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An Oxford Companion to the Romantic Age

Celina Fox


Design had a range of meanings in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. In academic art circles it traditionally meant the expression of creative ideas, employing the principles of drawn composition which circumscribed all the arts. But increasingly design was used in contexts which suggested a distinction from the fine arts, particularly in connection with manufactured ornamental goods. Not that any opposition was necessarily denoted by this change of emphasis: it was universally accepted that if the more exalted branches of design—*painting [27], *architecture [28], *sculpture—flourished, then the humbler ends of industry would of course be answered. Their essential affinity is spelt out in the title of the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce, founded in 1754 by the drawing master William Shipley. There was a widespread belief that artists could confer on goods something which manufacturers and artisans lacked. That something was called taste in design.

The principles of design were based on antique precedent, the classical orders of harmony and proportion reinterpreted in the Renaissance and purveyed through numerous illustrated academic treatises. But by the middle of the eighteenth century the study of ancient Greece and archaeological discoveries in Rome, Herculaneum, and Pompeii had led to a new understanding of the antique [see *Hellenism]. The influential writings of the German art historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717–68) advocated a return to the noble simplicity and calm grandeur of Greek art. The classical tradition represented universal and timeless values of truth, purity, and honesty, freed from the intervention of the Renaissance and the artificial fripperies and degenerate deceits of the Rococo. The international movement which advanced its cause was later dubbed (pejoratively) *‘neoclassicism’, but at the time was understood as a return to the ‘true style’.

This style was introduced to Britain by architects who had travelled to Greece and Rome to make a special study of classical remains and who came into contact with like-minded spirits from France, Italy, and Germany en route. James ‘Athenian’ Stuart (1713–88), the painter and architect and leading member of the Society of Dilettanti, was the first to design in the new manner, swiftly followed by Robert *Adam.

Their publications—Stuart and Nicholas Revett's (1720–1804) The Antiquities of Athens (4 vols., 1762, 1790, 1795, 1816), Adam's Ruins of the Palace of the Emperor Diocletian at Spalatro (1764), and The Works in Architecture of Robert and James Adam (published in numbers from 1773 and in volume form in 1778–9)—ensured a widespread influence. Inside Spencer House, Stuart created the first neoclassical decorative ensemble in England, while Adam created integrated interiors at Harewood, Kedleston (where he ruthlessly supplanted Stuart), Syon, and other great houses, utilizing a profusion of light and elegant ornamental motifs derived from antique Greek forms. Both involved the leading craftsmen and manufacturers of the day in their schemes.

Architects were in a position, as Josiah *Wedgwood expressed it, to act as ‘godparents’ to manufacturers' products. Adam made designs for the Carron Iron Works in Falkirk, where his brother John was a partner, ensuring the spread of anthemion motifs on everything from railings to fire-grates. Mrs Eleanor *Coade's famous artificial stone was employed by all the leading architects for outdoor ornament; she in turn based her designs on the Adams' work and on other reference books and imported antiquities, as well as employing the sculptor John Bacon (1740–99) to make designs in the neoclassical style. John Mayhew and William Ince's partnership in the second half of the eighteenth century produced high-quality furniture for aristocratic clients in association with the king's architects, Sir William *Chambers and Robert Adam.

Other London-based manufacturers catering for the luxury market used artists who were familiar with the new style. Benjamin Vulliamy (1780–1854), one of London's leading clock-and watchmakers, employed the young sculptors John Deare, Charles Peart, and John Rossi, as well as Bacon, to model figures for his clocks of neoclassical design, which were then produced in biscuit by William Duesbury's (1725–86) Derby porcelain works. The royal gold-smiths Rundell and Bridge (Rundell, Bridge, and Rundell after 1805) placed the Royal Academician William Theed (1804–91) in charge of their art department, and after his death in 1817 the sculptor John *Flaxman took over in an advisory capacity.

