Open daily 10.00 to 17.45 Admission free Menu

The Silvern Series: Photographs from the collections of the South Kensington Museum

Zoe Hendon

Head of Museum Collections, Museum of Domestic Design and Architecture (MoDA), Middlesex University


Figure 1 - Design for wallpaper, Silver Studio, 1890 (SD8791A). Museum of Domestic Design & Architecture

Figure 1 - Design for wallpaper, Silver Studio, 1890 (SD8791A). Museum of Domestic Design & Architecture

This article will look at the Silvern Series, a set of photographs of items from the South Kensington Museum’s collections. The Series was created and published by Arthur Silver in 1889 and was intended as a source of inspiration for textile manufacturers. Arthur Silver was a commercial pattern designer who founded his own design company (the Silver Studio) in 1880. The Silver Studio was a key producer of designs for wallpapers and textiles for manufacturers and retailers around Britain and abroad, from 1880 until the 1960s.

The production of a set of photographs of items in a museum collection seems like an unlikely enterprise for someone concerned with establishing a role as a professional designer. However, this article argues that Silver’s use of the collections was consistent with his understanding of the educational purpose of the South Kensington Museum, and also with his own efforts to produce designs which were both artistically successful and commercially viable. This article draws on evidence from the Silver Studio Collection, now part of the Museum of Domestic Design & Architecture, Middlesex University. (1)

Relatively little has been written about the late Victorian pattern designer, Arthur Silver. (2) He was a contemporary of William Morris and Christopher Dresser and it is certain that he knew both since he moved in similar circles. (3) He exhibited at every Arts and Crafts exhibition between 1889 and 1896, and wrote a number of articles about design. (4) However, while Silver was a successful designer of patterns for wallpapers and textiles, it seems he saw himself in entirely different terms to either Morris or Dresser. He was not concerned with the ways in which society might be improved through design, unlike Morris; and while he was similar to Dresser in his acceptance of machine production, he was not interested in formulating ‘principles’ of design. (5) He was adept at producing designs in the various historicist styles which were popular with the growing market of prosperous middle-class consumers and he appears to have thought of his role, as a designer, to be simply to supply what his customers wanted and to do this to the best of his ability. (6)

This article attempts to locate Arthur Silver within his context as a pattern designer in the last decades of the nineteenth- century, through an exploration of a particular project; his publication in 1889 of a set of photographs of items from the South Kensington Museum, known as the Silvern Series. The publication of this set of photographs was one of the few times in Silver’s career when he took the opportunity to record his thoughts on design, rather than simply being a practitioner. Thus the Silvern Series sheds light on both his perception of his own role as a designer, and on the South Kensington Museum itself. Silver’s argument for the Silvern Series lay solely in its practical use for manufacturers. It is clear that he saw himself as a practical man rather than a theorist; in his view the only test of a ‘good’ design was whether it satisfied the needs of his customers.

The Silver Studio was a commercial design practice, which enjoyed success for a long period, producing more than 20,000 schemes for furnishing fabrics and wallpapers - and to a lesser extent tablecloths, rugs and carpets - between 1880 and 1963. The Studio’s customers were retailers and manufacturers of wallpapers and textiles at all levels of the market, both in Britain and abroad. Surviving records for the 1890s indicate that designs for wallpapers were sold to Essex & Co, Jeffrey & Co, Sanderson and Wylie & Lochhead, amongst others. Clients for printed textile designs included Stead McAlpin and G.P. & J.Baker, as well as Liberty & Co., and designs for woven textiles were sold to a number of companies including the French firms Leborgne and Vanoutryve et Cie. (7)

Arthur Silver was clearly a reasonably successful pattern designer, able to earn a good living for himself and his family, yet he seems to have occupied a slightly marginal role on the edge of late nineteenth-century design circles. (8) This is partly because in one sense he does not leave the historian much to go on, regarding himself first and foremost as a practical designer, rather than a polemicist or self-publicist. He was not an avid writer of letters or diaries, nor was he the sort of person to have been the subject of much comment by other people. (9) And yet, paradoxically, he left a great deal of material: after his death in 1896 the work of the Studio was continued by his eldest son Rex until the early 1960s, and a quirk of history means that the entire contents of the Studio survive, given in their entirety to the Hornsey College of Art. (10) The collection consists of around 40,000 of the Silver Studio’s original designs on paper, plus textile and wallpaper samples, books, reference materials, photographs and negatives. The collection also includes sales records and business correspondence detailing the often arduous process of producing designs to satisfy the rigorous requirements of mass manufacture. (11) Thus, Arthur Silver is both undeniably present within the historic record, and yet simultaneously frustratingly absent from it. (12)

Born in 1853, in Reading, Arthur Silver was a product of the, ‘South Kensington System’, having trained at the Reading School of Art between 1870 and 1873. Reading was one of over two hundred provincial Schools of Design that opened in England between 1842 and 1884, and which all followed the same uniform syllabus established by Henry Cole in 1852. Silver received Second Grade certificates for, ‘vegetable anatomy and physiology’, geometry, free-hand drawing, linear perspective and model drawing, all awarded by the ‘Science and Art Department of the Committee of Council on Education’. (13) Silver’s education places him at the heart of mid-nineteenth century debate on the appropriate education for designers, the relationship of art to industry and the perceived requirement to improve the ‘taste’ of both the producers and consumers of manufactured goods; as well as the role of museums in achieving this. (14)

Silver chose objects from the South Kensington Museum’s collections and published photographic reproductions of them as inspiration for manufacturers. We can read the Silvern Series as Silver’s contribution to contemporary debates about standards of design of manufactured objects and the role of museums in influencing this. He intended that manufacturers would either buy a whole set of photographs to use as the basis of future design work, or that they would choose key designs and commission him to develop them into a format ready for the factory. The Silvern Series can be seen as Silver’s attempt to mediate the Museum’s collections for the benefit of textile and wallpaper manufacturers and their ultimate customers, the buying public.

