The Inaugural Henry Cole Lecture: Sir Christopher Frayling, 30 October 2008joel harbour
The inaugural Henry Cole Lecture, held at the V&A Museum in London on 30 October 2008. The purpose of the lecture is to celebrate the legacy of the Museum’s founding director, and explore its implications for museums, culture and society today.
The lecture, entitled ‘We Must Have Steam: Get Cole! Henry Cole, the Chamber of Horrors, and the Educational Role of the Museum’ was delivered by Professor Sir Christopher Frayling. He presented new research on the “chamber of horrors” (a contemporary nickname for one of the V&A’s earliest galleries, ‘Decorations on False Principles’, that opened in 1852) and the myths and realities of its reception, then opened up a wider debate on design education and museums from the nineteenth century to the present day.
Mark Jones: The annual Henry Cole lecture has been initiated to celebrate Henry Cole’s legacy and to explore the contribution that culture can make to education and society today. It has also been launched to celebrate the opening of the Sackler Centre for arts education, including the Hochhauser Auditorium in which we sit tonight. There could be no one better than Professor Sir Christopher Frayling to give the inaugural Henry Cole Lecture. Christopher is a rare being: an intellectual who is a great communicator; a theorist who has a firm grip on the practical realities of life: a writer who truly and instinctively understands the words of making design and visual communication. As an enormously successful and respected Rector of the Royal College of Art, as Chairman of the Arts Council, and as a member and chair of boards too numerous to mention – but not forgetting the Royal Mint Advisory Committee which has recently been responsible for redesigning the coinage (personal interest) and as by far the longest-serving Trustee of the V&A, he brings together culture, education and public service in a way which Henry Cole would have approved and admired. So it’s more than fitting that he should be giving this first Henry Cole Lecture, ‘We Must Have Steam: Get Cole! Henry Cole, the Chamber of Horrors, and the Educational Role of the Museum’.
Thank you very much indeed Mark and thank you very much for inviting me to give this first Henry Cole Lecture. Just how much of an honour it is for me will I hope become clear as the lecture progresses.
Mark, Chairpeople, ladies and gentlemen:
Hidden away in the garden of the South Kensington Museum – now the Madejski Garden of the V&A – there is a small and easily overlooked commemorative plaque that doesn’t have a museum number. It reads: ‘In Memory of Jim Died 1879 Aged 15 Years, Faithful Dog of Sir Henry Cole of this Museum’. Jim had in fact died on 30 January 1879. He was with Henry Cole in his heyday, as the king of South Kensington – its museums and colleges – and saw him through to retirement from the public service and beyond. And next to this inscription there’s another one dedicated to Jim’s successor, Tycho, and dated 1885. The dogs are actually buried in the garden. Now we know from Henry Cole’s diary that between 1864 and 1879 Jim, who was a cairn terrier, was often to be seen in public at his master’s side. In 1864 they were together inspecting the new memorial to the Great Exhibition of 1851 just behind the Albert Hall – a statue of Prince Albert by Joseph Durham on a lofty plinth covered in statistics about the income, expenditure and visitor numbers to the Great Exhibition: 6,039,195 to be exact. Cole had been a tireless champion of Prince Albert and according to the Princess Royal (later Empress of Prussia) there was a family saying in Buckingham Palace at the time, invented by Albert himself, that when things needed doing ‘when we want steam we must get Cole’. We may therefore assume that when looking at the memorial, Cole was interested in the inscription, the statistics and the likeness of Prince Albert, while Jim was more interested in the possibilities of the plinth. In early 1866 – these are five studies of Jim, an etching by Henry Cole himself of 1864. In early 1866, first thing in the morning, soon after the workmen’s bell had rung, Henry and Jim would set forth together from Cole’s newly constructed official residence in the Museum (where he moved in July 1863) to tour the building sites of South Kensington – a name which was first invented by Cole when he re-named the museum The South Kensington Museum to describe the new developments happening around Brompton Church. According to ‘The Builder’ magazine, these two well-known figures would ‘be seen clambering over bricks, mortar and girders up ladders and about scaffolding’. Several buildings in the South Kensington Renaissance Revival style were springing up all around them: The Natural History Museum, The College of Science, the extension to this Museum. And on the morning the Bethnal Green Museum opened – 24 June 1872 – Jim showed a healthy distaste for his master’s well-known predilection for pomp and circumstance. Henry Cole had changed into his court suit to join the royal procession and as he emerged from his bedroom on the great day, Jim was completely pole-axed. ‘Seeing me in uniform,’, wrote Cole, ‘he stood motionless at the top of the stairs instead of rushing down [as he did] every morning.’ (I think he’s doing that on the right.) Maybe Jim had got wind of the fact that the lower floors of the Bethnal Green Museum were entirely devoted to the ‘animal products collection’ banished from South Kensington. The collection, which had mainly been gleaned from the Schools of Design or the 1851 Exhibition, included among the textiles – and I quote from the catalogue – ‘a pair of cuffs hand-spun and knitted from the hair of French poodle dogs’. No wonder Jim stood motionless at the top of the stairs. But the dutiful terrier also accompanied his master on numerous summer holidays to Elm Cottage in the village of Shere – between Guildford and Dorking – where Cole would go and think up yet more schemes and campaigns for South Kensington. So when ‘King Cole’ was affectionately caricatured by James Tissot in Vanity Fair in 1871, the seven-year-old Jim was there at his side. Cole was somewhat vertically challenged – and Jim on his hind legs may have been put in, for scale. Work it out. His master was by then well known for his flowing white hair, his whiskers, his frock coat with flapping coat-tails, his bulging waistcoat and baggy trousers. And a couple of years ago the Director Mark Jones asked me to contribute an image to the V&A’s 150th birthday album – and so it was to this one that I turned. My caption read, ‘Henry Cole’s faithful and inseparable terrier Jim was around for much of chapter one of the V&A’s building. Master and dog were both terriers. Jim apparently enjoyed making a great exhibition of himself – and so, of course, did Henry Cole.’ Jim was, as you’d expect, a very obedient dog. The standard and best-selling book on the training of dogs in Jim’s lifetime was called ‘Dog Breaking – The most expeditious, certain and easy method whether great excellence or only mediocrity be required’, and it was written by one Colonel W N Hutchinson, late of the Grenadier Guards. It had originally been published by John Murray in 1848 – around the time Cole had his first thoughts about a Great Exhibition – and there were regular editions appearing right up until the turn of the century. This was the standard work. The point of the book was to persuade dog-owners to abandon the harsh methods of dog breaking – the whip, the spiked collar, the bellowing voice – in favour of constant encouragement, understanding the dogs’ different dispositions and using easily recognised words, signals and whistles. Colonel Hutchinson explicitly made the analogy with human forms of education, from the most basic forms to ‘the future double-first collegian’. ‘They begin and proceed on the same principle … Believe me, the perfection I have described can never be attained with great severity or flogging.’ The redoubtable Colonel was here denying the famous distinction later made by William Morris between education and training: education – said Morris – was what you did with human beings; training was what you did with dogs.