Large-scale manufacturers combined bespoke with off-the-peg production in businesses which encompassed a range of different skills. From their premises in Soho, Mayhew and Ince acted as cabinet-makers, carvers, upholders (upholsterers), plate glass manufacturers, and even auctioneers. The largest furniture-making firm in London in the last quarter of the eighteenth century, George Seddon, squeezed most of the trades involved onto one site in Alders-gate, employing some 400 men by 1786, ranging from carvers, joiners, and gilders to mirror-workers, upholsterers, girdlers, and locksmiths. A year later his insurance policies amounted to £17,500 (compared with £500 in 1756–7 and £7,700 in 1770). Rundells was involved in a number of subsidiary businesses including a diamond-cutting business in Spital-fields and a modern plate workshop, first in Greenwich and after 1807 in Soho, which supplied them with their stock and work on commission.

But the largest manufacturers to exploit the neoclassical taste lay outside London, where production could be undertaken on an industrial scale [see *consumerism, 19]. In the early 1760s Matthew *Boulton built his Soho factory at Handsworth, Birmingham, and with his partner John Fothergill redeemed the poor reputation of Birmingham goods by producing ‘toys’ in iron, brass, and silver plate—buckles, buttons, watch-chains, jewellery and other trinkets—of sound workmanship and in good taste. Through the division of his 800-strong labour force into workshops carrying out specialized tasks, he secured the firm's competitive edge. Water gave him the power to operate the rolling mills, lathes, and stamping and polishing machines essential for large-scale production. With these newly industrialized processes he exploited the invention of Sheffield plate—copper fused to a silver veneer—boosting the rate of production and lowering manufacturing costs.

His friend Josiah Wedgwood employed water and wind power in his new factory, built on a 350-acre estate lying between Burslem and Hanley in the Staffordshire potteries and opened in June 1769. He bought engine-turning lathes from Boulton for fashioning pots and decorating by incising designs on them before firing. He too divided his labour force into different specializations, to create the first pottery in Europe conducted on industrial assembly lines. At the core of his business lay his own skill as an experimental chemist, constantly researching new bodies and glazes.

Both Boulton and Wedgwood had pretensions to manufacture goods that were not merely ‘useful’ but also ‘ornamental’, displaying the highest principles of design according to classical precedent. Boulton saw his factory as a ‘Temple of the Vulcanian Arts’. Besides manufacturing toys and Sheffield plate on a large scale, he started in the late 1760s to produce high-quality ormolu and silverware, the latter greatly stimulated by the establishment of an Assay Office in Birmingham in 1773, largely through his efforts. Wedgwood named his new factory ‘Etruria’, on the generally but mistakenly held belief that the Etruscans made the finest antique vases. By selling ‘Vases, Urns and other ornaments after the Etruscan, Greek and Roman modells’, he aimed to become ‘Vase Maker General to the Universe’. He produced glazes which imitated Roman stones—marble, granite, agate, lapis lazuli, porphyry—and transformed a traditional Staffordshire body known as ‘Egyptian black’ into the hard ‘Black Basalt’. In 1769 he took out a patent for ‘encaustic’ or matt enamel painting to emulate classical Greek red-figured vases. By the mid-1770s he had perfected his own invention of ‘Jasper’, a pure white porcelain biscuit which, when used as a coloured ground with contrasting white applied relief, could imitate the effect of antique cameos.

The principles of design were diffused to these provincial centres of manufacturing through a number of channels. First was the medium of the engraved plate and printed book. Boulton and Wedgwood acquired the latest illustrated treatises on antiquity which both marked and stimulated the rising tide of the classical revival, notably Pierre François Hugues D'Hancarville's (1719–1805) Collection of Etruscan, Greek, and Roman Antiquitics, issued in four volumes in Naples in 1766–7, illustrating Sir William *Hamilton's first collection of Greek vases, sold to the British Museum in 1772. According to the preface, one of the motives behind its publication was specifically to encourage manufacturers to use correct classical models.

Another channel was provided by personal contact with the most knowledgeable connoisseurs in the land. One of Wedgwood's early patrons, Lord Cathcart, was married to Hamilton's sister and lent him plates from the D'Hancarville volumes before he acquired his own edition. His partner and London manager, Thomas Bentley (1731–80), was a friend of Hamilton and had access not only to unpublished drawings from the catalogue but also to the original vases, and was able to seek advice directly from Hamilton himself. Bentley in turn advised Wedgwood on artistic trends and current fashionable taste. Both Boulton and Wedgwood visited—on at least one occasion together—the collections of their patrons.