The role of the Silver Studio

In the early part of the nineteenth century, the industrialisation of the textile industry created more demand for designs, and more demand for people employed as designers. Around five hundred people were employed as designers of printed cottons in Manchester alone by 1841. (15) Similarly, the Glasgow firm of Inglis and Wakefield employed two in-house designers in London, several at their Glasgow factory, and six more ‘out-of-house’ designers in Glasgow. (16) Thus industrialisation increased the demand for ‘art-labor’ as more workers required an understanding of the whole process of design, even as they became more specialised in their own distinct trades. (17) The division of labour in the factory system meant, for example, that separate people were required to transpose the design to the appropriate scale; to transfer the pattern to the metal roller; to engrave the roller; and to mix the colours for printing. Manufacturers of wallpapers and textiles frequently bought from freelance designers, or from companies like the Silver Studio, as well as employing people directly. Designs, such as those purchased from the Silver Studio, were just the first stage in this complex chain, representing one small element in the process from drawing board to finished product. (18)

Arthur Silver: professional designer

The majority of designers producing designs for the mass market (both those working for the Silver Studio and elsewhere) were anonymous at the time and have remained unrecognized ever since. (19) In the 1880s and ‘90s a number of wallpaper manufacturers commissioned designs from artists or architects as a way of adding value to their products, mainly at the upper end of the market. For example, Metford Warner of Jeffrey & Co. commissioned designs by such well known names as Walter Crane, E.W. Godwin and Bruce Talbert. (20) However, to employ artists (rather than designers) was a commercial risk for manufacturers, since artists were not always familiar with the demands of commercial production, meaning that costly re-workings of their designs were sometimes necessary. In other words, if it was assumed that machine production had removed the need for skilled artistic labour, it was easy to underestimate the considerable skill (manipulation of scale, proportion, colour, etc.) required in preparing really workable designs for industrial production. Walter Crane was one artist who was particularly reluctant to compromise his artistic will in order to meet the requirements of commissions for Jeffrey & Co., so that he submitted unfinished artwork, or work that was not at all what had been expected. ‘Given these difficulties, it was a great advantage to manufacturers aspiring to produce artistically progressive papers to be able to call on the sophisticated professionalism of the Silver Studio …’ (21)

For Arthur Silver, the design of wallpapers and textiles was not about personal artistic expression. He was interviewed for an article in The Studio magazine, in 1894, in which he argued:

whatever his personal taste, a manufacturer cannot afford to go on producing unsaleable goods. The problem we must endeavour to solve, is to supply manufacturers with saleable popular designs that, even in the lowest class, do not offend the canons of artistic propriety, and in some cases are (if I may say so) as good as any effort can make them. (22)

This meant paying close attention to the requirements of Studio’s immediate customers, the manufacturers, and to theirultimate customers, the furnishing-buying public. Manufacturers wanted designs which would satisfy popular tastes and translate economically to industrial production. Arthur Silver clearly possessed a good understanding of the cost implications of each element of design for various products. For example, when designing silk damasks, he recommended that:

The scale of the design must in width be the whole or a divisor of 21in., 31 ¾ in., or 63in. Its height is practically immaterial, but it should be kept within reasonable limits. When the height exceeds the width more graceful designs are generally produced, because you avoid “squareness” in your work, yet it must be borne in mind that the more extravagance you permit yourself in the design, the greater the cost of production, therefore if you require a long length for your repeat, you must be assured that the advantage gained is worth the cost. (23)

This understanding of the relationship between technical and aesthetic considerations when designing for machine production was to be one of the selling points of the Silvern Series.

Although a competent designer himself, Silver did not trade exclusively on his own talents, but rather saw advantages in pooling the skills of several designers.

When I found, as every successful designer must needs discover sooner or later, that one pair of hands could not execute the orders which fell to my share, I attempted to bring together a body of men and establish a studio which would be capable of supplying designs for the whole field of fabrics and other materials used in the decoration of the house. (24)

He recognised that one designer might be skilled in draughtsmanship, while another might excel at colour. Thus their shared talents meant both shared creativity and greater efficiency, since unworkable ideas were more likely to be spotted before being offered to manufacturers:

When all designs are criticised and studied by not merely the head of the studio, but others who are technically expert in their various specialities, there is less chance of unpractical details creeping in. (25)

In the same article, Silver objected to the phrase ‘commercial design’, as he regarded this as meaning drawing to order, purely at the manufacturer’s command. He claimed himself to be more comfortable with the phrase ‘practical design’, because it suggested the development of designs suitable to be translated easily into a range of fabrics for home furnishing. This emphasis on the practical is key to his selection of images for the Silvern Series.

