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Britain had twenty-two ‘international’ exhibitions in the second half of the nineteenth century, starting with the Great Exhibition at London’s Crystal Palace in 1851. There were similar exhibitions in Europe and America and in the British colonial capitals, as well as in the main British provincial cities. These exhibitions provided excellent opportunities for manufacturers to show off their products.

The first Scottish exhibition was in Edinburgh in 1886 and there were bigger events in Glasgow in 1888, 1901 and 1911. These international exhibitions, which were many years in the planning, were held in the summer months and attracted large numbers. Glasgow in 1888 had over six million visitors from near and far and was a huge commercial success, with the profits and some of the exhibits going into the founding of the Kelvingrove Gallery and Museum.

The Great Exhibition

Several Scottish Turkey red firms were represented at the 1851 Great Exhibition in London, including Henry Monteith and Co., Archibald Orr Ewing and Co. and William Stirling and Sons. The latter’s displays in the ‘world’s exhibition’ section were focussed on a visually striking and widely reported ‘exhibition handkerchief’, though this was described as being of ‘questionable taste’ in the Glasgow Herald. Turkey red cottons were also on prominent display at the 1851 exhibition, and elsewhere, as a colourful furnishing fabric for seating and curtains to decorate the utilitarian buildings in which the event was housed. 

International exhibitions

Scottish textile manufacturers had a strong presence at the Paris international exhibitions from the start of such events, and details were recorded at length in the Scottish press. In 1855 there was a large contingent of exhibitors in the category of ‘printed muslins and cambrics’ including John Black and Co. and John Monteith and Co., who also produced Turkey red cottons, along with D. J. Macdonald and Co. of Glasgow with a highlighted display of ‘Turkey red goods’. Attending an international exhibition and mounting a display was an expensive undertaking for the firms concerned, so it had to have some financial rational for business development or advertising. The exhibition stand that was commissioned by William Stirling and Sons for the Manchester Royal Jubilee Exhibition of 1887, made of wood and glass, was fifteen feet wide, twenty feet deep and thirteen feet high, and cost £175 to make (with the cost of transport and interior decoration added to that). The space rental for Manchester was £50. The exhibition stand was used at the 1888 Glasgow exhibition and again at the Glasgow exhibition of 1901, along with a second larger display case. 

A focus on India

The highpoint for Scottish Turkey red exhibitions in the later nineteenth century was the Glasgow International Exhibition of 1888, which was striking for its India displays including a group of Indian craftsmen and shop workers at a retail stand who had been seen a few years earlier at the London India and Colonial Exhibition of 1886.

The Turkey red manufacturers emphasised the India theme through several full size figures or mannequins of Indian women in glass cases, showing colourful fabrics against dark skins and jewellery. John Orr Ewing and Co.’s stand included ‘a mat or table cover displayed in a special case [which] shows on a Turkey red ground the Royal arms and the Glasgow arms in colours,’ which was described in the exhibition supplement for the North British Daily Mail as an ‘exhibition piece designed to demonstrate the purity and brilliance of the colours of the firm.’ Other firms included ‘delicate pinks up to the full and deep red’ displayed in a spectrum. There were ‘one or two samples in which a peculiar combination of reds and greens on a fine textured cotton gives an appearance which on hasty glance might be taken for that of silk.’ Whereas, ‘in other portions of the stand cotton velvets of fine colour are placed, and the damask-looking textures in two tints of red very fairly resemble the richer materials they simulate.’

International exhibitions for a mass audience were the main device for exhibiting Turkey red cottons in the nineteenth century, but museum collections also mounted displays of manufactured goods including printed textiles. Major departmental stores such as Pettigrew and Stevenson of Glasgow routinely advertised ‘exhibition goods’ for sale that they had purchased at the sales of display items that usually took place at the end of an international exhibition, reproducing in miniature through their own shop displays a flavour of the prestige and style of Paris or Vienna for local customers.

  • Exposition Universelle

    Exposition Universelle
  • Paris Exhibition, white ground

    Paris Exhibition, white ground


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Text © Stana Nenadic and Sally Tuckett, ‘Colouring the Nation: Design, copyright and exhibition.’

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