They also had direct contact with painters, sculptors, and architects who were familiar with the new style. Sir William Chambers supplied Boulton with some ‘valuable, usefull and acceptable modells’ when they met in 1770. Robert Mylne (1734–1811) and James *Wyatt provided designs for his silverware in the 1770s, while James's cousin John Wyatt was Boulton's London agent for the toy business. In addition to the modellers based in Etruria, Wedgwood commissioned original work through Bentley from a number of the most talented artists in London. John Flaxman followed his father, a plaster-cast maker, in working for Wedgwood. He created designs and wax models in bas-relief for portrait medallions. His classical scenes were applied to Wedgwood's Jasper vases and tablets intended for chimney-pieces and larger decorative schemes. When Flaxman went to Rome in 1787, Wedgwood asked him to supervise on an informal basis the modellers whom he had employed there to supply casts and copies of antique sculpture.

Both Wedgwood and Boulton were constantly on the lookout for fresh ideas and motifs which could be copied or adapted to customers' wishes or to fit the requirements of production. The ‘elegant simplicity’ of objects decorated in the neoclassical style, rejecting complex illusion and elaborate contrasts of texture in favour of a uniform surface and mechanical precision of form, suited industrial needs. Relatively standardized models could be produced rapidly, while variations were created by mixing components of different designs. The mechanical imitation of antique effects, using a range of new materials, could be justified as being merely an extension of the hallowed practice of copying from the antique.

But both men recognized from the start that if they wanted their wares to sell and to keep their businesses afloat, the approval of royalty, the nobility, and the gentry counted as much as the intrinsic correctness, elegance, and beauty of the product. They welcomed a stream of distinguished visitors to their factories, which were showplaces of cleanliness and efficiency. Boulton had a retail warehouse at his Soho works, and in the early 1770s held exhibitions and sales of his finest pieces in ormolu at Christie's in London. Wedgwood went further and opened a permanent London saleroom sufficiently large to welcome the ‘shoals’ of ladies who came to inspect a changing display of dinner services laid out on tables and vases set against the walls. The urbane presence of his partner Bentley undoubtedly contributed to its success. In 1774 visitors flocked to see the 952-piece dinner and dessert service ordered by the Empress Catherine of Russia and decorated with hand-painted views of English architectural landmarks and beauty spots. In 1790 they came to marvel at the copy made in Jasper after the Roman cut-glass Barberini or Portland Vase. The original had been acquired by Sir William Hamilton, who sold it to the Duchess of Portland; on her death in 1785 it was bought by the third Duke of *Portland, from whom Wedgwood borrowed it to make a copy. Sir Joshua *Reynolds vouched that Wedgwood's version was a ‘correct and faithfull imitation, both in regard to the general effect, and the most minute details of the parts’.

Admission for both events was restricted: in 1774 to those who had a ticket and in 1790 to those who were invited, thus conspiring to enhance the aura of privilege, exclusivity, and shared standards of taste. But there was always a danger in going further and being flattered into allowing distinguished clients to dictate demand, with the inevitable outcome of uneconomical short runs or over-large stocks of unsold goods. Boulton and Wedgwood were particularly vulnerable, as they had over-expanded and were under-capitalized for the huge investment they had made in plant and equipment. Their pricing policies were haphazard and took little account of fixed overheads. Costs needed to be assessed with greater accuracy; production runs needed to be lengthened, stocks reduced, and prices adjusted. Above all, new markets had to be exploited, especially those of the middle classes, whose level of consumption had been rising throughout the century. By the mid-1770s Boulton had largely abandoned his prestigious but loss-making production of ormolu, concentrating instead on large-scale Sheffield plate and toy manufacture. His energies were taken up with the development of the steam engine under patent with his new partner, James *Watt. Wedgwood also realized that he must drum up demand where he as a manufacturer most needed it. As he wrote to Bentley in 1772, it was at first necessary to charge the ‘Great People’ a great price so that they should esteem his vases ‘Ornaments for Palaces’; but once their ‘character’ was established, the much vaster numbers of the ‘Middling Class of People’ would probably buy quantities of them at a reduced price.