Business records for the Silver Studio between 1880 and 1891 have not survived. However, from the Studio’s daybooks (similar to sales ledgers) for 1891-98, it is possible to see that by 1891 the Studio was selling around three hundred designs per year. It was dealing with over forty customers, ranging from those who bought only a handful of designs per year to those who bought considerably more. Brintons, the carpet company, bought only one design from the Silver Studio in 1891 while Essex & Co and Liberty & Co bought ten designs each. (26)

The South Kensington Museum

Within the context of rapid changes in both the production and the consumption of consumer goods such as wallpapers and textiles the question of how workers should be educated about ‘art’ and ‘taste’ became important sites of negotiation. The country’s requirement for an artistically competent workforce was exactly what had prompted the establishment of the Schools of Design in 1837. This in turn had developed into the South Kensington Museum which opened in 1856. However, whereas the initial impetus for design reform had been the perceived need to improve supply-side (that is, to improve the ability of workers to design better products), the opening of the Museum saw a shift towards an emphasis on demand-side intervention, or the improvement of consumer tastes. (27) This was demonstrated, in the 1850s and 60s, by the Museum’s focus on collecting medieval and Renaissance art, which it was hoped would both elevate the spirits and improve the tastes of the visiting public. By the late 1880s, a large number of medieval and Renaissance objects had been acquired through the efforts of the curator J.C. Robinson. The Museum purchased several notable collections, such as the Bandinel, Gherardini, Bernal and Soulages Collections, and an important group of medieval church textiles acquired from Franz Bock in 1864. (28)

The South Kensington Museum was particularly forward-thinking in its approach to photography, and the photography of works of art was seen as one of the important applications of the new process. (29) Henry Cole was an enthusiastic supporter of the medium, and his acquisition of photographic images for the Museum’s collections can be divided into four main strands: he insisted on the photographic documentation of the Museum’s permanent collections, temporary exhibitions and the Museum building itself; he commissioned and purchased photographs representing the new medium as an art form; he supported dedicated campaigns of photography abroad; and he encouraged the photography of works of art from the Museum’s collections for the purpose of study by artists. (30) The creation of photographs was part of a wider ‘reproductive continuum’, by which the Museum created copies (plaster casts of sculpture, electrotypes, architectural models, watercolour copies of medieval stained glass) as a means of making the collections available to visitors. (31)

By 1878, the South Kensington Museum held a collection of around 50,000 photographs, and was actively displaying and disseminating them via sale, circulation and loan. (32) Within this context, it might be thought that there would have been little need for Silver to undertake the work of publishing photographs of the collections himself, given the Museum’s own prodigious output. However, an examination of the lists of photographs published by the Museum by 1889, (the year of the publication of Silver’s Silvern Series) reveals that very little attention had been paid to the textile collections by that point. Instead, in line with the Museum’s acquisition policy more generally, the focus of the photographic collections seems to have been images of old master paintings and sculpture. (33) The Museum was actively acquiring textiles, but the creation of photographic copies of them for study by students, artists or the general public seems not to have been accorded a high priority. (34) An extensive catalogue published in 1870 contained only a handful of illustrations. (35) Publications such as Ancient Needlepoint and Pillow Lace by Henry Cole’s son, Alan S. Cole contained relatively few examples (including several from private collections rather than the Museum itself), and by no means showed the extent of the whole collection. (36) Indeed, it appears that textiles did not specifically appear in a, ‘classified list’ of photographs of items from the South Kensington Museum until 1901. (37) In which case, it is perhaps less surprising that a designer working outside of the Museum should have attempted to make visible those parts of the collection which he regarded as most useful to modern manufacture.

However, though the South Kensington Museum may have been slow in bringing the textiles within its collections to a wider public through photographic reproductions, the same seems not to have been the case for other similar institutions. The Dresden Museum of Decorative Arts had opened in 1876 as an institution dedicated to training and further education, with the goal of raising standards in manufactured goods. (38) The Silver Studio Collection includes three catalogues of textiles from the Dresden Museum, the first of which was published in 1889, the same year as the Silvern Series. (39) These volumes feature photographic images of hundreds of textiles from the Dresden collections. Though we cannot be sure that this was a direct influence on Silver, their existence among his reference books means that it is possible that they prompted him to consider producing something similar himself, based on the collections of the South Kensington Museum.

Whether or not Silver borrowed the idea from Dresden, it is clear that he believed that the South Kensington Museum’s role was the education of producers of manufactured goods; thereby improving the goods available to the majority of customers. (40) Like Cole and others, Silver believed that manufacturers could benefit from the close study of museum objects, even if only in reproduction. However, his emphasis was on learning from textiles themselves rather than on absorbing the perhaps more elusive attribute of ‘taste’, which the Museum hoped visitors could acquire through contemplation of medieval and Renaissance art. He understood that for the majority the effort required in working out exactly which of the South Kensington Museum’s objects to look at was simply too great. In addition, for those based outside London, the effort of getting to the Museum was an even greater barrier to its use. As he noted:

It has oftened (sic) been noticed with regret, that in spite of every effort on the part of the authorities to bring the treasures under their care to the notice of manufacturers; the practical use was restricted by the impossibility of placing the actual material in the hands of those who wished to reproduce it. (41)

The Silvern Series was his attempt to make the Museum’s collections as useful as possible to his customers, who were designers and manufacturers. It is revealing to contrast William Morris’s approach to the South Kensington Museum. It is well known for example, that Morris made extensive use of the historic textile collections at South Kensington, and that some of his designs were directly inspired by them. (42) Morris was on the Museum’s Purchasing Committee, and made recommendations about the acquisition of a number of important pieces. By the late 1880s, the Museum contained a number of large and impressive tapestries, particularly those recommended by Morris, which were considered to be some of the finest examples in the world. The omission of this kind of material from the Silvern Series is, perhaps, at the heart of the difference between Silver’s relationship with the South Kensington Museum and that of other designers of whom Morris is the most obvious example.