Henry Cole certainly knew a thing or two about flogging from first-hand experience. Here he is, describing some experiences he had at Christ’s Hospital School near the City of London, where he was educated from age eight onwards, and where he had – as he later wrote – ‘a rather unhappy time of it’. This was putting it mildly. Christ’s Hospital at the time – and it was the time of ‘Tom Brown’s Schooldays’ – was notorious even among public schools for its harsh regime of corporal punishment. Cole wrote, ‘Half our parrot knowledge was frightened out of us by the headmaster’s impatient knock at the door and then his fussy entrance … In the morning at the slightest trip, he would thrust his hands into his breeches pockets hastily groping for his keys – unlock the desk in a bungling way, which increased his anger, and seizing a cane he would rush at the head of the boy before he called for the palm of his hand. We all dreaded him and we all hated the sight of him. He was like an ogre always thirsting for the blood of little boys. I don’t remember his ever giving one single word of encouragement.’ No wonder the result was what Cole called parrot knowledge. ‘As for the meaning of the words in my grammar,’ he said, ‘or the sense they conveyed, I had not the dimmest glimmering.’ This was a classroom atmosphere immortalised several times by Cole’s near-contemporary Charles Dickens, who came from a very similar family background, and whose path would often cross or parallel Cole’s during the course of his public career. They served on committees about intellectual property and about working-class visitors, the Great Exhibition and many other committees. But on the one occasion Henry Cole himself was directly satirised in a Dickens novel, he was on the side of the headmaster rather than the boys; on the side of the man who pours children full of imperial gallons of ‘useful facts’, bare unconnected facts and figures and averages until they are full to the brim with them rather than introducing the children to the world of imagination, creativity and wonder – which is one of the main themes of the novel.
Hard Times, Chapter Two, published in Household Words as part of the first instalment on 1 April 1854, is called ‘Murdering the Innocents’. It is set in the ‘bare monotonous vault of a school room’ in industrial Coketown with Mr Gradgrind, the schoolmaster Mr M’Choakumchild, and a third gentleman standing in front of the class. The chapter begins with Sissy Jupe, the uninhibited circus girl – or rather girl number 20 –
struggling to give a definition of a horse: ‘”Girl number twenty unable to define a horse!” said Mr Gradgrind, for the general behoof of the little pitchers. “Girl number twenty possessed of no facts, in reference to one of the commonest animals! Some boy’s definition of a horse please. Bitzer, yours.” Bitzer is a pale, cold-eyed little boy with short-cropped hair and bad skin. “Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth, namely twenty-four grinders, four eye-teeth, and twelve incisive. Sheds coat in spring … Age known by marks in mouth.” ‘This (and much more) from Bitzer. ‘”Now girl number twenty,” said Mr Gradgrind, “you know what a horse is.” … The third gentleman stepped forth. A mighty man at cutting and drying, he was: a government officer; in his way (and in most other people’s way too), a professed pugilist; always in training, always with a system to force down the general throat like a bolus, always to be heard of at the bar of his little Public-office, ready to fight all England. He was certain to knock the wind out of common sense, and render that unlikely adversary deaf to the call of time. And he had it in charge from high authority to bring about the great public-office Millennium, when Commissioners would reign upon the earth. “Very well,” said this gentleman, smiling and folding his arms. “That’s a horse. Now, let me ask you girls and boys, Would you paper a room with representations of horses?” After a pause, one half of the children cried in chorus, “Yes, sir! Yes, sir!” Upon which the other half, seeing in the gentleman’s face that Yes was wrong, cried out in chorus, “No, sir! No, sir!” – as the custom is in these examinations. “Of course no. Why wouldn’t you?” … A pause. “I’ll explain then,” said the gentleman, after another and a dismal pause, “why you wouldn’t paper a room with representations of horses. Do you ever see horses walking up and down the sides of rooms in reality – In fact? Do you?” “Yes, sir!” from one half. “No, sir!” from the other. “Of course no,” said the gentleman, with an indignant look at the wrong half. “Why, then, you are not to see anywhere, what you don’t see in fact; you are not to have anywhere, what you don’t have in fact. What is called Taste is only another name for Fact.” Thomas Gradgrind nodded as an approbation. “This is a new principle, a great discovery,” said the gentleman. “Now I’ll try you again. Suppose you were going to carpet a room. Would you choose a carpet having representations of flowers upon it?” “Girl number twenty,” said the gentleman smiling in the calm strength of knowledge. Sissy blushed, and stood up. “If you please, sir, I am very fond of flowers.”‘ That Charles Dickens had Henry Cole in mind when he wrote of the third gentleman is shown by the manuscript notes he took about the plot, the characters and the story, which are now in the Forster Collection at the V& A. Dickens wrote on these notes: ‘Chapter I, “Teach these children nothing but facts”; Chapter II, “Mr Gradgrind. Marlborough House Doctrine”. Cole.’ Evidently, Henry Cole wrote to Dickens – in a surprisingly generous spirit – about this government official in Hard Times, the third gentleman, because on 17 June 1854, a couple of months after first publication, Dickens tactfully responded: ‘Dear Mr Cole … I have in fact retreated to Boulogne to pass the summer in the society of your friend Mr Gradgrind and others, free from the disturbance of London … I often say to Mr Gradgrind that there is reason and good intention in much that he does – in fact that all that he does – but that he overdoes it. Perhaps by dint of his going his way and my going mine, we shall meet at last at some halfway house where there are flowers on the carpets, and a little standing-room for Queen Mab’s chariot among the Steam Engines. Faithfully yours, Charles Dickens’.
The end of Hard Times is actually very similar. Mr Thomas Gradgrind comes to realise – as he confides, quietly, to his daughter, Louisa – ‘I have a misgiving that some change may have been slowly working about me in this house, by more love and gratitude; that what the Head had left undone and could not do, the Heart may have been doing silently.’
The carnival girl Sissy Jupe, girl number 20 in the schoolroom, has worked her magic in the Gradgrind household at Stone Lodge, Coketown. Now this exchange is important, because what Dickens and Cole were writing about was the very origin of this Museum, and where its heart really was: The Marlborough House Doctrine. Cole had managed in 1852 to cut through the red tape and move most of the Government School of Design, which up to then had been in Somerset House in the Strand, to Marlborough House in Pall Mall – with strong support from Prince Albert – together with the School’s large collection of plaster casts of the greatest hits of European sculpture and decorative art which the students were expected to copy. And on 19 May 1852, only a month after his Department had moved in (Cole never wasted time), Cole’s Museum opened its doors to the public for the first time in a suite of rooms and galleries on the first floor of Marlborough House, Pall Mall.
Its intended reach was very ambitious: the specialised students of the School of Design; manufacturers or members of the manufacturing population, who it was felt needed to know about design; and members of the public, who it was felt needed to learn about the principles of design so that they could become rational consumers. In fact, Cole and friends couldn’t settle for a while on the name of the Museum, which is always an ominous sign. Was it The Museum of Manufactures – its original name, or The Museum of Ornamental Art – which it soon became, or, as this handbill announcing the opening puts it, was it a bit of both – a Museum of Ornamental Manufacturing? And right to the last minute, Cole can’t make up his mind. Branding, ladies and gentlemen, had yet to be invented. Was it predominantly aimed at design students, or at the trade, or at the public, who came in free on Mondays and Tuesdays? Whoever it was predominantly aimed at, Cole was personally very clear about the heart of the project:
‘Taste has its principles as well as morals, which people understand and know … I think to act upon the principle ‘everyone to his taste’ would be as mischievous as ‘everyone to his morals’; and I think there are certain principles of taste which all eminent artists are agreed upon in all parts of the world.’ As he added in his first report on a year in the life of the Museum – a very important statement: ‘Notwithstanding the indifference to the principles of Ornamental Art which is too prevalent in the present age … There are signs that the existence of laws and principles in Ornamental Art, as in every branch of human science, is beginning to be recognised. Indeed, without a recognition of them, we feel that Schools of Art can make no progress. Collections of Art will, we think, be most instrumental in helping to form a general belief in the scientific principles.’
