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National consciousness

National Consciousness

National Heritage, and the Idea of 'Englishness' Charles Saumarez Smith

The original impulse behind the establishment of the South Kensington collections was essentially imperial. Nationally, economically, and industrially self-confident, Britain fervently desired to encompass within its reach the full spectrum of world cultures. In the spirit of the Great Exhibition, British manufactures were intended to form only one, relatively small, part of collections that would encompass the whole of what were regarded as the significant cultures of the world. The pattern of early collecting thus demonstrates a willingness to go on predatory expeditions, buying up medieval and Renaissance works of art in Italy, France, and especially Spain, while ignoring equivalent British ecclesiastical treasures in the churches of Herefordshire and East Anglia.

On the other hand, from the start, there was also a countervailing tendency-a wish to document and describe the specific characteristics of the British contribution to the cultures of the world and a desire to establish the legitimacy of British art and design, alongside British preeminence in industry and imperial conquest. Part of the spirit of South Kensington lay in an oppositional view of what are normally regarded as the constituent elements of mid-Victorian culture. The Museum was intended to be not academic, but popular; it was not dominated by the scholarly ideals of Oxford and Cambridge, but by a belief that the state should be actively engaged in public education. Its staff were civil servants, many of them linked by professional friendships and residence in Kensington. They wanted to foster interest, not in classical antiquity as represented by the British Museum, nor in masterpieces of Western European art as at the National Gallery, but in the products of contemporary British industry, in genre painting, and in new technologies, such as photography. They came from a milieu which regarded the past with the utilitarian view that the South Kensington Museum needed to contribute to an improvement in ornamental art and industrial production.

The principal figure behind the view that the South Kensington Museum should have a role in the interpretation of British culture was Richard Redgrave, a narrative painter and the least well known of the triumvirate of Henry Cole, Redgrave, and John Charles Robinson that was responsible for the early development of the Museum and its collections.1 Redgrave believed that the South Kensington Museum should encompass a National Gallery of British Art, and he persuaded John Sheepshanks, who had inherited a fortune from his father's textile mills, to bequeath his collection of British paintings, drawings, and watercolors (cats. 118-119) to South Kensington rather than keeping them in situ in his private house in Rutland Gate.2 It was Redgrave, too, who was responsible for a number of initiatives during the 1860s to document aspects of British painting, including the Ellison gift of watercolors in 1861, a loan exhibition of portrait miniatures in 1865, and a series of exhibitions on British portraits.

If the collection of paintings during the 1860s suggests a purposeful view of establishing a National Gallery of British Art, the collection of British objects was more haphazard and consisted generally of works that exhibited a high degree of surface ornament. They included, for example, representative examples of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century metalwork such as the Torre Abbey Jewel (cat. 124), key examples of opus anglicanum (English work), including the Syon Cope and the Clare Chasuble, and even works of vernacular pottery by Thomas Toft (cat. 128), presumably bought as interesting examples of workmanship. During the Museum's early pioneer days, however, British objects did not live up to the high Victorian appetite for rich surface imagery, so that when, in 1865, the Museum was offered a silver cup presented by Charles II to the Lord Almoner, Archbishop Sterne, it was turned down by Robinson on the grounds that 'from its boldness of style and paucity of ornamentation, I do not think that it can be considered as coming within the category of works of art.'3

A change of attitude came about under the influence of the Arts and Crafts movement. During the 1880s and 1890s, there was a shift in interest on the part of scholars and antiquarians toward an appreciation of English domestic architecture of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and of the artifacts produced between the age of Queen Elizabeth and the age of Queen Anne.4 This was motivated by a sentimental appreciation of the relics of old English life, which were being swept away by urbanization. It was the period of the establishment of many of the public and private institutions which have ever since been responsible for the preservation of English cultural life, including the founding of the National Trust in 1895; the opening of a proper building for the National Portrait Gallery in 1896; the opening of the Tate Gallery on Millbank in 1897; and the publication of Country Life, which, more than other institutions of this period, promoted nostalgia for a preindustrial past (see cat. 128). It was also the period in which the idea of England as an entity, with distinctive characteristics of language, landscape, and tradition, was more sharply differentiated from a broader belief in the imperial destiny of Great Britain.5

As a result of this nostalgia for English folk life, there was increasing public interest in old English crafts, including pewter, ironwork, and oak furniture. For example, Lady Dorothy Nevill presented a collection of Sussex ironwork to the Museum, with a telling description:

It was owing to Sir Purdon Clarke that I placed my collection of Sussex iron-work at the Victoria and Albert Museum, where it still remains. I formed this collection years ago when I used to live in Sussex, purchasing the different pieces for the most part in old cottages and farmhouses. Some of the old firebacks were extremely ornamental, but the fire-dogs, of which I collected a great number, were my especial favourites. . . . Most of the iron-work in my collection, such as rush-holders, fire-tongs, and the like necessities of old-world cottage life, has now become completely obsolete in the farmhouses and cottages, to which they formed a useful and artistic adornment. At the time I was collecting, many people did not fail to express their scepticism as to the value of all 'the old rubbish', as they called it, which I was getting together; but I am glad to say that my judgement has been completely vindicated, and today, instead of 'old rubbish', I am told it is a 'valuable collection'.6

This passage suggests the attitudes current at the end of the nineteenth century that prompted an idealization of the products of rural industry. Such attitudes inevitably influenced the Museum and its collecting-Queen Elizabeth's Virginal in 1887 (cat. 123), the Sizergh Castle Room in 1891, an early-seventeenth-century room from Bromley-by-Bow in 1894, the Waltham Abbey Room in 1899, and the Clifford's Inn Room in 1903. Their acquisition, which was associated with the establishment of the Survey of London-and in the case of the Bromley-by-Bow Room directly inspired by English Arts and Crafts architect and designer C. R. Ashbee (influential founder in 1888 of the Guild of Handicraft)-suggests the extent to which the Museum was prepared to consider a role in what would now in England be called 'rescue archaeology' (one aspect of historic preservation).

During the 1890s there was also an increasing interest in producing a more accurate and scholarly history of English furniture and the decorative arts, a product of growing professionalism in the writing and documentation of all aspects of English history.7 Following Caspar Purdon Clarke's establishment of specialist departments at the Museum in 1896, a number of young scholars were appointed who were subsequently to revolutionize their fields in the decorative arts. Among these pivotal figures were A. F. Kendrick, who was appointed curator-in-charge of textiles in 1898 and was to transform the academic study of English tapestries, carpets, and embroidery; Bernard Rackham, who was appointed a Museum assistant in 1898 and retired in 1938, having made immense contributions to the study of English ceramics; Martin Hardie, who was likewise appointed an assistant in 1898, and who became the leading scholar of English watercolors; and H. Clifford Smith, who became curator of furniture in the 1920s. These Young Turks of the late 1890s were inspired not so much by a sentimental attachment to relics of English life as by a bureaucratic zeal to classify the full range of artifacts in the Museum's collections and to do so with properly scholarly apparatus.

By 1909, when the new building opened, the Victoria and Albert Museum had been transformed from an eclectic institution that collected a range of products of human industry from all corners of the world into an institution that was able to project a much more uniform image of itself. On the Cromwell Road facade were statues of famous and less famous British artists, including six sculptors, ten painters, and six architects (fig. 110),Fig.110. The facade of the Aston Webb building and on the Exhibition Road facade were statues of ten craftsmen. An official document of 1911 specified the Museum's responsibilities toward the acquisition and display of specifically English works of art:

The Victoria and Albert Museum, so far from being intended as a collection illustrating the decorative arts of England, may be said in fact to have originated with the desire of bringing from abroad such models and examples as might influence and improve English design and workmanship. Nevertheless, not only does the increased interest in English art make it incumbent to show prominently on English soil a representative and full illustration of the best work of English craft for the instruction of Colonial students and of the large number of foreigners who come to London for the purpose, but also on purely aesthetic grounds it may be held that the national element in the collections must be fully recognised as of great importance.8

Within the galleries of the new Aston Webb building, an increasing amount of space was given over to displays of English objects (fig. 111). V&A ceramics curator Oliver Watson's study of the English glass collection demonstrates that it was during this period that interest switched from European, especially Venetian, glass to English. In 1903 Charles Wylde described how 'the Museum Collection of English glass Fig.111. A display of English decorative artis very poor and quite unworthy of a National Museum of Industrial Art.' Between 1900 and 1909, the Museum acquired 157 pieces of English glass; between 1909 and 1919, it acquired 371; in the 1920s it acquired 685.9 English glass thus moved from being marginal to the V&A's glass collection to being its most important part. Similarly, guidebooks to the Museum demonstrate that when the Aston Webb building first opened, English sculpture was displayed alongside Spanish sculpture in Room 9; yet, by 1933, part of Room 9 and the whole of Room 10 were devoted exclusively to English sculpture, including alabaster carvings, busts by eighteenth-century artists Thomas Banks, John Bacon, and Michael Rysbrack, and even 'modern alphabets and works on loan by Eric Gill.'10