Arguably, Silver was not interested in including large scale tapestries in the Silvern Series because he knew they would not translate well to mass production, and would be of little interest to his audience. This was not philistinism, but an interest in sharing the more general educational potential of the Museum with his clients, mainly mass market textile manufacturers. In contrast, Morris admitted that his motivation for contributing to the development of the Museum was largely self-interest, ‘They talk of building museums for the public, but the South Kensington Museum was really got together for about six people – I am one, and another is a comrade [Philip Webb] in the room’. (43) Morris found immense personal pleasure and inspiration in the Museum’s collections, and undoubtedly learnt much from them that he was able to apply to his own designs. But he was simply less interested in the practical application of this kind of learning to the challenges of mass production, and less concerned with sharing the collections for the wider benefit.

The Silvern Series

Figure 2 - Design for Silvern Series label, 1889 (SE484). Museum of Domestic Design & Architecture

Figure 2 - Design for Silvern Series label, 1889 (SE484). Museum of Domestic Design & Architecture

The Silvern Series is a set of over six hundred photographic images of items ‘carefully selected’ from the South Kensington Museum’s collections by Arthur Silver. The intended customers were manufacturers of textiles and wallpapers, mainly those who were already known to the Studio as clients. The Series survives today in two formats: as a leather-bound album and as individual images. The album contains photographs of approximately three and a quarter by four and one eighths of an inch (equivalent to photographic quarter plates). These were pasted into the album by hand, usually twelve per page, and numbered according to the Studio’s own system. (44) It seems likely this was the Studio’s own reference set, and that the versions intended for customers were the large-format photographs mounted on card, each approximately twenty eight and a half by twenty five inches. A contemporary newspaper observed:

By special permission of the ruling powers Mr Silver has selected the most suitable objects for reproduction in modern commerce. From these he has produced, by aid of photography, full-size working designs, made to the exact sizes commercially required by the exigencies of looms, blocks, and other mechanical restrictions. These practical designs are to be sold to manufacturers, who can then reproduce the original work as accurately as if they had the actual samples before them. (45)

This extract seems to suggest that Silver intended his photographs to be used as direct templates for new products, rather than as inspiration. (46) Silver Studio Daybooks for 1891 show that a whole set of Silvern Series images was purchased by Tomkinson & Adam (carpet manufacturers) for £25, and another two volume set by Templeton (also a carpet manufacturer) for £10. In 1892, two sets were sold to Barbour and Co. and F. Beck & Co. for £25 and £30 respectively. Alternatively, a customer might choose just one image which they would ask the Studio to develop into a workable design. For example, a company called Walters of Holborn paid three pounds three shillings in June 1891 for a sketch design based on ‘SKM image number C190’. Similarly, in October 1891, three of the Studio’s regular customers, Simpson &Godlee, Jamieson Darvel and Essex & Co., each bought designs based on South Kensington photographs. In practice, then, manufacturers did not go for a straight copy of a Museum object, but did indeed request a design ‘based on’ the original. For example, Silvern Series photograph no C241 is of a tile panel, but it was the basis of a design for a textile, clearly re-worked, (Studio No. 1129) sold to Simpson & Godlee in October 1891. Interestingly, there does not seem to have been a price difference for this work compared to the development of a design from scratch; Jamieson Darvel paid the same price (two pounds, ten shillings) for a design for a Madras muslin simply listed in the Daybook as ‘iris’ (in other words, an original Silver Studio design), as for one based on ‘Number 247’ from the Silvern Series. (47)

The Silvern Series and photographic processes

It is worth considering what gave Silver the means of achieving this set of photographic reproductions. One crucial aspect of Arthur Silver’s business was his early adoption of photographic recording techniques. Silver’s business requirement for a cheap and effective way of recording his Studio’s output coincided fortuitously with the invention of the dry plate negative. Until the 1860s, the ‘wet collodion’ process required each photographic plate to be prepared immediately before exposure, thus necessitating the photographer to work within a darkroom tent, and carry other cumbersome paraphernalia. The development of photographic glass plates with an emulsion of dried gelatin was a step forward, since plates could be prepared in advance and used when required. The process of coating with a gelatin emulsion could be achieved more efficiently and cheaply on a large scale than an individual photographer could by hand, and by 1880 the process of preparing plates with a gelatin emulsion was mechanised. (48)

The technical advantages offered by dry plate glass negatives for the Silver Studio were severalfold. Mechanised production meant that glass negatives became much cheaper and the photographic process much easier. Unlike earlier photographic methods (such as wet collodion plates), dry plates could be stored easily and required less exposure to light. They absorbed light quickly enough to mean relatively short exposure times, an advantage when photographing mainly indoors. Short exposure times also made it possible to use a hand-held camera, making the whole process more portable. (49) For these reasons, photography became a viable option for the Silver Studio as a means of recording their own design output, relatively quickly and cheaply, and they employed their own photographer from around the late 1880s. (50)

It is interesting to compare William Morris’s use of photography with that of the Silver Studio. Morris seems to have used photography as a tool during the process of design, but to have been less concerned with photography as a means of recording his output. For example, original drawings for Morris’s tapestries were enlarged photographically, and used to trace the outlines of the design on to the warp threads. (51) This photography work was carried out by the firm of Walker &Boutall, which had been founded by Morris’s friend and associate, Emery Walker, whose studio was conveniently close to Morris’s home in Hammersmith. Similarly, when designing for the Kelmscott Press, Walker photographed and enlarged numerous pages from fifteenth-century books to aid Morris in designing his own ‘Golden’ typeface; the letters were designed on a large scale, re-photographed and reduced to actual size until Morris was happy with their proportions. (52)

For Silver, photography was much more about accurate business records than about design process. All designs produced by the Silver Studio were given a ‘Studio Number’ and were photographed; small versions of these images were pasted into an album and cross referenced to sales records. It is important to remember that once a design for a wallpaper or textile produced by the Silver Studio was purchased by the customer, the design left the premises. A design generally consisted of a single sheet of paper, with the pattern created in pencil, watercolour or gouache, with indications of both the number of colours required, and how it would work in repeat. Once sold, it would be sent to the factory to be worked into technical drawings for the use of roller engravers or loom setters. (53) Without accurate visual records, it would have been impossible for the Studio to remember which client had seen or bought which designs, and impossible to show a potential client successful designs that had already been sold to someone else. The Studio therefore employed a photographer to record their work, both for their own reference and as a kind of portfolio to show other people.

