Welcome to the second week of Natalie Bradbury’s and Ruth Mason’s (one of the editors of Visit1862.com) conversation about the process of taste formation.
Natalie is currently a PhD researcher at the University of Central Lancashire looking at Pictures for Schools, a scheme founded by painter and educator Nan Youngman which ran from 1947 to 1969 and aimed to get original works of art into schools. As well as focusing biographically on Youngman, she is particularly interested in the relation between art education, art appreciation and post-war themes of citizenship, taste, modernity and reconstruction. She blogs about her research process and archival finds at www.picturesforschools.wordpress.com.
Natalie and Ruth met in November 2013. Although studying very different periods, individuals and institutions it became apparent that they were both interested in the process of taste formation and how ‘good taste’ has been considered a value that can be easily enshrined in the general public since before the 1862 International Exhibition and beyond.
Last week Natalie’s post explored the post-Second World War Pictures for Schools project and its role in forming children’s taste. This week, Ruth considers the role the 1862 International Exhibition in forming Britain’s taste in the nineteenth century. Both Natalie and Ruth have made short responses to each other’s posts and we warmly encourage more comments, questions and further discussion points.
Taste and the 1862 International Exhibition, Ruth Mason
Many of the objects displayed at the 1862 International Exhibition influenced High Victorian taste. Perhaps some of the best-known examples are the pieces displayed by Morris, Marshall, Faulkner and Co. in the exhibition’s medieval court.
Knowing that objects such as these influenced High Victorian taste would have made Henry Cole – and many others involved in the formation of the South Kensington Cultural Quarter and International exhibitions organised after the 1851 Great Exhibition – very happy.
Developing from a seed of an idea in the 1840s, the 1851 Great Exhibition has largely been recorded in history as a resounding success. Gathering together designed, manufactured, raw and natural objects and materials from across the world, Paxton’s glistening Crystal Palace has been celebrated for many reasons. Not only was the exhibition an enormous diplomatic success, peacefully bringing together many nations at a time of great political uncertainty, but it also successfully displayed the wonders of the British Empire and its developed techniques of industrial production to an international audience.
However, not everyone considered the exhibition an unqualified triumph. The exhibition had also been intended as an educational tool. Although British technology was well advanced by the middle of the nineteenth century, the quality of product design had not kept pace. The exhibition’s organisers therefore hoped that collating some of the best-designed objects from across the world would provide inspiration for British manufactures and improve the quality of their goods.
Although the exhibition may have had a positive affect on the quality of British design in the long run, in the short term it only served to emphasise commentators’ concerns about the quality of British design! Once the exhibition had closed, observers began to comment on the questionable taste of many of the British manufactured items on display. Although contemporaries admitted that the new technologies of machine production were impressive advancements, they were highly critical of the aesthetic schemes they were used to create. Criticism was mainly directed at machine manufactured items that tried too hard to imitate natural forms or deceptively used cheap materials to imitate those of better quality.
Although design manuals, pattern books, polemical tracts and scholarly histories of design had flourished in the early nineteenth century, alongside increased emphasis on artistic education, none of these publications or educational schemes seemed to have made any difference to British design. Therefore, in response to the 1851 Exhibition, a new round of publications emerged that re-emphasised the need to improve art and design education. In his Report on Design (1851) and On the Necessity of Principles in Teaching Design (1853), Richard Redgrave outlined the need to provide better design education for artists and designers. While in Wissenschaft, Industrie, und Kunst, Gottfried Semper promoted public art and as means of improving the general public’s taste. It was also decided that some of the surplus money raised in association with the 1851 Exhibition would be used was to improve art and design education in Britain. Headed up by Henry Cole (assisted by Richard Redgrave), the Department of Practical Art was established within the government to improve the quality of artistic training and educate the general public about ‘good design’.
Initially based in Marlborough House, the Department of Practical Art established a small Museum of Manufactures (later renamed the Museum of Ornamental Arts and eventually leading to the establishment of the present day Victoria and Albert Museum), which displayed objects of ‘good design’ largely purchased at the 1851 Great Exhibition. This permanent collection was supplemented with temporary exhibitions of borrowed exemplary items, including pieces of George VI’s Sevres porcelain found in Buckingham Palace. While most of these exhibitions displayed examples of admirable design, one exhibition entitled ‘False Principles in Design’ (1852), included objects considered to be of ‘bad taste’, intended to educate visitors about what not to buy. However, although those who organised this exhibition considered the objects on displayed to be examples of ‘bad design’, most of the products were also very commercially successful. Popular with the public, the choice of items bemused the public rather than converting them to the principles Cole was trying to emphasise. Furthermore, despite having the support of Prince Albert, the exhibition had to be swiftly closed when the manufactures named in the exhibition took great offence at their inclusion and aggressively campaigned against it.
Following in the footsteps of the Museum of Manufactures, the 1862 International Exhibition was also intended to display examples of good design and educate the public about ‘good taste’. Belatedly marking the ten-year anniversary of the 1851 Exhibition, 1862 was also intended to illustrate progress in British design since the embarrassments of its predecessor. In addition to the manufactured items on display, the 1862 Exhibition included an art gallery. Fine art had been noticeably absent from the 1851 Exhibition and its inclusion at 1862 was an explicit attempt to improve taste, but also demonstrate the breadth of Britain’s aesthetic abilities.
Britain was not alone in fearing the decline of design and the rise of bad taste in the middle of the nineteenth century. Connected to the transformations brought about by the Industrial Revolution, the whole of Europe was gripped by a fear of declining taste; associating it with broader social patterns of political change and potential revolution. However, as Natalie demonstrated last week, concern about national taste wasn’t simply a product of that particular historical moment and examples of attempted taste formation can be found throughout history.
Response, Natalie Bradbury
As this exchange has shown, there are several parallels to be drawn between the Great Exhibitions and Pictures for Schools. The emphasis of the nineteenth-century Great Exhibitions was showcasing and inspiring through the new and cutting edge. Likewise Pictures for Schools, in its insistence on original artworks as opposed to reproductions, prioritised introducing children to the art of their own country and their own time as a way of developing their aesthetic taste – although, unlike the ‘False Principles in Design’ exhibition of 1852, it didn’t go as far as showing examples of ‘bad design’, preferring instead to showcase examples of artworks carefully selected as being particularly suitable for schools. However the discussion of how the Great Exhibition of 1862 influenced High Victorian taste in Ruth’s piece made me realise how many questions I have left to answer around taste and Pictures or Schools. For example, in a post-war schools context is it possible to evaluate the exhibitions’ success and judge the actual impact Pictures for Schools had on students’ taste, and if so, how?
© Natalie Bradbury and Ruth Mason, 2014