Both Boulton and Wedgwood exploited the general emulative acquisitiveness of the middle classes, and in doing so ensured that the principles of design spread beyond the ‘great people’. They manipulated this burgeoning market using a range of sophisticated promotion and sales techniques. Catalogues were a novel way of reaching retailers throughout the country and abroad, helping to acquaint them and their customers with the latest fashions. The illustrated trade catalogue emerged in the 1770s and was associated particularly with the West Midlands metal trades and the fused-plate manufacturers of Sheffield. As the largest single manufacturer of Sheffield plate, Boulton sent out illustrated catalogues of his wares directly to his extensive network of agents throughout Europe. In 1774 Wedgwood produced his first catalogue (and the first in the ceramics trade) of Queen's Ware. He also took to *advertising and offered free carriage to all parts of the country, replacement for breakages and satisfaction guaranteed. He employed travelling salesmen throughout Europe and sent out boxes of samples on continental tours. To reinforce brand loyalty as well as to guard against inferior imitations, every piece went out impressed with his name on the base.

Wedgwood was never competitive in price, despite his advanced methods of production which should have reduced costs. But these were inflated by his investment in land, buildings, and machinery, as well as in research, development, and training. His marketing expenses were exceptionally high. He continued to make unique pieces, which were usually sold at a loss. Above all, he would not compromise on quality. At the same time, these very features—inventiveness, marketing, and quality—underlay his success. In other words, he managed to create and maintain a ‘limited edition’ market, midway between the traditional reserves of exclusive patronage and a limitless flow of low-cost products.

Wedgwood had little reason to fear competitors, and would probably have maintained that imitation was the sincerest form of flattery. Indeed, the lack of *copyright law before 1842 encouraged the free flow of designs throughout specialized branches of manufacture. Their dissemination was aided by an extraordinary growth of pattern books, available increasingly at a reasonable cost. Those pertaining to cabinet-making are a case in point. George Hepplewhite's The Cabinet Maker and Upholsterer's Guide, published after his death by his wife in successive editions of 1788, 1789, and 1794, was the first major furniture pattern book to appear after the third edition of Thomas Chippendale's Director in 1762, and was heavily dependent on Adam. Thomas Sheraton's (1751–1806) The Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterer's Drawing Book, published in parts between 1791 and 1794 (with a second edition in 1794 and a third in 1802), attracted 700 subscribers, including cabinet-makers, joiners, carvers, gilders, musical-instrument makers, engravers, painters, and drawing masters, but significantly no wealthy patrons. Sheraton's role was that of interpreter to the trade rather than creator of exclusive designs. Similarly, The Cabinet-maker's London Books of Prices (1791–4) provided craftsmen with precisely costed and illustrated designs.

Many of the pattern books urged cabinet-makers to study basic principles of perspective and geometry, recognizing their dependence on a higher source, that of architectural design. Nevertheless, Wedgwood was the first to concede that in the eye of the consumer, fashion might count for more than merit; cosmetic appeal might prove more tempting than conformity to basic principles. He led the way in manipulating the market by feeding the engine of consumption with a constant stream of invention, boosted by a heavy dose of marketing. In the wake of this example, the ever-growing cycle of productive capacity, marketing drive, and appetite for consumption had by 1800 resulted in an unprecedented thirst for novelty, increasingly distanced from the chaste neoclassical ‘true style’. The fascination with alternative sources of design can be traced back at least to the early eighteenth century, when rich, eccentric men of taste toyed with a variety of architectural styles from the *Gothic to the Chinese [see *chinoiserie]. But a century later, rather than resulting simply in one-off buildings stuffed with products commissioned en suite, the growth of industry and the market, as well as the diffusion of examples in catalogues and pattern books, encouraged the manufacture of goods in a plurality of styles on a hitherto unprecedented scale.