Figure 3 - Woven silk, Turkey, around 1550-1600.Museum no. 1356A-1887. Reproduced by Arthur Silver as part of the Silvern Series, image no. 37

Figure 3 - Woven silk, Turkey, around 1550-1600.Museum no. 1356A-1887. Reproduced by Arthur Silver as part of the Silvern Series, image no. 37

The majority of images in the Silvern Series are examples of flat pattern, mainly textiles, with a few tile panels and embossed leathers. There are only a handful of three dimensional items (such as a tall Persian vase). The Series contains many examples of woven silk brocades and damasks such as ‘number 37’ (fig. 3), which were mainly French, Italian and Turkish in origin. ‘Silvern Series number 38’ depicted a Turkish silk brocade based on ogee patterns, and also featuring pomegranate motifs. (54) There are numerous examples of lace panels, embroidered hangings, and Persian tile panels. Silver included a good selection of eighteenth-century French brocades, and a number of Spanish or Dutch embossed leathers (for example, 474-1869). His selection included a number of Italian velvets; not only the magnificent palmate designs used for altar hangings, but the more everyday textiles probably originally intended for garments. These small fragments of Italian velvets feature small sprig motifs, often set within a grid. These are not ‘show-stopping’ objects, but instead are examples of more ‘everyday’ designs with a more general application to modern manufactured goods.

At first glance Silver’s selection is not dissimilar to the textiles depicted in the Dresden volumes. But whereas the Dresden Museum selection appears to have been a showcase for the best examples then in its collections, Silver seems not to have been interested in some of the most sumptuous examples known to have been held at South Kensington at that point. As has been mentioned, he was not concerned with large-scale items such as tapestries, presumably because he regarded them as unrealistic within the context of commercial reproduction. He also concentrated on items that featured repeating patterns, rather than figurative motifs. He was not attempting a comprehensive catalogue of the collections but instead saw the value of items in visual and technical terms. A fragment of Coptic textile, a small piece of velvet (910-1877) or the cuff of a linen tunic (917-1886) were of equal interest and value for him, because of what he understood as their application to modern manufacture.

Figure 4 - Silvern Series No. 185, 1889. Museum no. 5662-1859 (SE535). Museum of Domestic Design & Architecture

Figure 4 - Silvern Series No. 185, 1889. Museum no. 5662-1859 (SE535). Museum of Domestic Design & Architecture

Figure 5 - Brocaded silk, about 1600-1629. Museum no. 1752-1888. Reproduced by Arthur Silver as part of the Silvern Series, image no. 60

Figure 5 - Brocaded silk, about 1600-1629. Museum no. 1752-1888. Reproduced by Arthur Silver as part of the Silvern Series, image no. 60

Arthur Silver’s assertion was that since he himself had a thorough understanding of industrial production techniques, he had been able to make an informed - and therefore more valuable – choice from the Museum’s collections. The historical information associated with an object seems to have been less important than his modern-day understanding of its relevance to manufacturers. (55) His own expertise therefore formed an important element of the appeal of the Silvern Series for its potential customers:

Those who have experience in designing for the trade, know well how hard it is to obtain an old design adapted to modern use. Either it is unworkable, or the spirit of the whole thing has escaped in the translation.

Mr Silver, an expert in the art of design, has selected the finest examples from South Kensington Museum, with the double purpose of beauty and fitness… The selection having been made by one in touch with the manufacturers of today, and a professional designer who is well aware of the movements in public taste, as well as familiar with the mechanical requirements of the factory, has resulted in a series that would satisfy the most artistic critic and yet be likely to prove commercially profitable. (56)

Silver’s claim to have selected the ‘finest examples’ may appear a little at odds with the comments above. But it seems he believed he had made the best selection for his purpose, namely, to show a range of repeating patterns, and to advertise his own potential skill in unlocking their potential for modern manufacture.

Furthermore, in making the case for the Silvern Series, Silver placed much emphasis on the fact that these were photographic images, not mere artist’s sketches. For him, this was not simply ‘visual inspiration’ in the sense of getting an idea of shapes or trends. Instead, it was much closer to the idea that examination of the detail of a woven textile, for example, could enable the viewer to develop a better understanding of the methods of its manufacture. As he argued:

That these designs, convey absolutely the effect of the completed work, and yet show every necessary detail for their reproduction in a way no mere design is able to accomplish. For in ordinary working drawings, the finished effect exists only in the mind of the artist, who is forced to subordinate the imitation of texture and surface to show clearly the various mechanical steps in the manufacture. In these the unswerving truth of the camera displays not only how such effect is to be obtained, but what it is when completed. (57)

Silver’s assertion of the importance of the detail of the photographic image accords with his insistence that a designer required a good understanding of industrial production methods. For Silver, a successful design was not simply a pleasing surface pattern, but was one which demonstrated a thorough understanding of the techniques of production which would bring it to life. The ability to see the warp and weft of a textile, for example, was important to truly understand it, and without this a designer could not produce a workable – that is, a genuinely profitable – design.

