The Crystal Palace of Paris

Last week’s post looked at the background to the 1867 Paris Universal Exhibition, and in particular at its parkland setting.  It was the first world fair to give horticulture a major role with one section of the park covering about 3ha [7.5 acres] set aside almost exclusively for it. This was known as the Jardin Reservé  which roughly translates as the Private Garden. At its centre was a large conservatory known as the Grande Serre or the Palais Cristal.

The Universal Exhibition had plenty of English visitors including William Robinson, writing for the Gardeners Chronicle and  the Rev TC Brehaut writing for the Journal of Horticulture. Both blew hot and cold over what they saw but Brehaut decided eventually that it was all “most skilfully and tastefully laid out, producing the finest landscape effects which undulating grounds, water, rock work, grottoes, trees and shrubs are capable of.”

The designer of the jardin reserve, or what the semi-official guidebook by Francois Ducuing called “this fairyland”,  was Jean-Pierre Barillet  who was the city’s head gardener.   Apart from the Exhibition grounds he was also responsible for designing many of Paris’s great green spaces and the programme of planting trees along the new boulevards.

When the exhibition opened in April only the “permanent” tree and shrub planting had been completed, and  William Robinson told readers of Gardeners Chronicle that  the planting particularly lacked “those tender plants which Parisian gardeners make such a fine display of”.  This did not stop the first of the flower shows that were to be held fortnightly for the duration of the exhibition.  These covered every conceivable range of plants but with special categories for newly introduced species and so would keep horticulturists continually on their toes making sure they had suitable plants “in season” to show.  

Let’s take a walk around  in the company of the Rev Brehaut who visited Paris in May.  He arrived from  the riverside, paid his entrance fee, and walked across the rest of the park  to reach the  Jardin Reservé  in the opposite corner, only to find it enclosed in iron railings where he had to pay an extra half-franc to enter.

Rather than there being a single central horticultural exhibition space Brehaut  was disappointed  to find that the exhibits were “distributed over a large surface in detached glasshouses and sheds without any apparent system or without any attempt either to produce effect or afford pleasure.”

There were at least 14 greenhouses or conservatories of various sorts, – for orchids, pineapples, vegetables, cactus and aquatic plants amongst other specialisms – each put up at their own expense by the builders or exhibitors, in much the same way that happens at modern shows like Chelsea.

However while the displays might have been dispersed  there  was one conservatory larger and more obvious than all of the others,  referred to by several names – the Grand Serre, the Serre Monumentale or Palais Cristal .    [Serre is French for greenhouse]. 



 Its design  by the firm of Lefebvre Dormois  was described as “incredibly audacious”.   It was 50m x 40m in size, plus the vast portico, rising to 30m in its dome.

Its immense glass walls were covered with wooden blinds to reduce light levels inside, and it had a magnificent portico designed and built by another company.

Designed for tall palms it was  still unfinished and largely empty even by late May, “with the exception of some fine pyramidal azalea shown by Messrs Veitch but nothing else  which the other houses could not have held”.

It’s a pity though that critics like Brehaut  wasn’t able to see it towards the end of the season because judging by the photos and rather romanticised engravings it must have been quite spectacular.

But even if it was empty it was worth  visiting  because the Palais Cristal stood high on an artificial  mound so offered a good viewing platform to look over the whole quarter. Its surrounding earth banks were planted with conifers and rhododendrons.

The conifers, there and elsewhere in the park, were, according to Robinson, “the finest collection ever gathered together – the largest number and the greatest variety”.  He estimated between 300 and 400 species were being displayed by 40 exhibitors who were showing as many as 350 plants each.

A cascade tumbled down the slope in front of the Palais Cristal to a lake “of no great size” but with other pools on either side which were “small – too small in fact” bemoaned the good reverend  while “the imitation rustic bridges which were needed for communication, might have been more pretending.”

One other greenhouse is worthy of a particular mention and that’s the cactus house designed and built by a Monsieur Thiry. Edmund About writing for Ducuing’s guide said that : “Cacti are not elegant … they are like bobos [difficult to translate because literally it means sores but often used to mean scary things from childhood] of nature. But this horridness has its charm, and besides the ugliest cacti often give exquisite flowers.”

William Robinson also visited  and found “many grafted in quaint and ingenious ways.”  To our ears this probably sounds weird and certainly a form of plant torture, but probably in the best 19thc tradition of pushing the boundaries of what was feasible. There were for example “great cockscomb Mammillarias sheeted over with white spines standing upon comparatively slender legs or bodies of other genera.” Nearby was “a specimen of Echinocactus pottsii, a globular mass, a foot in diameter and 10 inches deep… not standing on its own feet however  but supported on three feet of a comparatively slender-stemmed cactus – these three feeders and supports entering  together the centre of the bottom of the great mass, which is also supported by a small wooden framework to prevent it cracking off from its supports.”

The Jardin Reserve

The Fruit and Vegetable gallery

Brehaut swings between very positive and dismissive. He visited the grandly named  Galerie des Fruits et Legumes,  in reality just a narrow lean-to shed, up against the boundary fence, and thought it contained very little of interest, although as he concedes the season was too early. There were just “a few withered apples, some very unhappy looking oranges and lemons and  some of those large specimens of Uvedale’s St Germain [an old variety of pear]one sees in Covent Garden market.”

On a second visit he saw just “nine small and mean peaches and six nectarines” although there were some apples and pears too to fill up the space.  As a result “very few spectators visit the shed ” and the space was taken over for the display of cut bulb flowers.