Fashionable taste in the first years of the nineteenth century tended to the exotic, a Euro-centred interpretation of the appearance of other civilizations, particularly those with which the country was acquiring increasing diplomatic, trade, and colonial ties [see *empire, 5]. Thus the European trading companies established at Canton in the eighteenth century provided a fragile foothold in China and encouraged the growth of interest in products of the Chinese empire. The creation in 1790 of a Chinese Room at the Prince of Wales's London residence of Carlton House, followed in 1802–4 by the decoration of the Regent's Pavilion at Brighton in a fanciful Chinese style by the firm of Crace, took place during a period of increasing diplomatic activity, culminating in Lord *Macartney's mission to the Emperor Ch'ien Lung in 1792–4. At the same time new stables were constructed for the Pavilion in an Indian style by William Porden (1755–1822), one of the first manifestations of the influence of Views of Oriental Scenery by Thomas and William Daniell, published in 1795–1808. These aquatints constituted a detailed record of many aspects of Indian architectural history compiled during the Daniells' tours from 1786 to 1793, starting from areas under British control.

Wedgwood had been producing wares using Egyptian styles and motifs since 1770, the main source for his designs being Bernard de Montfaucon's L'Antiquité Expliquée (1719–24), which reproduced antiquities from several ancient cultures, including specimens from Egypt of dubious authenticity [see *Egyptology]. Wedgwood's designers in turn adapted the images to suit neoclassical tastes. Popular interest in Egypt was rekindled by *Napoleon's expedition to Egypt in 1798 and *Nelson's victory over the French fleet at the battle of the Nile. Baron Denon's Voyage dans la Basse et la Haute Égypte (1802) provided the motifs for a style whose popularity was regarded as patriotic. Robert *Southey's Letters from England (1807) directly related the fashion to the military campaigns, contrasting the returning wounded soldiers with the elegant modes inspired by Egypt: ‘the ladies wear crocodile ornaments, and you sit upon a sphinx in a room hung around with mummies.’ Wedgwood produced a tea set decorated with Egyptian motifs and with crocodiles as handles; the same shapes were also available decorated in the Chinese manner with stylized blossom.

The famous Chinese-inspired blue-and-white ‘Willow’ pattern was first created by Thomas Turner (1749–1809) at the Caughley pottery in Staffordshire, being adapted and sold on to other manufacturers by an apprentice engraver, Thomas Minton, when he left the works in 1785. The new technique of transfer-printing designs engraved on copper plates onto biscuit earthenware enabled copies of Chinese blue-and-white landscapes to provide an alternative source to Canton, which was proving increasingly unreliable and expensive. The manufactory started in Stoke-on-Trent by Josiah Spode (1733–97) in 1770, and developed with his son Josiah II (1754–1827) and William Copeland, thrived on the production of blue printed earthenware. At their London warehouse, complete services were on sale, decorated with scenes culled from Wilhelm Tischbein's Collection of Engravings from Ancient Vases (1791–5), which recorded the second collection formed by Sir William Hamilton, J. Merigot's Views and Ruins in Rome and its Vicinity (1797, 1799), Luigi Mayer's Views in Egypt, Palestine and other parts of the Ottoman Empire (3 vols., 1801–3), and the illustrations to Oriental Field Sports, and Wild Sports of the East (1805–7) by Captain Thomas Williamson, with coloured aquatints after watercolours by Samuel Howett.

Furniture makers were also becoming increasingly eclectic in their use of sources. Sheraton's last work, The Cabinet-Maker, Upholsterer, and General Artist's Encyclopaedia (1804–6), contained designs in the Egyptian style and chairs and sofas adorned with swords, ropes, and anchors to commemorate Nelson's victories. But Southey was probably satirizing above all Thomas *Hope's Household Furniture and Interior Decoration of 1807. The first work in English to use the term ‘interior decoration’, Hope's influential publication contained views of the principal rooms and measured drawings of individual pieces of furniture in his own London house in Duchess Street, off Portland Place. The most striking ensemble was the Egyptian Room, decorated in suitably Egyptian shades of blue-green and pale yellow relieved by black and gold and with a large frieze of figures drawn from Egyptian papyrus rolls. The sofa and armchair designs by Hope had an archaic splendour and were avowedly taken from Egyptian precedents. The materials used in the cups, canopic vases, and figures displayed—porphyry, granite, and basalt—reflected Hope's determination to recreate the monumental character of Egyptian antiquities. The Aurora Room, which centred on Flaxman's marble group, Aurora Visiting Cephalus on Mount Ida, was lined in yellowish-orange satin, with furniture and ornaments in the Greek style.