Silver’s choices are significant because they demonstrate his commitment to the South Kensington Museum as an educational resource first and foremost. He believed that these objects had something to teach his audience, therefore he included them. He was not constrained by a compulsion to include only the ‘best’ items, by the sense that he should illustrate ‘the canon’, or by a connoisseur’s understanding of the objects of his choice. The Silvern Series represents an attempt to mediate the South Kensington Museum collections for a particular audience, and at a particular moment in the history of the institution. The interview in The Studio magazine saw him grappling with the conundrum of how to improve public taste through designed goods which appealed to a mass market. As he put it, ‘One must face the problem boldly, which is to supply saleable designs of artistic merit’. (58) More specifically, the challenge was to produce designs which satisfied consumers while not laying oneself open to the charge that if something sold in large quantities it must by definition be ‘bad design’.

The Silvern Series was intended as more than simply a design ‘sourcebook’. We can surmise that Silver hoped the Series might act as a way of ‘franchising’ his expertise, since it represented a distillation of his knowledge of design and production techniques which could be reproduced and sold many times over, at little cost other than the initial outlay. The process of producing designs for wallpapers and textiles was relatively labour intensive, requiring many hours of work for each design, without always the guarantee of a sale. In contrast, the Silvern Series was a means of disseminating Silver’s expertise using a method that was entirely appropriate in an industrial age.

In another sense, the Silvern Series was an important way in which Silver demonstrated his design credibility to clients and potential clients. As has already been noted, by the late nineteenth century, the mass production of textiles and wallpaper was an example of the division of labour par excellence. An incredibly long series of steps existed between the original idea and the finished product. A designer like Silver was only involved at initial stages, and could not control or influence what happened to his designs once they left his premises. Yet the success of his company – in terms of securing repeat business from clients – depended on the success of all of these stages. So it was imperative that Silver could convince clients that he knew his business, and that his designs really would translate well into mass production. By the late 1880s he had established a good reputation as a designer, but his name lacked the cachet that was attached to other more ‘artistic’ designers or those with better social connections. It is possible to surmise that Silver hoped that an association with the collections of the South Kensington Museum would give him a degree of credibility, authenticity and authority which he found difficult to achieve by other means.


Figure 6 - Silvern Series No. 45. Museum no. 754-1884

Figure 6 - Silvern Series No. 45. Museum no. 754-1884

The Silvern Series was first launched in 1889, and although Daybook records before 1891 do not survive, we can assume that it had been profitable enough between 1889 and 1891 to be worth continuing. Only a handful of sales are recorded throughout 1891 and 92, and after this the sales seem to decline completely. We must conclude that overall the Series was not a huge commercial success for the Studio. Perhaps manufacturers were not convinced by the usefulness of Silver’s selection, or maybe they were becoming less interested in ‘historic’ styles by that point.

The Silvern Series was a means of promoting Silver’s conviction that ‘good design’ was that which satisfied both manufacturer and consumer. He approached the Museum’s collections not from the perspective of an antiquarian, but as a professional working designer. As such, his selection does not provide a straightforward retrospective validation for the inspirational antecedents of later designs. He was not interested in amassing detailed historical information about an object, but instead saw the collections from the perspective of their utility as a visual, educational and ultimately practical resource. The importance of the Silvern Series, then, was as a photographic resource intended for industrial producers; and it now provides us with a unique perspective on the collections of the South Kensington Museum, and a new light on an often overlooked figure in late nineteenth-century pattern design.


(1) The Silver Studio Collection is now part of the Museum of Domestic Design & Architecture, Middlesex University. Accessed June 16, 2010.

(2) Arthur Silver 1853-1896. In Turner, Mark. The Silver Studio Collection. London: Lund Humphries for Middlesex Polytechnic, 1980: 17-18.

(3) Silver lived and worked in Brook Green, Hammersmith, within a mile or so of Morris’s Kelmscott House.

(4) Arthur Silver contributed three chapters (on the design of printed and woven fabrics, and floorcloths) to Practical Designing: A Handbook on the Preparation of Working Drawings, edited by Gleeson White. London: George Bell & Sons, 1893.

(5) Parry, Linda. William Morris. London: V&A Museum, 1996; MacCarthy, Fiona. William Morris. London: Faber & Faber, 1994; Lubbock, Jules. The Tyranny of Taste.Yale University Press, 1995; Stuart Durant. Christopher Dresser. London: Academy Editions, 1993; Whiteway, Michael ed. Shock of the old: Christopher Dresser's design revolution. London: V&A/Cooper-Hewitt, Abrams, 2004.

(6) Collard, Frances. ‘Historical Revivals, Commercial Enterprise and Public Confusion: Negotiating Taste, 1860-1890’. Journal of Design History 16.1 (2003): 35-48.

(7) Hoskins, Lesley; Zoë Hendon (co-curators). The Silver Studio: A Designated Collection. Hendon: Museum of Domestic Design & Architecture, Middlesex University, 2008. Accessed June 16, 2012. For a general overview of the Silver Studio’s work see Jackson, Lesley. Twentieth Century Pattern Design; Textile and Wallpaper Pioneers. London: Mitchell Beazley, 2002: 16-19.

(8) Silver purchased 84 Brook Green Hammersmith in 1884, and by 1893 was able to buy 3 Haarlem Road (in a street directly behind Brook Green) to use as a separate Studio. The purchase had required him to borrow money from his family and from a building society, but nevertheless the creation of a working Studio separate from his own home suggests that the business was thriving. Silver Studio Business Records, Museum of Domestic Design & Architecture.

(9) Hornsey College of Art subsequently became part of Middlesex Polytechnic, later Middlesex University. See Hoskins and Hendon. The Silver Studio: A Designated Collection. 2008.

