Handel was the first composer in Britain to be celebrated with major commemorative concerts, first in 1784 (believed to be the centenary of his birth), and in the 1850s preparations were made for a celebration to mark 100 years since Handel’s death in 1759. The opening of the Crystal Palace as a major cultural venue provided an opportunity for Victorian Britain to celebrate their adopted composer on a grander scale than had been possible in the past, and marked the start of a Handel Festival tradition which was to last well into the twentieth century.
The exhibition focused on the Handel Festivals that mark the enduring popularity of the Crystal Palace in the period after the initial success of the Great Exhibition of 1851. Once the building in Hyde Park was moved and re-erected in its greatly enlarged form in south London, its image and reputation were well-publicised through contemporary publications up to the end of its life when destroyed by fire in 1936. The legacy of the Handel Festivals, intrinsically part of the Crystal Palace story, was documented in the numerous articles, prints, photographs and commemorative objects on display giving an intriguing view point of British society at the height of the Empire and attitudes to grand public performances never before attempted on this scale. The exhibition also featured audio of a section of Messiah from the 1926 Handel Festival at the Crystal Palace involving a choir of 3,500, 175 years after Handel initiated annual fund raising concerts of Messiah to support the Foundling Hospital.
The Foundling Museum is home to the Gerald Coke Handel Collection, one of the largest and most important collections of Handel memorabilia which has been allocated to the Foundling Museum. It contains an extensive scholarly library and a permanent display of Handel memorabilia including his will and a fair copy of Messiah with his bequest to the Foundling Hospital.
The Foundling Museum would like to thank Ian Bevan, Colin Coleman, the Crystal Palace Museum, the Royal Academy of Music, Michael Gilbert, Jolyon Hudson, Dr Jan Piggott and Lena Mohamed for their generous support of the exhibition.