Changes in the patterns of acquisition and display reflected the changing interests of the curatorial staff. By the 1920s, the system of organization adopted by the Museum had resulted in a series of discrete departments, each with its own ethos, but each promoting scholarship in English decorative arts. In the Department of Architecture and Sculpture, Margaret Longhurst worked on medieval English ivories. In the Department of Ceramics, Bernard Rackham worked on the classification of English porcelain. In 1922 Rackham was joined by Herbert Read, who applied for a transfer from the Treasury on the grounds that, although less well paid, the Museum position offered him more freedom to write. As Richard Aldington wrote to him, 'The South Kensington . . . is a better job than bum-sucking a duke.'11 Together Rackham and Read wrote a pioneering book, English Pottery, and Read also wrote the important books English Stained Glass (1926) and Staffordshire Pottery Figures (1929). In 1926, William Thorpe moved from the Library to the Department of Ceramics, bringing a formidable knowledge of antiquarian source material that was evident in his definitive two-volume study, English Glass (1929). In the Department of Engraving, Illustration and Design, Basil Long undertook original research on English miniatures, and James Laver embarked on his studies of English fashion and theater.

Because of the fragmentation of scholarship into different subjects according to material, each department cultivated its own view of the British past. The Department of Furniture had close contacts with landowners and viewed the country house as the cradle of fine design; the Department of Ceramics was interested in the more popular aspects of pottery figures; the Department of Textiles-because of the necessity of storing, classifying, and looking after different types of fabric and costume-had a strong interest in techniques of production. While there were connections across the Museum, members of the staff frequently worked in isolation from one another, not sharing approaches to their subjects, and were inclined toward historical research that was documentary and taxonomic. It is hard to detect a nostalgic approach to England and its past in the Museum's publications, which were frequently dry-as-dust lists of the collections. Indeed, the life of the assistant keeper owed as much to the traditions of the British civil service-diligent and narrow-minded-as to the broader currents of Oxbridge and the academy.12

Throughout the 1920s the majority of departments, following the intellectual interests of the staff, concentrated on acquisitions of English objects. Many of these have now lost their original interest, since they were bought on the basis of their visual quality without regard for proper documentation. At the same time, these acquisitions included key works, such as the Chinese Bed from Badminton House, bought in 1921; the cabinet designed by Horace Walpole to house his miniatures and enamels at Strawberry Hill, bought in 1925 (cat. 134); and the virtuoso limewood cravat carved by Grinling Gibbons (cat. 135).

The only point at which the Museum may have had an intellectually coherent approach to the English past was in the establishment of the so-called English Primary Galleries after World War II. Since the reorganization of the Museum in 1909, there had been pressure to display objects chronologically and stylistically rather than by material. As the Royal Commission on National Museums and Galleries stated in its final report in January 1930:

Nowhere in London is it at present possible to see any ordered sequence or illustration of the English arts and crafts. In accordance with the 'classification by material' arrangement of the Victoria and Albert Museum, English work will be found scattered among a large number of different departments. If there were also an English Museum, this would be a matter of little moment. But until it is possible to develop a separate Museum illustrating the artistic civilization of this country, we think that the nucleus of an English collection might be developed within the Victoria and Albert Museum.13

In 1936 the first steps toward an integrated display of English objects were taken in the Octagon Court (see fig. 39). Then, after World War II, Leigh Ashton, who succeeded Eric Maclagan as director in 1945, seized the opportunity, provided by the fact that the Museum's collections had been stored in a Welsh slate quarry during the war, to reinstall the finest examples of English decorative arts together in a long sequence of galleries on two floors on the west side of the Aston Webb building. Preparation of these galleries coincided with the 1946 'Britain Can Make It' exhibition (fig. 112).Fig.112. "Britain Can Make It" The desire to display the greatest works of English decorative art to impress schoolchildren and tourists no doubt reflected a similar patriotic urge. But accounts of the English Primary Galleries at the time that they opened suggest that their atmosphere was not so much chauvinist as aesthetic, consisting of what were regarded as the best objects in the collections, spaced tastefully far apart from one another in a three-dimensional equivalent to the Connoisseur Period Guides, which concentrated on style in line with what was then art-historical orthodoxy (fig. 113). In these galleries-more than at any other time in the history of the Museum-there was a demonstration of the belief that English art, particularly the art of the eighteenth century, could and should stand comparison with Italian art, and that it was a legitimate part of a national cultural history. Objects from Scotland, Wales, and northern Ireland were not included unless they had been designed by Robert Adam.