Hope's aim was to improve the standard of design by providing specific models in a range of antique styles founded on serious research, though he hoped they would not lead to ‘servile copying’. He himself mixed Greek and Egyptian motifs, sometimes to bizarre rather than impressive effect. He knew the French designers Charles Percier and Pierre François Léonard Fontaine, whose sophisticated grand luxe neoclassical rooms for the new French Emperor, as catalogued in Recueil de Décorations Intérieures (issued in instalments from 1801 and in a single volume in 1812), were an important influence. Hope also owed an unacknowledged debt to the work of Henry *Holland's assistant, Charles Heathcote Tatham, whose Etchings of Ancient Ornamental Architecture drawn from the Originals in Rome and other Parts of Italy during the Years 1794, 1795 and 1796, went through three editions before 1810. But, unusually for a pattern book, all the objects illustrated in Hope's Household Furniture had actually been made by the finest craftsmen and existed for visitors to see, when furnished with a ticket issued after ‘an application signed by some person of known character and taste’. Not surprisingly, within a year of Hope's publication George Smith had issued his Collection of Designs for Household Furniture and Interior Decoration, lifted largely from Hope as well as from Sheraton, Percier, and Fontaine, but providing designs for a complete range of domestic furniture aimed at a cheaper market.

At the same time, the first illustrated British magazine to be principally concerned with styles of domestic consumption made its appearance. Rudolph *Ackermann's The Repository of Arts, Literature, Commerce, Manufactures, Fashions and Politics was launched in January 1809 with a dedication by permission to that indefatigable consumer, the Prince of Wales. Until its closure in December 1828, it lived up to its title with an enormous variety of short articles and plates illustrating the latest fashions, textiles, manufactures and inventions, topographical views, and notable residences. Its devotion to the world of goods was demonstrated in its first year with the publication of six illustrations of leading retail showrooms in London. In 1810–11 it published a series of nineteen plates showing the innovatory furniture designs produced by the Strand firm of Morgan and Sanders—the Metamorphic Library Chair and Merlin's Mechanical Chair for instance—which pushed novelty and invention to the limits. From 1816, George Bullock's fashionable furniture and furnishing schemes were illustrated, and in 1825–7 the magazine promoted Augustus Charles *Pugin's designs for Gothic furniture, the twenty-seven plates being republished as a book in 1829 under the title Pugin's Gothic Furniture.

There had been ‘revivals’ of the Gothic style for a century or more. In Ancient Architecture, Restored, and Improved (1742), Batty Langley attempted to recover the principles which underlay Gothic architecture akin to those underlying classicism. The ensuing craze for Gothic ornament conspicuously failed to subscribe to any serious order, but at Sir Horace *Walpole's Strawberry Hill, ancient woodwork and stained glass were incorporated in rooms with Gothic fittings, copied from engravings in antiquarian books on medieval cathedrals and abbeys. From the 1750s until Walpole's death in 1797, Strawberry Hill was continuously extended to provide a suitable environment for its owner's collections of medieval and early Renaissance antiquities. Walpole's own Description (published in two editions of 1774 and 1784, the latter extensively illustrated) was used by streams of visitors to the house who ensured it became the most celebrated example of the Gothic Revival of its day.

James Wyatt was the leading architect of the Gothic Revival around 1800, notably at Fonthill, where his original design of 1796 for a ruined convent was endlessly enlarged at the behest of William *Beckford to house his Wunderkammer of a collection. From about 1806, a series of Gothic interiors were designed for the Prince of Wales's neoclassical Carlton House, with furniture and fittings which included oak chairs probably designed by James Wyatt for the library, and candelabra supplied by Mrs Coade for the conservatory. Such self-consciously theatrical sets and the treatment of architecture as scenery were characteristic features of the *picturesque, as discussed in the writings of William *Gilpin, Uvedale *Price, and Richard Payne *Knight. Overlying the antiquarian interest in medieval British history and archaeology was a Romantic fascination with the medieval age, with chivalry, heraldry and traditional festivities [see *medievalism], related in ancient British ballads and later in the novels of Walter *Scott. Indeed, George Bullock provided Scott's Abbotsford, reconstructed in Scottish Baronial style, with an eclectic mixture of armour, furniture, chimney-pieces, and ornament in a predominantly Gothic taste.