(10) For an account of the dialogue between the Silver Studio and its customers in the 1930s and 40s, see Protheroe, Keren (curator). Petal Power: Floral fashion and women designers at the Silver Studio, 1910-1940. Hendon: Museum of Domestic Design & Architecture: Middlesex University, 2011.

(11) Steedman,Carolyn. Dust. Manchester University Press, 2001. The simultaneous presence and absence of Arthur Silver is further compounded by the low cultural status of his output, since his customers were primarily those who produced for the mass market. Thus, though wallpapers and textiles based on Silver Studio designs were undoubtedly produced and consumed in great quantities, they are not present in the ‘canon’ in the way that designs by Morris and Dresser are.

(12) SE 490-93, Silver Studio Collection, Museum of Domestic Design & Architecture.

(13) Much of this debate was couched in terms of standards of ‘design’ but was overlaid by assumptions about class. See Rifkin,Adrian. ‘Success Disavowed: the Schools of Design in mid-nineteenth-century Britain’. Journal of Design History. 1.2(1988): 89-102; Schmiechen, James. A. ‘Reconsidering the Factory, Art-Labor, and the Schools of Design in Nineteenth-Century Britain’. Design Issues 6.2 (1990): 58-69.

(14) Forty, Adrian. Objects of Desire. London: Thames & Hudson, 1992: 47.

(15) Schmiechen, ‘Reconsidering the Factory, Art-Labor, and the Schools of Design in Nineteenth-Century Britain’: 63.

(16) Ibid: 58-69.

(17) Greysmith, David. ‘The Impact of Technology of Printed Textiles in the early nineteenth century’. In Design and Industry, edited by N. Hamilton. London: Design Council, 1980.

(18) The Silver Studio’s customers sold the wallpapers and textiles they produced under their own name, crediting neither the Studio nor the name of the original designer. See also note 23, below.

(19) Hoskins, Lesley ed. The Papered Wall: the history, patterns and techniques of wallpaper. London: Thames and Hudson, 1994: 160.

(20) Ibid: 163.

(21) ‘A Studio of Design: An Interview with Mr Arthur Silver’. The Studio 3 (1894): 117-122.

(22) Silver, Arthur. ‘The Preparation of Designs for Woven Fabrics’. In Practical Designing, edited by Gleeson White.1897: 61.

(23) The Studio (1894): 117.

(24) Ibid: 118.

(25) Silver Studio Daybook, 1891-1898, (Silver Studio Collection, Museum of Domestic Design & Architecture). However, a design might also be manufactured by one company on behalf of another; for example, the Silver Studio sold ten designs directly to Liberty & Co in 1891, but also sold fourteen to the printing firm Stead McAlpin. It is possible that several of these were produced by Stead McAlpin for Liberty & Co, thus making the normal conventions of design attribution difficult to apply.

(26) Kriegel, Lara. Grand Designs: Labor, Empire and the Museum in Victorian Culture. Duke University Press, 2007; Lubbock, Jules. The Tyranny of Taste.Yale University Press, 1995; Rifkin, Adrian. ‘Success Disavowed: the Schools of Design in mid-nineteenth-century Britain’. Journal of Design History 1.2 (1988): 89-102; Burton, Anthony. Vision & Accident: the Story of the Victoria & Albert Museum. London: V&A Publications, 1999; Robertson, Bruce. ‘The South Kensington Museum in Context: an alternative history’. Museum and Society 2.1(2004): 1-14.

(27) Woven textiles, tapestries and embroideries were well represented, though it appears that the collections included few printed textiles until the acquisition of the Forrer collection in 1899. Morris, Barbara. ‘William Morris and the South Kensington Museum’. Victorian Poetry 13.3-4(1975): 167.

(28) Hamber, Anthony. ‘Photography in nineteenth century art publications’. In The Rise of the Image: Essays on the History of the Illustrated Art Book, edited by R. Palmer and T. Fragenberg, 215-244. Aldershot, 2003; Hamber, Anthony. A Higher Branch of the Art: photographing the fine arts in England, 1839-1880. Amsterdam, 1996; Booth, Mark Haworth. Photography, an Independent Art: photographs from the Victoria and Albert Museum, 1939-1996. London, 1997.

(29) Hamber, Anthony. ‘Building Nineteenth Century Photographic Resources: The South Kensington Museum and William Blackmore’. Visual Resources 26.3 (2010): 254-273.

(30) Baker, Malcolm. ‘The Reproductive Continuum: plaster casts, paper mosaics and photographs as complementary modes of reproduction in the nineteenth-century museum’. In Plaster Casts: Making, Collecting and Displaying from Classical Antiquity to the Present, edited by R. Frederiksen and E. Marchand, 485-500. Berlin: De Gruyter, 2010.

(31) Hamber. ‘Building Nineteenth Century Photographic Resources: The South Kensington Museum and William Blackmore’. 268.

(32) In the late 1850s and early 1960s, The Museum actively acquired photographs of works of art, such as a set of images called The Lords Supper, in 1868, and a further set of photographs of old master drawings in 1869. Hamber.‘Photography in nineteenth century art publications’.

(33) The decorative arts seem to have been relatively poorly represented photographically by the late 1880s. The Arundel Society, which worked with the South Kensington Museum to disseminate images from its collections, published a number of titles in 1867, including ‘precious metals and enamels: carvings in ivory and wood’, ‘works of decorative art in precious metals and enamels’ and ‘works of decorative art in pottery porcelain and glass’.