During the 1950s, the characteristics of scholarly research and publication continued more or less as before the war. This was the most prolific period in the Museum's history for independent publications by the Museum staff, which helped to establish the V&A's status as a research institution. Arthur Lane, a classical scholar who committed suicide in 1963, published Style in Pottery (1948) and Early Porcelain Figures of the Eighteenth Century (1961). Ralph Edwards, a Welshman who was keeper of furniture from 1937 to 1954, published Early Conversation Pictures from the Middle Ages to about 1730 and the revised edition of his magisterial Dictionary of English Furniture in 1954. John Hayward published English Cutlery (1956), English Watches (1956), and Huguenot Silver in England 1688-1727 (1959). Graham Reynolds, a great authority on the art of Constable, wrote Nineteenth-Century Drawings, 1850-1900 (1949), Thomas Bewick (1949), An Introduction to English Watercolour Painting (1950), English Portrait Miniatures (1952), and Painters of the Victorian Scene (1953). Though based on the Museum's collections, these books did not investigate in any detail the visual or aesthetic characteristics of objects and, while incorporating meticulous documentary research, they showed no interest in methodology. They also tended to assume a common belief that the eighteenth century was the high point of English design, that Tudor objects were interesting in an antiquarian but not necessarily an aesthetic way, and that the taste of the nineteenth century was mostly execrable.

It was against these orthodoxies, established by the high priests of the Museum's staffing system, that members of the Circulation Department rebelled. As early as 1921, a memorandum in the Furniture Department (probably written by Clifford Smith) recognized that 'sooner or later we shall be obliged (if the collection is to be historically complete) to include characteristic pieces of Victorian furniture, provided, of course, that such pieces are reasonably good models of design and craftsmanship, and if we delay too long we may find it difficult to acquire them at all.' Oliver Brackett replied, 'As a matter of princ[iple] I agree that we must, very cautiously, take opportunities of acquiring really good examples of Early Victorian Furniture.'14 This cautious approach to the study of Victorian design did not satisfy Peter Floud, a graduate of the London School of Economics and an active member of the Communist party in the 1930s, who became keeper of the Circulation Department in 1947. He was the leading force behind the 1952 exhibition, 'Victorian and Edwardian Decorative Arts,' which played an important role in the rediscovery of Victorian design, and he gathered around him a group of especially capable women, including Shirley Bury, Natalie Rothstein, and Barbara Morris, who made strenuous efforts to break the essentially male monopoly of scholarship in the Museum by studying previously unfashionable subjects, such as Victorian jewelry. They were responsible for the layout of the Victorian Primary Gallery in the early 1960s along the lines established by Nikolaus Pevsner's Pioneers of the Modern Movement, with the greatest amount of space given to the leading figures of the Arts and Crafts movement, especially William Morris; and they inspired the acquisition of high Victorian objects such as the Yatman Cabinet designed by William Burges (cat. 157).

In the recent history of the Museum it is more difficult, and much more invidious, to identify characteristic traits in both the ways that objects were acquired and how the Museum staff studied them. There were a number of versions of the English past in competition, if not at war, with one another. There was the romantic version of the English past promoted by Sir Roy Strong, who was fascinated by the crafts, a vigorous exponent of modern design, and, at least during the 1970s, an enthusiastic propagandist for the national heritage, as evident in exhibitions such as 'The Destruction of the Country House' held at the V&A in 1974 (see fig. 50). Then there was the self-consciously grand view of England as a network of country houses, to which the Furniture Department staff would pay regular visits. This was the England of Peter Thornton's monograph, Seventeenth-Century Interior Decoration in England, France and Holland (1978), a monumental work of documentary scholarship concentrating on the work of foreign craftsmen in England. Then there were the Victorianophiles: Clive Wainwright, dressed in tweed and with a beard modeled on William Morris; Michael Darby, who was always said to be a great expert on beetles as well as on Owen Jones; and Stephen Calloway, a fin-de-siècle dandy. Somewhere at the top of the Henry Cole Wing was the 'People's Republic of Prints and Drawings.' As an institution, the V&A was a disorderly place, a model of England in decline, full of people with recondite specialist interests. It did not appeal to the reformist zeal of Mrs. Thatcher's Britain.