The state rooms at Windsor Castle, remodelled by Jeffry *Wyatville once George IV had ascended the throne, provided the opportunity for the young Augustus Welby Northcote *Pugin to begin in 1827 to design Gothic Revival furniture made up by Nicholas Morel and George Seddon. Some pieces were in plain oak following medieval precedent, but others in rosewood, with gilding and gilt bronze enrichments, were probably better suited to the taste of his patron. Around the same time Pugin was working for the royal goldsmiths, Rundell, Bridge, and Rundell, producing designs for medieval-style plate mounted with precious jewels, to be used at Windsor. His impassioned rejection of materialism for a society based on faith in Contrasts (1836) and his elucidation of The True Principles of Pointed or Christian Architecture (1841) lay ahead.

The extravagant patronage and opulent display favoured by rich connoisseurs like William Beckford and the Prince of Wales established their role as arbiters of taste. But the resetting of stones in newly commissioned historicist ornamental works of art was a habit few could afford to indulge. Likewise, acquisition of the finest pieces of eighteenth-century French furniture, bronzes, and Sèvres porcelain dispersed during and immediately after the Napoleonic Wars, which set the seeds for the so-called Louis XIV style (in fact a recreation of the Rococo), again led by the Prince and Beckford, was only pursued by the very rich. The *Regency period afforded many opportunities for conspicuous consumption. London was the wealthiest city in the world with a globally dominant economy, its commercial might expressed in the construction of new docks, its financial power accrued through sophisticated banking and insurance systems. In tune with this material confidence, Benjamin Dean Wyatt (1775–1850), son of James Wyatt, installed Rococo revival interiors in Belvoir Castle, Apsley House, Crockford's Gaming House, York—later Stafford (now Lancaster)—House, and Buckingham Palace. It was an expensive, showy style which George IV, for one, had difficulty paying for. When he died in 1830 he owed the firm of Morel and Seddon nearly £200,000, which was only grudgingly repaid by the Treasury after a Select Committee Report at the end of 1831, and then not in toto.

The ‘Louis XIV’ style was deemed degenerate even by the eclectic standards of the time. Though visitors were impressed by the gilded magnificence of such interiors, many like Thomas Hope who were used to the simple forms of a purer style attacked it for its tasteless excess of materials and overloaded profusion of ornament. But fears about national standards of taste were more far-reaching. The Repository of Arts, which probably contributed to the move away from a unitary style to plurality of choice, frequently urged artists and architects to descend from their lofty position and make it their business to select and improve designs for carpets, curtains, and furniture based on classical precedent. It pointed out that in France artists did not think it degrading to produce patterns for manufacturers, and workers had access to art in public galleries. In Britain, by comparison, artisans and manufacturers had few opportunities to see art and, under the then system of *education [17], could not be expected to ascend to higher sources of elegance.

The fear of competition from French manufacturers provided the spur for the Parliamentary Select Committee of 1835 appointed ‘to inquire into the best means of extending a knowledge of the Arts, and of the Principles of Design, among the People (especially the Manufacturing Population) of the Country’. Its avowed purpose differed little from that of the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce, launched some eighty years earlier. But whereas the Society's aim to encourage industrial art through prize competitions had foundered through lack of support, the Select Committee enjoyed the active participation of both members and witnesses with commercial or industrial interests. At the same time, its forty-nine members included ‘men of taste’ sympathetic to the views of the Royal Academy as to the primacy of the fine arts. And conspicuous among the witnesses called to give evidence were those who most rigidly adhered to conservative academic values.

They maintained that design was no longer controlled by men of taste but was being manipulated by men of commerce, and that, with a multiplicity of choice, objective standards in art were being abandoned under the force of economic pressures. The architect Charles Robert Cockerell (1788–1863) spoke bluntly: ‘I believe that the attempt to supersede the work of the mind and the hand by mechanical process for the sake of economy, will always have the effect of degrading and ultimately ruining art.’ According to the President of the Royal Academy, Sir Martin Archer Shee (1769–1850), the principles of commerce and the principles of art were in direct opposition to each another. Political economists who adapted to the arts a principle which belonged only to trade were entirely mistaken in their views: ‘the moment you make art a trade you destroy it.’

