Political, economic, social and cultural determinants in the history of early to mid-nineteenth century art and design education in Britain.
The history of public art and design education in Britain is known principally through the
publication of five books. They are Quentin Bell's The Schools of Design (1963), Gordon Sutton's
Artisan or Artist?(1967), Richard Carline's Draw they Must(1968), Stuart MacDonald's The History
and Philosophy of Art Education(1970), and Clive Ashwin's Art Education: documents and policies
1768-1975(1975). All of these texts offer a substantially corroborative account which suggests that
in the early nineteenth century, Britain experienced economic problems (particularly in the textile
industry) caused by superior French design adversely affecting consumer demand for British
products. The 1835/6 Select Committee on Arts and Manufactures was established in response to
this concern. The outcome of its deliberations was that a school of design was opened in London in
1837 to train artisans in design. In brief, this is the 'dominant', history of nineteenth century art and
design education in Britain whose orthodoxy is now frequently quoted in a variety of arenas.
More recently an alternative interpretation has been proposed by Peter Cunningham. In his largely
unacknowledged PhD research (1979) he suggests a stronger argument for the origin of the schools
of design is to be found elsewhere. Cunningham claims that during the late eighteenth and early
nineteenth century there was an increasingly audible philanthropic or civic public voice calling
for a recognition of the benefits to be derived from art. He suggests that the motivation for schools
of design, ostensibly for the artisan, was thus actually to create schools of art for the middle classes.
This thesis challenges both positions, arguing that their polarity disguises the complexity of this
history. Following a review of the historiography of nineteenth century art and design education in
Britain, it examines the relationship of the historical methodologies used by the 'dominant'
historians, and Cunningham, in relation to the limitations of their conclusions, and sets out a
model for revised readings of the subject.
Through a close analysis of the 1835/6 Select Committee on Arts and Manufactures (for the first
time given extended consideration here) it seeks to explore the underlying issues that gave rise to the
schools of design. It examines the personnel of the Committee and the witnesses and seeks to
contextualize their attitudes. The public response to this Committee, through newspapers and
journals, is also considered. The economic argument of the 'dominant' history is challenged
showing that such a rationale for the schools of design is flawed. Then, two key questions are posed -
Who were the schools of design for? and What were they for? In relation to the first question, the
language of early to mid-nineteenth century social class used in this Committee is explored, paying
particular attention to the 'labouring class', 'artisan' and 'middle class' definitions. In relation to
the second, the importance of 'taste' in the early to mid-nineteenth century is considered, and its
connection to art and design education. The conjoining of 'taste', fashion, consumerism and the
growth of capitalism in relation to art and design education is discussed, as is 'taste' in relation to
social conditioning. An interrelationship of these elements is proposed.
The thesis presents a more 'thickly textured' history of early to mid-nineteenth century art and
design education than has previously been offered, with the objective of fostering a pluralist
approach in future research.