So it wasn’t a matter of aesthetics: for Cole it was a matter of science, a science that went right back to the Greeks. There were certain basic principles which applied to design and which could be learned. The Great Exhibition had shown for all to see that not enough manufacturers or designers in Britain fully understood that science. It had also shown the crying need for a popular ‘collection of art’ in London. Marlborough House opened with a double bill: the annual exhibition of designs by students at the Government School – this is the drawing that won the very first prize at the Government School of Design taken from a plaster cast – and some examples of modern manufactured goods – predominantly Indian fabrics and metalwork, French porcelain, vessels from Turkey and Italy and a few English things as well – purchased with a grant of £ 5000, sanctioned by Parliament, from the last days of the Great Exhibition of eight months before. This was the first-ever purchase grant the Museum [ever] received. The Marlborough House exhibition stayed open for 17 trial days in May and June 1852 and then closed for the summer vacation to make ‘more permanent arrangements’. This had been, in effect, the inaugural exhibition in the V& A’s history. When Marlborough House opened permanently on 5 September its holdings in the history of decorative art had been expanded – from the Royal Collections and Hampton Court, among others – and it featured a completely new attraction in the corridor which led to the Exhibition rooms, which would be the first thing every visitor experienced.
‘The Times’ on 6 September reviewed this gallery, which was called ‘Decorations on False Principles’. ‘The ante-room,’ said The Times, ‘is fitted up as a sort of “chamber of horrors” – the chamber of horrors with a collection of all kinds of so-called ornamental manufacture, which are considered to exhibit false principles of decoration, such as vulgar and inharmonious colouring, want of meaning and unity in pattern, graceless imitations of natural forms etc. The department, in giving its reasons for condemning the individual examples here shown, afford the public an ample opportunity of testing the accuracy of the canons it enforces in its instruction to the students.’ It’s actually been suggested that Cole himself ghosted this article for The Times. If so, it was he who adapted the phrase ‘Chamber of Horrors’ from Madame Tussauds to a museum of design.
Cole’s report of the Department explained a little more: ‘A small portion of the Museum has been fitted up (same phrase as in The Times) with specimens of all kinds of manufactures, carpets, paper hangings, silks, metals, glass, pottery – which appear to illustrate departures from those principles of art which are recognised in the department.’ Eighty-seven items in all. The exhibits started life as visual aids purchased by the Government School of Design for use in its lectures to the students: Owen Jones lecturing on ‘true and false principles’, Richard Redgrave RA on ‘instruction in Art’, John Lindley the botanist on evolution of design, and the evolution of vegetable forms known as art botany. And they were interspersed with large format placards – eight of them – explaining the ‘Principles of Decorative Art’, some of them derived from Augustus Pugin’s two lectures on ‘The True Principles [as opposed to the false principles] – The True Principles of Pointed or Christian Architecture’, which had been published some 11 years earlier. Pugin had in fact joined Cole, Redgrave and Owen Jones on the ‘Purchases Committee’, selecting the objects for the Museum from the 1851 Exhibition shortly before he fell ill; and they’d argued about quite a number of objects which irritatingly exhibited some good principles and some bad ones – both at the same time. Very irksome. Skill in workmanship, but defective in principles of design; crude workmanship, with correct principles of design. Art, or workmanship, or both. So, should they be purchased for the Museum or not? In the end, they agreed to differ by saying in the catalogue ‘most examples have a mixed character’. But the placards had no such doubts at all, and these are the basic principles: in designed objects, ornament should be appropriate to function (which didn’t mean form follows function, but, for example, that it was okay to put reeds on a water carafe, because reeds were about water, if you see what I mean). So, the ornament should be appropriate to the function which doesn’t mean it should be functionalist. Ornament should be sympathetic to the material from which the thing is made and take account of the way it’s constructed; all beautiful forms should relate in some way to the principle of utility; on flat surfaces, ornament should be two-dimensional and not try to be three-dimensional with shadowing; natural forms should be abstracted and formalised not imitated and shown in perspective – they should be stylised and flat; the forms of the past should never be copied but only studied to understand their formal principles.
As the third gentleman in Coketown says, with only a little exaggeration, ‘You don’t walk upon flowers in fact; you cannot be allowed to walk upon flowers in carpet.’ And none of this had anything to do with ‘styles’, they insisted; it was about ‘exemplifying some right principles’. Cole wrote delightedly that, ‘This room appears to excite far greater interest than many objects the high excellence of which is not generally appreciated. Everyone is led at once to investigate the ornamental principle upon which his own carpet and furniture may be decorated, and the greatest benefit to manufacturers may be looked to from the investigation.’
To rub the point in, Owen Jones added: ‘There are here no carpets worked with flowers whereon the feet would fear to tread … no superfluous and useless ornament which a caprice [or fashion] has added and which an accident might remove.’ Perish the thought.
Dickens and Jones were clearly reading the same hymn sheet. One visitor to the exhibition was in fact Charles Dickens – and he must have read and digested the catalogue notes as well. On 4 December 1852 – three months after the re-opening – he featured on the front page of his Household Words magazine a very amusing article by Henry Morley called ‘A House Full of Horrors’. And this was about one Mr Crumpet of Clump Lodge, Brixton, a quiet City banker whose visit to Marlborough House and study of the catalogue on the omnibus home convinces him of just how incorrect his own taste has been. ‘For the last five weeks I’ve been haunted by the most horrid shapes,’ he says. ‘When I come home a dozen hideous forms glare at me in the hall. My snug parlour maddens me; the walls and floor are so densely covered with the most frightful objects; the persons of my wife and daughter are surrounded by these horrors … The matter is this: I have acquired some Correct Principles of Taste. Five weeks ago, I went to … Marlborough House, to look over the museum of ornamental art … I could have cried, sir. I was ashamed of the pattern of my own trousers, for I saw a piece of them hung up there as a horror … ‘ Mr Crumpet goes to visit his old friend Mr Martin Frippy, a gentleman, at Chimborazo Lodge, Stockwell, and can’t stop himself from commenting on the horrors he encounters there – including several featured in the exhibition: loud checked trousers; a handkerchief with Sydenham New Palace on it; wallpaper with a railway-station motif; several floral chintzes; on the carpet, pictures of an ornamental gothic ceiling; a piece of calico with race-horses printed on it; convolvulus blossom on the curtain rail; a tray featuring a bit of one of Landseer’s pictures; a glass jug with a handle in the shape of a cobra.