Such an opinion seemingly ignored the successful efforts that had been made over the preceding half-century to apply the principles of design to manufactures, and of taste to consumption. Cockerell maintained that taste was more under the control of fashion than the direction of principle. Other witnesses acknowledged the efforts of Wedgwood, Boulton, Mrs Coade, and Rundells, but asserted that their influence was necessarily limited. The works of Flaxman and Hope, and the publications on Sir William Hamilton's vases, were shut up in private collections and produced little effect on public taste, compared with the free access the public had to libraries and museums in France. The superior designs from painters, sculptors, and architects were supplied at a cost in England, compared with France, which contributed to the expense of production and thereby restricted sales. As a result, manufacturers were no longer employing artists of eminence. It was pointed out that Wedgwood's prices had never been compatible with those of other potters and that he consciously manipulated the market to increase prestige. Edward Cowper (1790–1852), patentee of the Applegarth and Cowper steam printing presses and a manufacturer of terracotta vases in the antique style, maintained that Wedgwood retained a little of the prejudice of keeping art at a high price. After he had sold thirty copies of the Portland Vase at 25 guineas each Wedgwood had destroyed the mould in order to render them more rare. Cowper considered this ‘a very erroneous feeling because it was so far preventing the diffusion of taste throughout the country’.

The Select Committee provoked the question as to whether it was possible to uphold the principles of design derived from high art when on the one hand there was increasing diversity of tastes and on the other the increasing productive capacity to service them. As the nineteenth century progressed it seemed as if the unique or limited-edition art object would be replaced by mass-produced commodities which satisfied the greatest number; in effect, quality was being ousted by quantity. This applied particularly to non-luxury trades, where machinery had largely superseded human labour, as was the case with cotton goods. The new power machinery and printing technology allowed for the cheap production of an increasingly diverse range of goods for particular markets, subject to frequent changes of style according to the latest fashions. In order to keep up with trends and keep down costs, manufacturers relied on copying high quality samples or designs. The Select Committee exposed a serious division of opinion between the protectionists, who wanted to introduce a copyright law on original designs, and the free trade manufacturers, who pushed the economics of scale to the limit. The former, who were mainly fine printers producing the most original, complicated, and expensive designs for the middle classes, asserted that the patrician character of the original was impaired when it became plebeian. The latter, the machine printers, asserted that there was no such thing as a unique design, that protection was tyrannical and injurious to trade and that the reduction in prices was beneficial to the lower classes.

Thus the architects, artists, and sculptors blamed the manufacturers for their failure to understand the basic principles of design and the artisans for their want of education in executing them. The manufacturers and artisans blamed in return the architects, artists, and sculptors for artificially restricting access to the best examples of design. And all blamed the general public, from the West End to Wapping, for their pursuit of meretricious finery rather than true design principles. The final Report of the Select Committee published in 1836 concluded ‘that, from the highest branches of poetical design down to the lowest connexion between design and manufactures, the Arts have received little encouragement in this country’. Spurred into action by the example of other ‘frequently more despotic’ countries with a weaker manufacturing base, it turned to art education as a solution. It recommended that art schools should be established throughout the country, and that local schools should be specifically related to the needs of local manufacturers. In 1836 the government's vote of £1,500 for the establishment of a school of design in London marked the beginning of a new era which saw the development of design in relation to the fine arts on the one hand and industry on the other. It was no longer to be the concern of a privileged few, nor yet of enlightened manufacturers, but a state responsibility shouldered, albeit reluctantly, for the general good of all.


Brewer, J., & Porter, R., eds., Consumption and the World of Goods, London, 1993;Find this resource:

Fox, C., London: World City, 1800–1840, New Haven, Conn., 1992;Find this resource:

Morley, J., Regency Design, 1790–1840: Gardens, Buildings, Interiors, Furniture, London, 1993;Find this resource:

Report and Minutes of Evidence from the Select Committee on Arts and Manufacture, (598) V, 1835, & (568) IX, 1836;Find this resource:

Wainwright, C., The Romantic Interior: The British Collector at Home, 1750–1850, New Haven, Conn., 1989.Find this resource:

Celina Fox