Nonetheless, at the Museum the question of England and what to do about it remains. In 1985, an internal report, 'The V&A: Towards 2000,' stated:

The present division of the primary galleries involves . . . the separation of both England and Italy (1400-1500) from the rest of the European sequence. Despite some considerable arguments for the integration of English and continental, this division remains fundamentally sound reflecting the nature of the collections and the way in which the public use them. The collections are particularly strong in English . . . material and to integrate these into a single sequence would result in awkward imbalances of display. . . . As well as presenting a survey of the applied arts internationally, the V&A has a role as the foremost display of the English applied arts and many visitors, both British and foreign, come here for this reason.15

Not long after release of this document, the committee in charge of the redisplay of the twentieth-century collections decided to amalgamate the British and Continental holdings on the grounds that to display British objects on their own was a historical anachronism.

Fig.109. Detail of cat.152 Fig.114. The Walpole Cabinet Fig.115. Design for the Memorial to Sir Isaac Newton Fig.116. G.M. Moser. Design for a Candlestick in the Rocco Style Fig.117. Interior of the house of Sir Lawrence Dundas Fig.118. Jane Burden Morris, the inspiration for Rossetti's 'The Day Dream'
In preparing this essay, I am indebted for information and advice to Malcolm Baker, Tim Barringer, Anthony Burton, Clive Wainwright, and Christopher Wilk.
For the life of Richard Redgrave and his contribution to South Kensington, see, in particular, Redgrave, 1891; and Casteras and Parkinson, 1988.
There are accounts of the Sheepshanks collection in Davis, 1963, pp. 74-9; and Parkinson, 1990, p. xviii.
This episode is recounted in Pope-Hennessy, 1991, p. 170.
The best introductions to attitudes toward domestic architecture of this period are Girouard, 1984; and Mandler, in press.
Attitudes toward English history at the end of the nineteenth century have been the subject of a considerable amount of recent study. See, for example, the essays in CoIls and Dodd, 1986; Samuel, 1989; and Grant and Stringer, 1995.
Nevill, 1906, pp. 256-7.
For the professionalization of historical scholarship, see Levine, 1986.
"The Purposes and Functions of the Museum:' proof of confidential memorandum dated 5 November 1912, National Art Library, V&A.
This evidence is drawn from Watson, 1995. I am indebted to him for allowing me to refer to it.
Muirhead, 1935, p. 413.
Richard Aldington to Herbert Read, 16 June 1925, The Read Archive, McPherson Library, University of Victoria, cited in King, 1990, p. 84.
There is a useful account of Museum life in the '920S in Laver, 1963, pp. 86-111.
Royal Commission on National Museums and Galleries, 1930, p. 43.
Wilk, 1996, p. 19.
V&A, 1985b, p. 6.
Catalogue Images
cat.118. The Bishop's Grounds cat.119. A Village Choir cat.120. A Newfoundland Dog cat.121.1. & 121.2. Pair of Miniatures
cat.122. Queen Elizabeth I cat.123. The Queen Elizabeth Virginial cat.124. The Tore Abbey Jewel cat.125. Figure of Lydia Dwight
cat.126. Standing Cup and Cover cat.127. The Sterne Cup cat.128. Mermaid Dish cat.129. Wassail Table and Furnishings
cat.130. Roundel with a Saint cat.131. Susanna and the Elders cat.132. Valance with a Garden Scene
cat.133. Queen Mary's Jewel Casket cat.134. The Walpole Cabinet cat.135. Craqvat cat.136. Chaloner Chute
cat.137. Sir Issac Newton cat.138. Dress Fabric cat.139. Design For Woven Silk cat.140. Portland Vase
cat.141. The Girl-in-a-Swing cat.142. Hogarth's Dog, Trump cat.143. The Foundling Vase cat.144. The Chesterfield Vase
cat.145. Stand in the Form of a Chicken cat.146. Chocolate or Coffee Pot cat.147. The Ashburnham Centerpiece cat.148. Apollo and Daphne Candlesticks
cat.149. Armchair cat.150. The Kimbolton Cabinet cat.151. Commode cat.152. Console Table
cat.153. The Islington Cup cat.154. Vase cat.155.1. Manuscript: Bleak House cat.155.2. Corrected Proof: Bleak House
cat.155.3. Monthly Serialisation: Bleak House cat.155.4. First Complete Edition: Bleak House cat.156. Decanter cat.157. The Yatman Cabinet
cat.158. The Day Dream cat.159. Pomona cat.160. Bowl cat.161. The Works of Geoffrey  Chaucer
cat.162. The Owl cat.163. Armchair