Just as Mr Crumpet is about to distract himself with a consoling cup of tea, he notices with a cry of agony that there’s a butterfly painted inside the cup. How horrible! At that point, he has to be taken home to Brixton, a gibbering wreck. Mr Frippy has a more balanced view – rather like Mr Gradgrind after his conversion and Mr Cole in Dickens’s letter: ‘I see sense in a good deal of what you’ve said, though I think it’s just a leetle overdone … You’ve picked some wholesome views up here, but you’ve swallowed them too eagerly and you’ve choked yourself … we say in this country there’s no accounting for taste.’ The False Principles Gallery has often been mentioned in books and catalogues, but there’s never, so far as I know, been a close look at exactly what it contained. One of the problems is that none of the objects seems to have been given a museum number at the time when they were moved from Marlborough House to South Kensington in 1857. It was as if they didn’t deserve to be in the collection proper. Some have survived though, or been rediscovered, to be registered since the 1920s – and one or two are even on show in the British Galleries today. An over-ornate silver candlestick in the style of Louis XV was registered in the year 2000, 148 years after it was first exhibited in Marlborough House. With a lot of help from curators in the Museum, I’ve managed to piece together for this lecture 17 objects out of the 87 originally shown, or just under a fifth of the exhibition. So, like Mr Crumpet, or indeed like Charles Dickens, let us enter Marlborough House, catalogue in hand, and go straight to the gallery marked Decoration on False Principles. We start immediately with the first of the display boards, then exhibits 1-9 are carpets, including several with flowers directly imitated from nature – and out of scale with each other – and one featuring pierced gothic panelling on the carpet. This is the one mentioned in ‘Household Words’. Then exhibits 10-14, furnishing chintzes. Here are numbers 10, 11 and 12. No.10: direct imitation of nature, naturalistic floral designs printed on cotton, wrong shading, too much perspective. ‘The decoration of chintzes seems at present to be of the most extravagant kind, the lightness of the material will not carry such a heavy treatment. The taste is to cover the surface almost entirely with large and coarse flowers.’ False. Here’s No.11: same. Even worse, here’s No.12 – very similar to No.11, and may be part of the same exhibit – and this had been put in the Great Exhibition by one of the most popular furnishing shops in mid-Victorian London. No matter. ‘The ground which should be light in a chintz is entirely obscured by the pattern. General want of repose.’ Too dark, too dense, too real. Then exhibits 15-20 are silk hangings. Here’s No.16. Such hangings should, said the catalogue, provide a background to the furniture and occupants – like a domestic picture. The design should be subdued, not too much contrast, it should be flat and conventionalised. And there’s a quote from the sainted Pugin to reinforce this message. Then, numbers 21-36, Paper and Other Hangings. No.27, perspective representation of a railway station, as mentioned by Henry Morley, colour print from wood blocks, a design frequently repeated and falsifying the perspective. ‘The Builder’ magazine actually took issue with this kind of criticism: it had, it said, nothing against pictorial wallpapers at all, so long as they were confined to ‘the houses of the humbler classes of society’- and provided the subject-matter was educational. Unfortunately, the railway station wasn’t educational. Perhaps No.28 was: perspective representation of the Crystal Palace and Serpentine, with flights of steps and surrounding architectural framework. No, ‘same error as No.27’. So Great Exhibition souvenir wallpaper was out. Then, there were these two, which were also out, showing details of Gothic architecture piled on top of one another: this is No.31: ‘false principles – imitation of architecture’, and Number 36 – also imitation of Gothic architecture – in this case, a busy design of an arch, with figures in red firing rifles and a blue ornate surround. It’s interesting that Pugin had published and fiercely attacked this pattern of Modern Gothic Paper in his True Principles of Pointed or Christian Architecture, because this illustration from Pugin has a very strong family resemblance to both No.31 and No.36. And here’s paper hanging No.35 – this is the real coup of this lecture ladies and gentlemen – because it’s horses, water and ground floating in the air – landscapes in perspective with race-horses. When the Government Inspector in Hard Times asks the Coke Town schoolchildren ‘Would you paper a room with representations of horses?’ he must have had this very wallpaper in mind, because this was the horses wallpaper of the Marlborough House exhibition. ‘Do you ever see horses walking up and down the sides of rooms in reality – in fact?’ Well, here they are – matched up at last. And No.36a has perspective representations of architecture employed as decoration, and at the bottom, in different perspective, a battle complete with a cavalry charge. Then, Nos 37-60a, Garment Fabrics – apparently with examples of gaudy, floral or over-large designs – ‘over-ornamented with violent contrasts, not taking account of the material and folds’. For example, striped shirts or trousers where the stripes are much too big, like Mr Martin Frippy’s. Nos 61-79 are Porcelain and Glass. And here are the only illustrations to be found in the catalogue to the Chamber of Horrors, one of a Jelly Glass – the top one, No.64 – ‘the natural outline of the glass when blown completely destroyed by the surfaces being cut’, and one of a glass flower vase below – ‘the general outline entirely destroyed by the vertical cuttings’. The other items mentioned on this page include a butter dish, a wine glass, some goblets, vases, and at the bottom, a pair of scissors imitating a stork, with the body of the bird opening in half when the scissors are opened. At No. 79, we have a papier-mâ ché tray, of a kind ‘which students should carefully avoid’, because it has just about everything wrong with it. At the centre is ‘the piracy of the detail of an oil painting’ in the collection of the Duke of Devonshire. The picture is ‘thrown away’ when the tray is in use: it will be covered by what’s being served. The scroll lines don’t follow the outer form. And the glitter of the mother-of-pearl doesn’t go with the gilt border or with the painting. All in all this tray is, quote, ‘ill arranged – and creates the impression that the article is slopped in water and perforated with holes’. Henry Morley’s reference to ‘a tray with a bit of one of Landseer’s pictures on it’ – found in Mr Frippy’s Stockwell Villa – is evidently a reference to this papier-mâ ché tray, which was manufactured in Birmingham. Finally, exhibit Nos 80-87 are in the category Metalwork, a section which begins with another quotation from Pugin on ornament being applied wrongly to disguise not beautify an article of utility – extravagance used to conceal its real purpose. Such is No.80, a brass and white-glass curtain-rod holder one of a pair – in the shape of an open flower with leaves. Or No.83, this gilt-brass and glass Gas Burner. ‘Gas flaming from the petal of a convolvulus!’ says the catalogue. ‘One of a class of ornaments very popular but entirely indefensible on principle.’ (This one was very recently found by Michael Snodin, who I think is in the audience.) This was yet another example, quote, ‘of the ignorant search after the merely novel’. Or No.85, which sounds extremely bizarre – an opal liquor bottle in the shape of a pink snake. That sounds very strange. Just like Mr Frippy’s glass jug with a handle in the shape of a cobra. Or this, No.86, an earthenware Bread Plate made especially for the Great Exhibition by a firm in Stoke-on-Trent to show off the latest developments in polychrome painting and printing. It shows in realistic detail Christ and the Pharisees with the quotation round the neck from Matthew 12:57. Whatever its scriptural credentials, the catalogue said: ‘A very good example of painting applied to the decoration of pottery, but the surface being wholly covered is objectionable, and the religious picture, besides being out of place in the centre of a bread plate… the mottos are very inappropriate to the intended use.’ Maybe if they’d been about the Feeding of the Five Thousand ornament would have followed function. So, to the final exhibit, No. 87, candlestick, electroplated silver, in the style of Louis XV. ‘Observations – An example of the extreme faults of this style; symmetrical arrangement being rejected as a principle, and structured form disregarded, the whole appears the result of chance rather than design. The base is formless, confused and too heavy for the stem, which is in turn structurally broken in two places; all that is attained by this sacrifice of structural principles is the mere glitter of metal.’ Mr Crumpet – his head crammed full of all these true and false principles – didn’t actually make it into the Museum rooms proper. He just went into the curtain-raiser, he then staggers home to Brixton, exhausted and ashamed of his own trousers, resolved, when he could afford it, as he says, to send Mrs Crumpet’s best gown to the gentleman at the Museum as a particularly choice example of a horror. Now much has been made in the literature of these true and false principles, especially since Nikolaus Pevsner hailed them in the 1930s as distant prophecies of the Modern Movement in architecture and design. But the closer one looks at them, the less modern – and even consistent – they become. And I think it’s worth pausing for a moment to compare the Chamber of Horrors with Henry Cole’s own taste at this time, in so far as it can be recovered. Cole was unique among senior civil servants involved in art education – then or now – because he’d actually taken a course in watercolour under David Cox when young, and his sketches had been exhibited at the Royal Academy. We’ve seen his etching of the terrier Jim. His design work was shown from the mid-1840s onwards, under his favourite pseudonym of Felix Summerly – Felix meaning happy, Summerly meaning sunny: very Henry Cole – and his best-known piece is this inexpensive Etruscan tea set, which won silver at the second Society of Arts exhibition of manufactures. And having decided to enter the competition, to understand the deep principles of tea sets, Cole went straight to the British Museum: ‘The forms in principle are new combinations of the best Etruscan pottery, with ornaments at the handles superadded and designed so as not to interfere with the simplicity of the outlines … The Milk Pot has three lips [on the left] like some articles of Etruscan pottery.’ He then visited Herbert Minton at his pottery in Stoke-on-Trent, and with a little technical help, manufactured the set in red unglazed clay – which was how it was originally exhibited. Prince Albert immediately ordered one for use on the breakfast table at Balmoral, and Cole presented a set to the Museum, quote, ‘as a link in the circumstances leading to that Great Exhibition, which sowed the seeds of the beginning of the … Museum itself.’ This certainly isn’t an example of proto-Modernism – in retrospect it, too, is very characteristic of its time, with Greek historical references; its urge to tell a story; its showing off, though admittedly not as much as some of the pieces in the Chamber of Horrors.
