparked Napoleon III’s interest in planning another, grander event. Napoleon’s aim for the exhibition was, apart from the glory of Napoleon,  the promotion of France as a world power, and Paris as the cultural capital of the world. 

The city  was in the middle of being transformed dramatically. Baron Haussmann was rebuilding and replanning  much of the old city, and incidentally creating an extensive and well-funded municipal park system. The Exposition universelle d’art et d’industrie was designed to complement his work and  showcase new modern France.

The Imperial  government commissioned   some of the best artistic, literary and scientific talent in France to promote the exhibition, including Victor Hugo.  In his introduction to the guide to Paris for 1867 Hugo asked : “What is a World’s Fair?  The world as neighbours. We talk a bit together. We come to compare ideals.  An apparent confrontation of products, in reality a confrontation of utopias.”  [remember that when you get to the end of the post]

Gardeners Chronicle covered the exhibition in considerable depth because as their correspondent in Paris, none other than William Robinson, wrote : “The world has seen some great shows of this kind, but this is the first instance in which horticulture has received the attention it deserves in connection with what purports to be an all embracing display of human work, art and taste.”

The site chosen was  the Champ de Mars,  next to where the Eiffel Tower now stands, with an annexe for more agricultural and market gardening displays on the nearby island of Billancourt in the Seine.

Breaking the ground on the Champs de Mars

Perhaps the first surprising thing to note is that building the exhibition required major landscaping and not just for the artificial mounds and lakes that were planned for the garden areas.  The 120 acre [48ha] Champs de Mars, was not completely flat, despite being a former military parade ground, and sloped from the edges towards the centre. The ground needed filling-in, and the material to do that came from the hill almost directly opposite on the other side of the Seine – the Trocadero.


Perhaps the first surprising thing to note is that building the exhibition required major landscaping and not just for the artificial mounds and lakes that were planned for the garden areas.  The 120 acre [48ha] Champs de Mars, was not completely flat, despite being a former military parade ground, and sloped from the edges towards the centre. The ground needed filling-in, and the material to do that came from the hill almost directly opposite on the other side of the Seine – the Trocadero.

Robinson reports that “the whole face of the rising ground opposite the Champs de Mars had been altered… and the Trocadero was mined in a thousand places and acres of soil removed bodily.” It created “a most commanding slope” which was then rapidly planted with shrubs and trees.  If you know Paris you’ll know the Trocadero site now has large terraces looking over to the Eiffel Tower and is home to the Palais Chaillot which was built for the 1937 International Exhibition.

Official Birds Eye view of the Exhibition site

One of the radial avenues through the palace seen from the central garden

The masterplan was highly unusual with the main building – officially the Palace – unlike any previous large scale exhibition hall. Where they had all been large rectangular structures with intersecting naves, the Palace was “made up of a concentric series of elliptical rings or zones”, which, said Robinson, “the lively Parisians have already named the Gasometer.”

He was pretty scathing about it. “Palatial in no sense it is…externally its is huge and ugly, although here and there, as in the entrances to the radial avenues from the central garden we meet with some instances of architectural effort.” There were “no large spaces” or “fine perspectives”, “the light is not abundant” and there was an “unfortunate style of heavy meaningless decoration”.

As you can see from the buildings’ plan, in the the centre was a large garden [ 178 yds x 58 yds] which could be reached via a series of lobbies or vestibules which cut through all the zones. Each zone was allocated to a particular industry, theme or class of exhibit, and then subdivided into sections for the exhibits of each country.

In the middle of the central garden was a final exhibition building dedicated to money from around the world, and different systems of weights and measures. It was to lead to the establishment of the system of international standards of weights and measures in 1875

It was an extraordinary space, which reminds me of  a rather grand wedding venue in appearance.   178 yards long by about 58 wide it had a colonnade around the edge, with heavy drapes over the various alcoves  to provide shade while the paths were lined with chairs that were, according to one commentator always taken by the “most elegant crowd” of visitors.  

However, as you can see from the photos it was fairly unexceptional as a garden ; extremely formal in design, with simple lawns edged with flowers, what look like standard roses, long basins with fountains and an army of classically inspired statues.    But its main purpose was of course to be a social hub for the fashionable.   There were plenty of other places in the park for the hoi-polloi.

The Central Garden

The Moroccan boutique

It’s also worth noting the difference between photographs of the garden and some of the engravings of it.  Was this merely wishful thinking or were  the palms perhaps part of a temporary display?

The Palace was surrounded by what the guide books called the park.  This was divided up into  four distinct sections  named for the four nations who had the largest contingents of exhibitors, France, Britain, Germany and Belgium.  The countries taking part were grouped, so that the quarter where the German exhibitors were stationed also served as home to  most of the other European countries and Russia, while the English quarter was home to what the organisers called the “oriental” exhibitors, which covered everything from North Africa to China. 

The German Quarter

For the first time at such an exhibition, the nations taking part were invited  to build a pavilion in the park where they could share their arts and culture in whatever way they saw fit.  There was as a result a huge range of architectural and landscaping styles all mixed together in what one critic  politely called “picturesque confusion”.   William Robinson was much more enthusiastic telling readers of Gardeners Chronicle  that “The Park… is a world wonder… with every kind of architecture… from the elaborate richness of the Pavilion of the Pacha of Egypt to the plain sheds which contain the agricultural exhibit of France and England.”