(34) Rock, Daniel. Textile Fabrics: A descriptive catalogue of the collection of church-vestments, dresses, silk-stuffs, needlework and tapestries forming that section of the Museum. London: Science and Art Department of the Committee of Council on Education, Chapman and Hall, 1870; see also Hungerford Pollen, Jon. ‘Commentary on Textile Fabrics by Rev Daniel Rock’. The Month (2 February, 1870: 235).

(35) Cole, Alan S. Ancient Needlepoint and Pillow Lace: with notes on the History of Lacemaking and descriptions of 30 examples. London: Science and Art Department of the Committee of Council on Education, Arundel Society, 1875.

(36) Classified list of photographs of paintings and drawings: published by authority of the Department. London: South Kensington Museum, 1878; Classified list of photographs of works of decorative art in the South Kensington Museum, and other collections. London: South Kensington Museum, 1887; Classified list of photographs of works of decorative art in the Victoria and Albert Museum : and other collections. Part III, Textile fabrics and lace. London: Victoria and Albert Museum, 1901.

(37) Igor Jenzen, Vom Schenken und Sammeln: 125 Jahre Kunstgewerbemuseum Dresden, Dresden: Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, 2001.

(38) Kumsch, Emil. KöniglichesKunstgewerbe-Museum zu Dresden.Spitzen und Weiss-Stickereien des XVI-XVIII Jahrhunderts. Dresden, 1889; Kumsch, Emil. KöniglichesKunstgewerbe-Museum zu Dresden.Leinen-Damastmuster des XVII und XVIII Jahrhunderts. Dresden, 1891; Kumsch, Emil. KöniglichesKunstgewerbe-Museum zu Dresden.Stoffmuster des XVI-XVIII Jahrhunderts. Dresden, 1888-95.

(39) For an outline of the tensions between the Museum’s initial aim of improving the quality of product design, and that of its emerging tradition of scholarship and connoisseurship see: Barringer, Tim: ‘Representing the Imperial Archive: South Kensington and its Museums’. Journal of Visual Culture 3.2 (1998): 357-373; Robertson, Bruce. ‘The South Kensington Museum in Context: an alternative history”, Museum and Society, (2, 1, 2004), 1-14 Michael Conforti, “The Idealist Enterprise and the applied arts’. A Grand Design: a History of the Victoria & Albert Museum. London: V&A Publications, 1997: 46; Cardoso Denis, Rafael. ‘Teaching by Example: Education and the formation of South Kensington’s Museums’. A Grand Design: a history of the Victoria & Albert Museum. London: V&A Publications, 1997: 107-116.

(40) Arthur Silver, handwritten notes about the Silvern Series. Silver Studio Collection, Museum of Domestic Design & Architecture, n.d 1889?:1.

(41) Morris,Barbara. Inspiration for Design: The influence of the Victoria & Albert Museum. London: V&A Publications, 1986: 94-106.

(42) Philip Webb and his Work. Oxford University Press, 1935: 39-40. Quoted in Morris. ‘William Morris and the South Kensington Museum’: 159.

(43) A handwritten set of instructions to the photographer in Arthur Silver’s hand specifies that “Every SKM negative to be inserted in Negative book; the Museum number and negative number to be shown under each print in reference book; and the Museum number to be inserted in small number book immediately after the negatives are made”. SBR, G1, box 1, folder 5, n.d., Silver Studio Business Records, Museum of Domestic Design & Architecture.

(44) Berkshire Chronicle. August 24, 1889. Silver Studio Collection, Museum of Domestic Design & Architecture.

(45) For the inevitable role of design ‘copying’ in the nineteenth century textile industry see Kriegel, Lara. ‘Culture and the Copy: Calico, Capitalism and Design Copyright in Early Victorian Britain’. Journal of British Studies 2.43 (2004): 233-265.

(46) Silver Studio Daybook, 1891-1898. Silver Studio Collection, Museum of Domestic Design & Architecture.

(47) Gernsheim, Helmut and Alison Gernsheim. The history of photography from the camera obscura to the beginning of the modern era. London: Thames & Hudson, 1969: 322-334; Newhall, Beaumont. The History of Photography. London: Secker & Warburg, 1982: 123. The Silver Studio Collection contains several thousand glass negatives relating to both the SilvernSeries and the Studio’s own design output.

(48) Reilly, J.M. and C. McCabe. Care and identification of nineteenth century photographic prints. NewYork: Kodak, 1986; See also: Accessed June 16, 2012.

(49) Silver Studio Business Records, n.d..SBR, G1, box 1, folder 5, Museum of Domestic Design & Architecture.

(50) Parry, Linda. William Morris Textiles. London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1983: 104-105.

(51) Peterson, William S. The Kelmscott Press: a history of William Morris's typographical adventure. University of California Press, 1991: 82 MacCarthy William Morris. Faber and Faber, 1994: 613.

(52) The Silver Studio Daybook only rarely suggests that designs were worked up to technical specifications by Studio. The designs produced were one stage before technical drawings or point papers, once again reinforcing the idea that the production of wallpapers or textiles necessitated many very specialised stages, of which the Studio’s was just the first.

(53) Brocaded Silk, Turkish, 1550-1625. Museum no. 212-1887. See illustration in Brief Guide to the Turkish Woven Fabrics. Victoria and Albert Museum, Department of Textiles. London: HM Stationery Office, 1923.

(54) Unlike Alan Cole, Silver did not include captions outlining the technical or historical significance of his examples.

(55) Arthur Silver, handwritten notes about the Silvern Series. Silver Studio Collection, Museum of Domestic Design & Architecture, n.d, 1889?:2.

(56) Ibid: 3.

(57) The Studio (1894): 119.

(58) Ibid.