But another more personal example of Henry Cole’s own tastes in the 1850s is evidenced by a fascinating series of snaps he took on 18 May 1856 of the drawing room and bedroom at Elm Cottage, his country retreat in Shere, Surrey. These photos were made in the year he purchased the very first example of the art of photography for the Museum’s collection; and they were acquired by the V& A as recently as 1987 to add to that collection. There are three photos of the drawing room – some with watercolour retouches by Cole – and one of the bedroom. The contrast between daylight and dark isn’t always successful but the glimpse of Cole’s domestic arrangements is fascinating – very rare to have photographs of domestic interiors of this kind. The interiors are filled with the clutter of pictures and ornaments – plus Cole’s carefully posed daughters: May(on the left), Tishie (in the middle), and Hennie, seated. This one of the drawing room – you can’t really see it – but the framed item on the right is a lithograph of the nave of the Crystal Palace, on the floor, a portrait of Cole in his twenties, and behind them, geometrical, flat wallpaper – which he had selected in London, with Richard Redgrave RA for moral support,on 22 February 1856. Another of the drawing room has inset fragments of stained glass in the window, and on the table a Parian ware Shakespeare; and one of the rarer products of Felix Summerly’s Art Manufactures – the ‘Bride’s Inkstand’ – in the middle. In this one Cole’s daughter Mary stands in the bedroom, with its very busy curtains, the wallpaper again, and on the left Shaker-style pegs for hanging things up. Again, not exactly proto-Modernism, although the wallpaper does indeed obey some of the Marlborough House commandments: it doesn’t imitate nature, it repeats well, and it takes account of the dimensions of the room. Two other quick examples of good principles, to give an idea of the good to set against the bad by Cole’s advisers. Richard Redgrave’s ‘Wellspring’ water carafe, 1847 – for Felix Summerly’s art manufactures: reeds on a carafe were okay; a liquor bottle in the shape of a pink snake was not. It’s a fine distinction. So ornament appropriate to function is okay. And then, two wallpapers by Pugin: this one a design of 1851; this one, 1850, for the Duke of Devonshire in Co Waterford to set against the Crystal Palace, the railway station, and all those other wallpapers. This was okay. The Chamber of Horrors finally closed in June 1853, after ten months – not after two weeks as most of the books say. [-] [but after 10 months.] According to Henry Cole, although the Chamber had proved a big public success, and certainly a talking-point around town, the manufacturers had raised an outcry. Several of the exhibits were commercially very successful, however unprincipled they might be from a design point of view. Chintzes and pictorial wallpapers then and now were particularly popular. After ten months, perhaps the exhibits looked a bit dog-eared as well. Unfortunately, there are no illustrations of what the Chamber as a whole looked like – or indeed any of the galleries – in the early part of Marlborough House’s history until around the time of the move from Marlborough House to South Kensington in 1857, some four years later. Here are three watercolours to show what Marlborough House looked like – to give you the flavour – in 1856-7. This is the second room in Marlborough House, not the Chamber of Horrors corridor which by then had gone. Another room, 1856. The sixth room, 1856-7.
So you get a sense of what the room would have looked like. By that time, the original tripartite aims of the Museum – to offer exhibitions and facilities to the benefit of design students, interested members of the manufacturing population, and the public – were beginning to fade. It is a story that has often been told. The Museum of Manufactures became the Museum of Ornamental Art and then the South Kensington Museum, which in the 19th century became less and less interested in specialised design education and contemporary design, more and more in antiquarianism and possession, until in 1880 all the modern objects were finally banished – that was the word they used – banished from the Museum to Bethnal Green – including Henry Cole’s tea set, which upset him mightily. He even thought of asking the Museum to give it back. John Charles Robinson, the great Victorian curator and scholar who founded the Medieval and Renaissance holdings of this Museum, wrote with evident pride at the end of the century – after Cole had gone: ‘There was, in truth, little of abiding value in the 1851 Exhibition residuum, and the first efforts of the new curator [him] were to suppress and eliminate a large proportion of it.’ Contemporary work – or what Robinson called ‘the fluctuating styles of the passing hour’ – were out; ‘the acknowledged canons and masterpieces of all time’ were in. The typologies that Cole, Redgrave and Jones had used in 1852 to make the exhibitions an active educational experience with explicit criteria of judgement and avoid accusations of simply accumulating treasure – something Cole was very sensitive about – had long gone. The Department of Practical Art became the Department of Science and Art in March 1853. The Schools of Design became the Art Training Schools in March of the same year. And some of the workshops and practical classes – in Textiles, Metalwork, Furniture and Painting on Porcelain as distinct from the national curriculum in elementary drawing – which had moved from Somerset House to Marlborough House, did then move to South Kensington, but within two years they had all been closed. The rhetoric of stimulating manufactures through examples of good design – old and new, copies and originals – of training members of the manufacturing population in design awareness and purchasing objects or casts to inspire the design students, the rhetoric was still used when pitching for government resources, but from the 1860s onwards it had an increasingly hollow ring to it. Cole of course kept flying the flag, but even his arguments were beginning to shift their ground. It was now more a question of education in the broader sense, improving national taste, as he put it, through visits to a treasury for public education. ‘Museums may furnish a powerful antidote to the gin palace,’ he wrote in autumn 1857, and the important thing was to arrange the exhibits ‘so clearly that they may woo even the ignorant to examine them.’ In a famous and often-quoted speech about the role of museums which he gave in Birmingham in 1874, he said: ‘Schools of art are there to instruct chiefly the young, but Museums are there to instruct both the young and the old … they are temples where all can worship in harmony; they teach good habits of order, and cleanliness and politeness … Museums are antidotes to brutality and vice.’ Here’s Cole and Redgrave photographed we think by Charles Thirston Thompson. Even though he’d moved from specific didactic instruction to general aesthetic inspiration, Cole still spoke and wrote with the High Victorian moral certainty he’d shown in the original catalogue for Marlborough House in the glory days of 1852. What he’d said then was, ‘by proper arrangements a Museum may be made in the highest degree instructional. If it be connected with lectures, and means are taken to point out its uses and applications, it becomes elevated from being a mere unintelligible lounge for idlers into an impressive schoolroom for everyone.’ He was quoted at the opening of this Centre I think. One turning-point for Cole was the London International Exhibition of 1861, which had missed its deadline and was rescheduled for 1862 – it was as if the Olympics were to happen in 2013. The Exhibition’s stated mission – to show how far British manufacturing and education had advanced since 1851 – was bound to lead to disappointment and even disenchantment with the ‘South Kensington system’ as by then it was known. And to some extent it did indeed lead to disenchantment. Ten years was much too short a time seriously to take stock. The building, south of the Royal Horticultural Society’s gardens on the Museum side of the street, was controversial, and it was written up as ugly and featureless. And the layout was far too cluttered this time, with a deep, gloomy colour scheme chosen by Henry Cole himself, unlike Owen Jones’s light primary colour-coding for the interior of the Crystal Palace in 1851. A visitor to the opening of the 1862 Exhibition described this entrance hall. The ceremony began with a stirring rendition of the Hallelujah Chorus. After that it was downhill all the way: ‘The Groves of Blarney were order and good taste in comparison – the conglomeration of organs, telescopes, light-houses, fountains, obelisks, pickles, furs, stuffs, porcelain, dolls, rocking-horses, alabasters and [a statue of] Lady Godiva which reduced the nave to a striking similitude of a traveller’s description of Hog-Lane, Canton.’ I fear that an ancestor of mine may have contributed to this chaos of sound and vision. Because one of the organs proudly exhibited in 1862 – and it won a prize – was a large mechanical orchestrion designed by my great-grandfather, Daniel Imhof, on my mother’s side. He’d emigrated from South Germany after the Revolution of 1848 and set up in New Oxford Street a shop and showroom selling clocks, barrel pianos, musical boxes, orchestrions and organs – with his business partner Leopold Mukle. Duplicates of the 1862 orchestrion were available for sale at Imhof’s Euterpeon room in Oxford Street. ‘The orchestrion,’ said the handout, ‘is capable of giving expression to the music played, with greater ease than any other instrument ever made. [All the music is arranged by Daniel Imhof himself.] Only two winding places! An abundant supply of wind! A tempo regulator! The mechanisms of the orchestrion will be found to work without the slightest noise, and is guaranteed to remain so.’ Now I’ve heard a similar model in action – and the mechanism may be quiet, but the noise it made when wound up is indescribable. It must have blasted the other exhibits to kingdom come. Anyway, the point is that by 1862 the tide was turning. [… ] One of the sternest and most consistent critics of the Marlborough House Doctrine and of ‘the South Kensington system’ was John Ruskin, a writer whose work on education Henry Cole knew well. He’d even reviewed The Seven Lamps of Architecture, saying that Ruskin should stop setting his back against the modern world and against the wider distribution of art. Well, a little later on, in reaction against the teaching by true and false principles, John Ruskin famously wrote, ‘The education of the young artists should always be a matter of the head, the heart and the hand’. Art and design must be produced by the subtlest of all machines which is the human hand. No machine yet contrived or hereafter contrivable, will ever equal the fine machinery of human fingers. The best design is that which proceeds from the heart, that which involves all the emotions – associates these with the head, yet as inferior to the heart and head, and the hand yet as inferior to the heart and head; and thus we bring out the whole person.’ The head, the hand and the heart – for me, this provides an elegant summary of the whole subsequent history of art and design education. And in some ways it’s paralleled by this Museum. First, the ‘head’ period of Victorian times, when design was thought to be a kind of language – a language with its principles, its grammars and its rules. The role of the art school was to teach the grammar rather than the usage. And to teach it through copying – endlessly copying – plaster casts, many of them of course finding their way into the Cast Court. In fact one wag in the late 19th century referred to the whole system as ‘cast-rated’. It’s easy to mock in all sorts of ways. It’s easy to mock, for example, the prudery. This is a famous photograph of the casts with a famous fig leaf covering part of Michaelangelo’s David, and what’s wonderful is that the fig leaf is still in the Museum. It’s hinged. Don’t go there.
But – so it’s easy to mock, but from an intellectual point of view, this system was a world-beater. Christopher Dresser, the world’s first industrial designer, on the principles of design and symmetry of natural forms; T H Huxley on art botany; Gottfried Semper on the formal components of style; the first design journal or style magazine in history – and so on. South Kensington was in those days the world centre for theorising design and manufacture, at the hub of a genuinely national system. Here’s one of the books in the National Art Library with the branch art schools to which it was sent. It was like the Vatican of design education. The ‘hand’ period of Edwardian times – right up to the 1930s – in reaction against the constraints of this system instead emphasised usage, or making or doing. To understand design you had first of all to understand how it was made – so, under the delayed influence of the Arts and Crafts Movement, there’d be a new emphasis on workshops and the basic craft technologies. Louis Day Belous in the collection at the V& A. W R Leatherby – the very first Professor of Design in Britain – said that the following words should be inscribed in the finest lettering over the front door of every design college: ‘No art that is only one person deep can be very good art’. This is the student summer show of 1911. The point was to belong to a tradition of designing and making, and to work from within that tradition. And to react against the shoddiness of what was available in the high street, just like their forebears, although for very different reasons. A rather mono-cultural view of religion.
Ruskin’s complaint about ‘the hand’ was that if over-emphasised, this approach could neglect the head and the heart. By the post-war period, it was often being said that this tradition wasn’t giving the students enough opportunities to express their own ideas and concepts – and it couldn’t hope to touch the realities of the modern world. Tom Heatherwick’s ‘Forest of Brands’ from Brand.New. It was one thing to half-educate students by mistake: it was quite another to half-educate them deliberately. So it was generally agreed that the education of the designer should involve much more heart – as well as head and hand – with an emphasis on ideas and education rather than techniques and training. Heart, not at all in the sense of sentimentality, but in the sense of having one’s finger on the pulse of what’s going on in contemporary culture and the creative industries. Today is in some ways an era of the convergence of all these traditions – a thoughtful attitude towards design, an understanding through experience of materials and techniques, and – for the first time ever – a sense that art and design education really is in the vanguard, a stimulus to the worlds which surround it. And there are many other convergences at work today, in the era described by David Harvey in his wonderful book The Condition of Postmodernity. He says, ‘The relatively stable aesthetic of the era of Modernism,’ -, the era of fixities and certainties – ‘has given way to all the ferment, instability and fleeting qualities of a post-modern aesthetic that celebrates difference, ephemerality, spectacle, simulation, fashion, and the commodification of all cultural forms.’ In such an era, the keynotes have to be interdisciplinarity – for much of the most interesting work emerges from the spaces between disciplines, the cracks in the floorboards – design with attitude, and providing a guide for the perplexed. The Museum, as we’ve seen, started life as a radical educational experiment. What should it make of this post-modern world, from the education point of view? Well, you need a space to exercise the head and the hand and the heart – space to think, to make art, space to be fired up. You need a space which combines areas for discussion, with workshops and visual presentation, and actually a bit like parts of Marlborough House in 1852 where there was a lecture room – it was next to some classrooms – and the technical studios, all next to each other on the second floor. Now that ‘taste’ has become a sociological concept rather than a scientific principle, you need space to think about art and identity, cultures rather than culture, why we consume the things we do. And you need a place to make work. In short, you need a space rather like this – the Sackler Centre – the largest dedicated educational centre this Museum has ever had – including Marlborough House – a centre, as the subtitle goes, for creative practice.