It didn’t help that the park was also home to those exhibits which were too large to fit into the main exhibition hall, and that then the surroundings  were planted with a mix of “permanent” – ie for the entire 7 months length of the exhibition –  and  very temporary garden displays.   Nevertheless the idea of national pavilions caught on and  became one of the trademarks of all future international exhibitions.    

Almost nothing was finished when  Napoleon III opened it officially on April 1st 1867 and even when doors open to the public a few days later  Robinson reported “a vast deal remains to be done”. However he went on “it is easy to see that in a short time the whole will form the most extensive and richest in detail of the Exhibitions of Art and Science products that the world has ever seen… “

The French quarter

The Lighthouse and Cathedral

So let’s have a look at some of the hundred or so pavilions and buildings in the park and their settings.   In the French quarter [above] the most prominent feature is a lighthouse , made almost entirely of tin, which was later dismantled and shipped out to a rock facing towards Guernsey.  Almost next door was a miniature cathedral which was filled with religious artefacts.

The Imperial Pavilion

Nearby stood the “sumptuous and elegant” Imperial Pavilion along with a series of model houses for workers, one of which was designed by Napoleon III himself, and which surprise surprise won an award.

Napoleon’s design for working class housing

 Another interesting feature was the Chateau d’eau [literally water castle]  which contained a vast cistern hidden inside a picturesque ruin complete with cascade.  This supplied the whole exhibition site with water and it was claimed that the pumps could supply 400,000 m3 of water an hour.

Moving on to the English quarter…

The English Cottage, here called the Prince of Wales Cottage in honour of the future Edward VII’s visit








and starting with  part of the British contribution. Behind the lion is what was described as the English Cottage which Robinson found “puzzling” to say the least. From a distance it might look vaguely Tudorbethan but Robinson says it had coloured bricks, tiles and chimney pots which were incongruous and had “the works of many of our manufactories … as possible, stuck on and allied in such irregular profusion that the effect is most bizarre and unsatisfactory… it will convey to foreigners a most erroneous idea of what English cottages in reality are. In this aspect it will form a contrast to the examples of buildings of other nations.”

Even stranger is the structure in the distance.  It is not a prototype for the Eiffel Tower but instead an electric lighthouse. The semi-official guide by Francois Ducuing said its was “remarkable from a scientific and technical point of view, but as an edifice the most hideous piece of scaffolding out was possible to imagine.”   One wonders what he would have thought of Gustav Eiffel’s construction, which also went up as a temporary exhibit, on almost exactly the same spot  for the 1889 World Fair.

What is not captured in that photo are adjoining buildings, one a copy of an Afghan mosque, described as “ridiculous” and the other an Indian temple  that served as a showcase for generators!

“A general view of the oriental quarter”

The temple of Xochicalco

The English quarter also contained the pavilions of Arab nations like Morocco, Tunis and Egypt [including displays about the proposed Suez Canal] but also Mexico, China and Thailand.

As in the park generally national pavilions and landscapes within the park  often included recreations or miniature versions of famous buildings such as these temples.

A view of the Chinese pavilions

The Moroccan boutique







The Egyptian pavilions: recreations of the temple of Edfu and a historic caravanserai

   And next a quick look at the German quarter….


The Prussian Pavilion

Although Germany was still a collection of independent kingdoms, grand duchies, and principalities and other minor states it was already dominated by Prussia and unification was not far away.   The quarter also included pavilions representing the Scandinavian countries,  Austro-Hungary, Italy, Spain, Portugal and Russia, and the crowned heads of all of these states paid state visits.

Russian peasant houses





The Portuguese pavilion






Yurts and tents of the Kirghiz people on the Russian site



But perhaps the most telling exhibit from the German states was not outside in the park but inside in the Palace itself.

Prussian armaments in the hall of metallurgy

Daytime in the park

I included a quote from Victor Hugo in the opening paragraphs of this post.  Later in his introduction to the guide book he proclaimed:  Down with war! Let there be alliance! Concord! Unity!.. Unfortunately although he was a great writer he was  no prophet. Having seen the Krupps cannons in the image above he wrote: “The enormous steel cannonballs, which cost a thousand francs each, shot from the titanic Prussian cannons forged by Krupp’s gigantic hammer, which weighs a hundred thousand pounds and costs three million {francs}, are just as effective against progress as soap bubbles floating off the end of a pipe blown by a small child.”  Like the crowd of French visitors idly  inspecting the armaments  in the print he did not envisage that 3 years later France would be at war with Prussia, and that France would be humiliated and Napoleon overthrown.

The park was illuminated at night

You may have noticed that I didn’t cover the Belgian quarter of the park in my description today. That’s because it contained the main horticultural displays and I’m going to cover it separately shortly.  

For more information on the 1867 exhibition a good place to start, apart from the publications which have links under the images above is the English website of the Bureau International des Expositions. 

The view of the grounds from the top of the French lighthouse

About The Gardens Trust

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