View across the garden

Nor did he like the flower beds that were cut into the lawns: “the French do not excel at the art of bedding out. Indeed these beds, labelled and placed under painted canvas pavilions are but so many advertisements of French seedsmen and are meagre and ineffective … one misses the English taste which has done so much in geometrical flower-beds.” Even more scathingly he adds that even “the depreciators of bedding out could not like these.”  Funnily enough while one doesn’t imagine Robinson admiring bedding plants that much [to put it politely] he was much more positive saying that the planting out done in May was  “charming” with up to 60 sorts of “pretty annuals and grasses” planted in one bed. These had been “grown in shallow pits ready to be planted out just as they were ready to bloom.”   

There was a permanent display of horticultural tools and implements, which Brehaut thought “by no means unworthy of examination and commendable for cheapness.” Robinson thought the range better than anything else he had seen, and some of the things he mentions remind us of how far we have come technologically. He writes enthusiastically of the latest advances in watering – perforated metal hose that worked like a basic sprinkler system – and of secateurs.  Invented in 1815 by Bertrand de Moleville they quickly caught on in Europe but were rejected in Britain, or at best marketed to women, but Robinson was one of the reasons that attitude changed. As he wrote  “I believed in a good knife above all, before coming here but when I saw how useful is the secateur… I became at once converted.”

The two journalists gave account too  of the latest kinds of greenhouse with improved glazing, labels, garden furniture, and cloches, as well as commercial installations of chairs and benches, gateways, fencing and even small bridges.

There were assorted kiosques which served as stands for horticultural businesses,  many of which remind me of the early Paris Metro stations in a faux “oriental/Arab style” and including two which were elegant aviaries.

A Flower stall

Edmund About thought the best of these small kiosques – “the pearl in the exhibition” – because of its simplicity was the one named The Empresses’ rest.  However its interior was anything but modest and had been furnished with the finest craftsmanship and decoration that money could buy and he spends more than a page describing it in minute detail.  The engraving is however far more romantically imaginative than the reality.

I suspect that the whole atmosphere was rather like a major horticultural event today, crowded and noisy with almost perpetual music played by military bands from the rather elegant bandstand that I showed in the previous post.

The Bandstand

There would also have been the noise from bars and restaurants, although in the horticultural quarter these were more upmarket and so  would probably have been more sedate than in the rest of the site.  It was in this atmosphere that the fortnightly flower shows were held and judged.

The first show was held in April and as was to prove the pattern almost all the prizes were won by French nurserymen. There were several Belgian, Dutch and English nurseries taking part and even the occasional government sponsored entry -although the Prussian govt only won second best for its show of hyacinths – I wonder what Bismarck made of that – did it help cause the Franco-Prussian war 3 years later?  But there’s no doubt that the  main non-French contender was the Veitch nursery of Exeter and Chelsea and they played “a prominent part contending for and maintaining the honour and reputation of our country.”

 The main area of interest in that first show was in conifers and as the Rev. Brehaut  noted “notwithstanding the great disadvantage of the long voyage by sea and land over which his collection had to be transported”, Veitch won the class for 50 choice hardy conifer specimens in open ground and also swept the board for newly introduced species.   Veitch was later to go on to win first prizes for azaleas, and a collection of 30  “stove plants” of recent introduction as well as other awards.   There is a lengthy and detailed report in Gardeners Chronicle, unsurprisingly really, since Robinson was also working with Veitch at the time.  The Journal of Horticulture also carried a list of prizewinners.

Robinson’s letters report on these shows   in detail at first, but by the 6th show in June either  the quality of the exhibits, or maybe his interest in reporting them, was waning and he  avers that it would be “more profitable to go into the country… or to public gardens than to spend much time at the exposition.”   However if you want to know more about them I’ve added a link to his Gardeners Chronicle columns at the end.

The main public attraction was however not the horticultural shows but the two aquaria, one each for sea and fresh water fish.  These were immense structures around artificial grottoes.

A stream ran through the whole structure with trout and even a salmon leap. Amongst the tanks were one for carp from the lake at the palace of Fontainebleau, reputedly the descendants of those introduced by Francois I in the early 16thc which “floated at the level of the spectators head” . Lobsters could be seen lurking in “a crypt” while oysters could be glimpsed through a small round window clinging onto a structure designed for commercial use.

Although little could be learned of the habits even for repeated visits Brehaut was convinced the aquaria will “create a taste for such instructive pursuits” and he hoped it would be possible to conserve the grotto after the end of the exhibition for use elsewhere. The whole structure was topped by a large burnished globe that spectators could walk around to gain a view of the whole ground but also to see their distorted reflections.”

The Exposition Universelle was a great success . It had over 50,000 exhibitors and nearly 15 million visitors. It attracted rulers from around the world in what became known as  the “Ballet of Nations”. It saw the first appearance by a Japanese delegation, the first bateaux-mouche on the Seine floating alongside Chinese junks, it offered fixed balloon flights and amusement parks as part of the expo, and it showcased new inventions.  Perhaps one can sympathise with  those who wanted all or part of it, especially the aquaria, to be made  permanent but the reality was, that part from a few of the smaller pavilions which were dismantled and re-erected elsewhere, everything else was demolished and cleared away and not a single  trace was left…. not even of the Palais Cristal.

If you want to know more probably the best place to start is Francois Ducuing’s illustrated magazine L’Exposition Universelle : Volume 1    and Volume 2.    

Brehaut’s articles can be found by checking for Paris in the index to the Journal of Horticulture for 1867  whilst Robinsons letters are in Gardeners Chronicle for 1867, check the index for Paris.  

There are also large numbers of digitised documents, plans and photos freely available at the French National Archives and The French National Library






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1 Response to The Crystal Palace of Paris

  1. Francine Gee says:

    Really interesting. Thanks again for blog

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