When I first became a professor at the Royal College of Art – a university which is in direct line of descent from the Government Schools of Design – Sir Roy Strong was kind enough to introduce my inaugural lecture.It was when I first became directly involved in the V& A, and I vividly remember one conversation I had with him around that time in 1980. Roy had said in a speech that the RCA grew from within the Victoria & Albert Museum, so we shared a common heritage. I replied that the second statement was correct, but as for the first, it was actually the other way around. The Victoria & Albert Museum started life as the visual aids department of the Government School of Design. The collection grew out of the plaster casts acquired for the students to copy; the library grew out of the texts on design intended for the students and the branch schools; the displays at Marlborough House were predominantly aimed at the students – on Wednesdays to Saturdays, anyway; and the Lecture Theatre was originally built over the then entrance to the Museum for the thousands of students in the national system; and above all, the founding mission of the Museum was an unashamedly educational mission. And Roy gladly acknowledged the point.
And of course since then the whole situation has completely changed vis-a-vis the museum and education. And I’m recalling all this not to present myself tonight as the Emperor of Arizona and lay claim to whole swathes of the Museum in the name of the College – although that would be very nice – but to finish on just how central – uniquely central – education was in the foundation of this great institution. A confession. Henry Cole, especially the Henry Cole of the 1840s and 1850s, is one of my heroes – in fact, I have the Vanity Fair picture of him above my desk in Bath when I write. I think history tends to be not very kind to people like Henry Cole.
Of course, we’ve moved on from the Chamber of Horrors – and the explicit criteria of judgement that it represented are still challenging. Of course the swing away from that sort of education has swung right back in the model world, but his belief in Albertopolis – or Coleville as I prefer to call it: not Coketown, but Coleville – the bringing together on one street of art, design and science; design and technology; fine and applied art; visual art and music; specialised students and the general public; this belief I profoundly share. And I share his conviction that the heart of this Museum lies in education, research and engagement with contemporary design side by side with, and as well as, its responsibility to the history of design and decorative art. Henry Cole used all the media available in his day to put this message over.
He was fascinated by the latest technologies – in his case, photography, electroplating, mechanical reproduction – and he had a real flair for lobbying in the right places. He was on every committee going, not because he collected committees, but because he found them a useful way of getting things done. In fact, he could be quite cynical about committees, particularly when they didn’t do what he wanted. Cole was a philosophical radical in his youth and he retained a strong social conscience throughout his career. He tended to see the glass as half-full – as in Felix Summerly. On his family holidays, he was always writing lectures and speeches and visiting museums and cultural institutions; much to the chagrin of his wife and children. He had a prodigious amount of energy. He should have been given a knighthood in 1851, inside the Crystal Palace, but he had to wait another 24 years for that – partly one suspects because he’d rubbed so many people up the wrong way on his journey, he was so forceful and argumentative and he had such a short fuse. He once referred to a lecturer at one of the branch art schools as, quote, ‘like an untamed Newfoundland dog’, which wasn’t intended as a compliment. Because he, of course, was a terrier. As Lyon Playfair – who worked closely with Cole on the Great Exhibition – said, ‘He was constantly misjudged because his modes of work were not always on the surface. If he came to an obstacle it was his delight to tunnel under it in secret and unexpectedly come out the other side.’ Or to put it another way, as another Victorian contemporary did, ‘[He had] a dogged inventive genius which knew how to turn difficulties into stepping stones to success, and to wear out stolid opposition by vivacious pertinacity.’ Which perhaps explains why Henry Cole and Jim had so much in common. I congratulate the V& A on picking up the gauntlet thrown down by Henry Cole in 1853 – 155 years ago – and for doing so in a way which is so suited to the modern world.
Christopher has talked about the hand, the mind and the heart, and I think we’ve seen and heard tonight that he’s a man of strong great mind, of great heart, and no mean artistic hand as well. [I can do dogs.] And the passion and the spirit with which he’s spoken I think has communicated itself to all of us. He’s very kindly said that he will take a few questions and I know there’s a couple of roving mics somewhere not so very far away – does anybody want to ask a question of Christopher?
Hello – can you hear me?
Right you’re now Sir Christopher Frayling, but what benefits has having a knighthood brought to your life?
[laughs] Dear oh dear – dear oh dear! In the art world nothing at all. It enables you to choose a rather nice crest with a motto but it doesn’t get you a table at the Ivy – I’ve tried. No, Henry Cole should have – in those days they had the habit of knighting people on the location of the thing they were most famous for and it would have been absolutely wonderful on the last day of the Great Exhibition I think to have knighted Henry Cole but he had to wait a very long time and he was very pleased.
One of my ambitions is one day to – I may as well put down a marker on this – is one day to re-enact the entire Chamber of Horrors in the Museum, which would be great fun. Because I think if one really really put one’s mind to it, there’s lots of stuff in the stores you know, if one really really looked for it – and then do the Chamber of Horrors 2008 and explore the whole idea of explicit criteria of judgement and how they work and how do we actually discriminate and the whole social issue – I think it would be fascinating. It would irritate everyone terribly but that would be the point – which of course was Henry Cole’s point as well. He was trailing his coat. Gentleman there. Well you can’t say that without saying what would be in your 2008 Chamber of Horrors. Do you know the first draft of this lecture had some suggestions, but then it all sounded terribly – see the trouble is that because now taste is now treated as a sociological concept – it’s about education, culture, where you’re born, what class you’re in, economic circumstance and all sorts of other things – rather than some innate quality which the Victorians tended to believe, you’re making social judgements as well as aesthetic ones. And that makes it actually very difficult. But I had simulated coal fire … I had a lot of things that were sort of generically awful, rather than specifically. You know those little buckets that you get milk in – UHT milk – where whatever you do it all goes all over your tie? But that’s more utility- that’s not so much aesthetic. To sidestep the question a bit – what’s interesting is of course how fashionable a lot of these objects are now, some of those kinds of wallpaper – some of the pictorial wallpaper, even the convolvulus gas jet. There’s an element in which there’s a kind of high design. In Postmodernism – once you get to Postmodernism where anything goes – and where the whole of culture is a culture of quotations of one kind or another, none of this makes any sense, because it’s all fair game for the designer. So it would be quite difficult but I think – if you really pressed me I could think of a few things and a bit of art as well perhaps, just to pepper it a little bit – yep. Clothes I think.
