1851 The Great Exhibition Award Medals

The Prize medal for the Great Exhibition of 1851 is one of the finest Victorian medals, a great design by two members of the Wyon family from the quintessential Victorian event. The Great Exhibition was a huge display  of the Industry of All Nations, it showed Victorian Britain at the heart of an unparalleled Empire. A new type of spectacular exhibition that reflected the nations status, a monarch and consort in high relief on a medal that expresses so much of their reign. There are rarer medals such as the Council Medal however these seldom appear on the market, there were 2,918 Prize Medals awarded and they are an impressive and permanent reminder of the Victorian Britain.

The obverse has William Wyon’s conjoined portrait of Victoria and Albert, the reverse has a design by Leonard Charles Wyon with a seated figure of Britannia crowning the kneeling figure of Industry presented by standing figures of Europe, Asia, Africa and America. The design for the reverse was the result of an open competition and the wining design can be seen to influence many of the medals that were awarded at later exhibitions around the world.

Reverse of the Prize Medal by Leonard Charles Wyon

The exhibits at the Great Exhibition were split into many different categories, indeed the study of how different countries categorised their exhibits and how the categorisations changed over time is a fascinating aspect of the history of these exhibitions. We can rely on the Victorians who were attempting to  show the produce of the largest Empire the world had ever seen to come up with a thorough system of classification and categorisation. The only time most of us will encounter these classifications is when looking at the award medals that were given out. These medals are regularly encountered and they are all marked on the edge so that the recipient and exhibit can be identified.

Finding out what a medal was awarded for is quite easy and is a rewarding way of finding out more about the recipient and the products exhibited.

There were thirty headline categories, briefly these were:

  1. Mining and Mineral products
  2. Chemical and Pharmaceutical processes and products
  3. Substances used as food
  4. Vegetable and animal substances used in manufacture
  5. Carriages, Railway and Naval mechanisms
  6. Manufacturing machines and tools
  7. Mechanical, Engineering, Architectural and Building contrivances
  8. Naval and Military structures, ordnance and armour
  9. Agricultural machinery
  10. Philosophoical Instruments, musical, horological and surgical instruments
  11. Cotton
  12. Woollen and Worsted
  13. Silk and Velvet
  14. Manufactures from Flax and Hemp
  15. Mixed Fabrics including shawls
  16. Leather including saddlery, skins and fur
  17. Paper, printing and bookbinding
  18. Woven, spun, felted and laid Fabrics
  19. Tapestry including carpets and floor cloths, lace and embroidery
  20. Clothing for immediate personal or domestic use
  21. Cutlery, edge tools and hand tools
  22. General hardware
  23. Work in precious metals, jewellery and luxury items
  24. Glass
  25. Ceramic manufacture
  26. Decorative furniture and upholstery
  27. Manufactures in Mineral Substances used for building or decorations
  28. Manufactures from Animal and Vegetable substances
  29. Miscellaneous manufactures and Small Wares
  30. Fine Arts, Sculpture, Models and the Plastic Arts

Some people with a specific interest collect medals for particular categories, and finding an award medal that relates to a famous maker or item can be especially rewarding.

The prize medal illustrated here is marked around the edge ‘James Black & Co. Class XVIII.’ So this is for a fabric manufacturer of some sort. The next step is to find a copy of the complete catalogue, there is a scanned copy on archive.org. This link should take you to it, Archive.org is a remarkable site that attempts to give universal access to all knowledge, they claim 20 million books and texts and 330 billion web pages. They have scanned a copy of the catalogue which is great for learning more about the Great Exhibition and researching different exhibitors and exhibits.

The exhibitors are listed alphabetically by class and it tells us that James Back & Co were a Glasgow firm of manufacturers of printed cambrics, muslins, mousselines-de-laines, barges, and other fancy cottons, woollen and silk fabrics. The cloth is manufactured chiefly by power loom and by hand loom weavers in the west of Scotland and north of Ireland.

The smaller medals that were awarded to Exhibitors are much more frequently encountered as nearly 14,000 of these were awarded. Designed by William Wyon the reverse has a globe surmounted by a Dove within the legend ‘Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations’. These medals are also marked around the rim, the example here is marked ‘United Kingdom, Class 16, No.174′. Class 16 was for Skins Fur and Hair, and exhibit 174 was by F.Marsh of 148 Oxford Street for an assortment of ladies’ and children’s boots and shoes.

London of 1851 saw more than six million visitors, 25 nations exhibiting, thousands and thousands of exhibits, a Crystal Palace and Royal patronage for an unrivalled event. The Great Exhibition was one of the defining events of the nineteenth century and one  of the iconic events of Queen Victorias reign. These small reminders, plentiful and affordable are the best physical artefacts from the event and always a pleasure to handle. A few moments easy research can tell us so much more about them and help us find examples which match our interests.


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