Hi, thank you. At the end of your lecture you talked about this sort of balance now being struck between the head, the hand and the heart [yes] when we think about perhaps the role of the designer. Don’t you think there’s also an argument though, that given contemporary circumstances – globalisation, climate change – that actually really [for] designers today, the heart has to be sort of at the forefront? That really one – the social context, the now and how that kind of impacts – which is what Ruskin said really in a way, in his distinctive way. Yes. I mean originally what I was going to say – I had about ten lectures in here really – but what I was going to say was that first of all each of the traditions has a contemporary correlative, that the grammars of ornament have a correlative in digital design, databases, and systematic design methods. It’s that way of approaching design where you break design down into a series of stages and it’s quite a fashionable approach in some quarters so that the head lives as it were. The hand of course in contemporary crafts, in the contribution of contemporary crafts to both art at one end of the spectrum and design at the other – the environment, low tech, those sort of considerations. The hand and the heart – yes, precisely being aware of the big issues of the day and somehow incorporating them into one’s design work. So I think Ruskin was actually right where he says nowadays physiologically we know that the brain controls the hand and also controls the heart, so you can’t actually say, ‘here’s the head, here’s the heart, here’s the hand’- but in the end the heart is the key one. And it makes the hand and the head subservient. And I think that’s probably true of teaching art. I think it’s a wonderful statement actually, it’s one of the best statements I’ve ever read of what you do when you’re teaching art. And what was so interesting was that it was in reaction against the Marlborough House doctrine because it was all head. It was all about learning grammars, learning not – never- feeling you’re grown-up enough to do it yourself, and words like ‘originality’ and ‘finding your own voice’ are completely absent, completely absent from the system. You immerse yourself in the grammar for five or six years, and then you go off into business and the assumption is that you apply design to something – a surface – you’re painting on porcelain, you’re going to work for Wedgwood, you’re painting carriage doors. That was basically the assumption. So you’ve got to learn drawing – that’s all you need to do really. So it’s interesting that what Cole did occasioned that great comment about art education. But I agree with you and the reason I finished on that is that I think he’s right. We’d express it differently, but design with attitude is what I call it really – is the thing. Christopher, did you have the opportunity to reflect on why the Chamber of Horrors was so popular in its day, despite ?… Yes, I was combing the newspapers actually in Colindale, and it was a big debate actually. I mean ‘The Times’ sort of as a curtain raiser, but that big big article – I read out that bit about that one corridor in Marlborough House – if you imagine the length of the article describing the entire contents, it’s about two and a half columns for a rather small exhibition opening. It’s fantastic the coverage that it got, and Cole of course was a born publicist, so there was an event feeling about it, and you get a sense that a lot of people went. But the trouble is that much of the evidence is from Cole. You know he writes in his first report for the Department of Science and Art – ‘it’s been fantastically popular’, ‘the manufacturers’ outcry caused us to close it’ – there’s no evidence for either of those two things really. There’s a sense that it was an event but we’ve only got Cole’s word for it. We’ve also only got Cole’s word for the fact that his tea set was a huge international success. Now, it is incredibly rare – Museum people know this – it’s very very rare to find a Cole Etruscan tea set, and why is that if it was so popular? But in his memoirs he says, ‘You know it took the world by storm and hundreds and thousands were produced’, so you have to take it with a slight pinch of salt. But I do sense from the fact that Dickens devoted so much space to it in Household Words, because the front page of Household Words was the big issue of the day – he does things about sweated labour or children going up chimneys or the big big issues – and he devotes the whole of the front two pages of Household Words to the house full of horrors, and that I think gives an idea that it was a big number actually and in Chapter 2 of ‘Hard Times’ even a year later, Dickens hasn’t got it out of his system. So curatorially what’s so interesting is that the concept was you immerse yourself in the Chamber of Horrors and then you go into the Museum proper armed with those principles, so that everything you look at is through the filter of the design principle – that was the concept. Which was quite interesting actually as a curatorial concept, So the sort of entrance gallery gives you some things to think about as you’re walking around, and Cole actually says you could take it or leave it. He doesn’t actually say it’s compulsory even, though he uses the language of religion a lot – doctrine, canons, missionaries – there’s a lot of biblical language and it’s very kind of high-flown. But my sense is that it was an event but it was impossible to discover whether there were crowds or not – and it’s only a small corridor if you look at the map – so there wasn’t room for that many people. But if Dickens only dealt with the key issues of the day in ‘Household Words’ then that is evidence I think that it was a big number. And closed a few months later. And it is a surprise that it closed because you certainly don’t get from the papers that everyone hates it. So when Cole says ‘the manufacturers… there was an outcry’ as far as I can see that’s not in the papers – they just decided to close it. So I don’t quite know but do you think it would be fun to re-enact the Chamber of Horrors? It would be quite – but there’s other things you see – what the bits missing are – clothes. You know there’s papers – the ones I showed you – I think these are the only – I may be wrong but I think that this is the sum total of the known exhibits from the Chamber of Horrors. And the thing that thrills me the most about the research I did for this is finding the horses actually, because I mean to actually have that in your mind when you read Hard Times is extraordinary actually, I think it’s great. But there aren’t any clothes. And there aren’t that many 3-D objects – the convolvulus and the candlestick – and I’d love to find the liquor jar in the shape of a pink snake – that must be somewhere. I’m sure they’re here because I don’t think people throw things away do they? I mean it’s there, it’s in Blythe Road – a tiny , a little liquor jar, pink I don’t know. It would be fun to have a good look actually, but as you can see of course the wallpapers are in not very good condition, I mean they’re fading fast which is a shame – they’re all framed now in their own microclimate to protect them – but it’s a race against time with some of the things but I think it would be fun. Whether it would be popular – I think it would be controversial and interesting – yeah. And the other thing that occurred to me, which I was going to talk about but didn’t, is the complete obsession at the moment in the public sector with targets and being explicit about what you’re doing when you do things, whether it’s about visitors or exhibitions or in the Arts Council and so on. And of course Cole is an absolute example of that – that the Chamber of Horrors is the ultimate in targetology, in actually boiling the experience of art to eight key principles and you tick them off, and in a way targetology begins here, which I thought was quite interesting, but I thought ‘no, I haven’t got room for that’. Yeah, sorry.
Last question if we could then.
Your lecture tonight actually throws new light for me on Ruskin’s reaction to Wyatt’s sculpture of Bashaw the Northumberland Dog in the primary galleries, because Ruskin particularly hated that sculpture which he called ‘Number One’ at the South Kensington Museum. And it strikes me, do you think that what Ruskin was really thinking was that that rather beautiful dog was actually Henry Cole and he was commenting upon him? He could well have been – that could have been a very nice addition to the lecture actually in my sort of dog theme – but yeah, because he does wax eloquent about it doesn’t he, surprisingly angry about it. I wonder whether you know Cole’s corporate image was Jim and therefore you know there’s a coded thing at the time of getting at dogs. I don’t know, but Ruskin harried the Museum didn’t he and the National Art Training School from all directions really and felt it was reductive and not the opposite of life enhancing but it was closing down options rather than opening them up, so you know you could – no one’s ever done it – but you could do a really interesting anthology of Ruskin’s comments on South Kensington, to see how he moved in his attitude perhaps. But the dog is a very good reference.
I’m sure there are more questions actually but I think probably we need to draw this to a close now.
When we were first planning the first Henry Cole Lecture we did think hard about who should speak, and it did occur to borrow from Prince Albert and think ‘We need fizz get Chris’ – and we’ve certainly had the fizz in this. This lecture has evidently been a labour of love for Chris, and I have to say that knowing of his passion for Henry Cole I really very much wanted him to be the person who would inaugurate the series, and in some ways provide the kind of intellectual baptism for the Sackler Centre as well, which I think he’s done very ably. I also knew that he’d be desperately busy but that in all honesty he couldn’t resist doing this and it was perhaps a little bit mean of me to know that and still ask him – but he couldn’t resist and I’m really glad that he couldn’t too. But grateful also that he’s given such a lot of time and energy to preparing for the talk tonight. I have a funny feeling that this is not the end of the story of the Chamber of Horrors somehow but we’ll have to wait and see. It’s been an academic tour de force. It’s a compelling argument that he’s put forward for the public role of public institutions, and at the same time a wonderfully entertaining story, and that’s a combination I think almost only Christopher could really pull off. And I hope he won’t mind if I say that it felt a little bit tonight as if something of the spirit of Henry Cole has been in him. Not all the bits of Henry Cole, because he wouldn’t want them all I shouldn’t think, and you wouldn’t want too many spirits in him either, but nevertheless, just perhaps for tonight, and just on this particular occasion, he will allow that Henry Cole has been here a little bit with us too, and for that I think we have very much Christopher to thank.
So would you join with me please in showing him that appreciation.