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Teaching by example

Teaching by Example: Education and the Formation of South Kensington’s Museums

Rafael Cardoso Denis

When looking back upon all the magnificent achievements that make up the history of South Kensington, it is easy to forget that the great institutions it produced are rooted in an instance of resounding failure. Although the collections’ origins can be traced to the Great Exhibition of 1851, the British Government’s primary purpose in granting public money for the promotion of science and art was not the accumulation and display of objects. Parliamentary frugality was overcome by the argument that the manufacturing population needed training in design, so that Britain would thereby be better equipped to outdistance her international rivals. The nagging fact that this original purpose went largely unfulfilled has been eclipsed by the huge subsequent ascendancy of South Kensington as an emblem of national culture, wealth, power, and prestige. This dichotomy between teaching and collecting, like the nature of the instruction provided, must be understood within the context of its time.

The teaching of art and design changed dramatically throughout Europe during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Generally speaking, instruction in fine art and in crafts became increasingly separate, as academies of art sought to distance their members from the world of trades and to cast themselves in the role of guardians of a liberal profession. With the ultimate disintegration of the system of guild apprenticeships, the provision of practical instruction in applied arts and crafts slipped into a state of unprecedented neglect, aggravated by the widespread introduction of new manufacturing techniques and methods of production.1 In Britain a point of crisis came shortly after 1824 when the lowering of tariffs allowed the market to be flooded by foreign imports, especially French luxury articles that for three decades before had been available only intermittently and at high prices. The somewhat disingenuous argument was made that the success of Continental goods could be attributed to the superiority of their design and, within a few years, the periodical press and other voices were emphasizing the commercial value of taste to manufactures. Out of the ensuing political commotion arose England’s first publicly funded system of Schools of Design in 1837, whose mission was to raise the standard of British manufactures by training good designers.2

Despite the innovations of William Dyce, the first headmaster of the Schools of Design, the schools were all but defunct by the early 1850s, when they gave way to a new set of administrative and political priorities. Much of what had been achieved in those first fifteen years was subsequently rejected and even actively undermined, but one particular aspect of the initial project was taken up with remarkable zeal: namely, the collecting of plaster casts (cats. 24, 26–27) and other works of art (see cats. 22–23, 25, 28) for use as examples in teaching. The Schools’ original collection, begun as early as 1838, was substantially enlarged by the purchase of objects from the Great Exhibition (cats. 2–4), for which a large grant of public money was made available.3 Further purchases, as well as numerous gifts, prompted the transformation in 1852 of the erstwhile study collection into a Museum of Manufactures, introducing a public display role which was to endure far longer than the rather sporadic attempts at education in design. The Museum quickly took on a separate didactic function of its own, particularly with the inclusion of a room devoted to the exposition of “False Principles in Decoration” (see cats. 19–20). These events gave a new direction to the educational venture in its broadest sense and signaled a bold decision to use the collections to foster public taste quite apart from the purposes of applied industrial instruction. The evolving character of South Kensington teaching over the latter half of the nineteenth century can be fully understood only in terms of this shift away from the original clamor for design reform in the 1830s.

Although the South Kensington system eventually came to encompass not only instruction in art and design but also in science, the original mission of the Department of Science and Art (hereafter, DSA), as set out in the early 1850s, focused more narrowly on what was dubbed “practical art,” a term intended to denote a rupture with the outgoing system, which was perceived as not being practical enough. Its earliest years were, therefore, almost exclusively occupied with the concerns of art and design education; and discussion of its later development must begin within that particular context.

The new Department wasted no time in reorgan-izing the pedagogical system it inherited from the old Schools of Design. Richard Redgrave, Superintendent for Art, was responsible for putting together the National Course of Art Instruction (hereafter, NCAI), which was officially published in 1853, just as the DSA was beginning to take more definite shape.4 Although the NCAI has become notorious for its “cast-iron” rigidity,5 little is generally known about its actual operation, and the mistaken assumption that South Kensington’s teaching was unchanging and uniform has obscured its significance. From the start, both Henry Cole and Richard Redgrave were keen to establish a national curriculum for art and design education; Redgrave announced the first attempt to devise an appropriate syllabus in 1852. The proposed course of instruction consisted of twenty-two stages: ten of drawing ornament (fig. 66),Fig.66. Goldsmith's designs the figure, and flowers from the flat and from the round (mainly, casts [fig. 67]); seven of painting the same types of examples; three of modeling them; and the last two devoted to “composition in design.” The drawing stages were mandatory for all students, who would then split up to do either painting or modeling, and finally meet up again at the end.6

By the time the initial course actually came into effect one year later, a few changes had already been made. The ten drawing stages were expanded and the amount of drawing from nature increased; painting continued to occupy seven stages and modeling, three. Stage 21—previously dedicated to “studies from the life”—was fleshed out to include time sketches and compositions from nature and from memory. Stage 22—“elementary design”—was similarly amplified to include the ornamental treatment of natural forms (fig. 68), the ornamental arrangement of forms to fill given spaces, and the study of historic ornament. This stage offered a theoretical introduction to abstract principles of design, constituting a sort of classroom version of the ideas Owen Jones would make famous in The Grammar of Ornament of 1856 (cat. 14). The main alteration, though, was the addition of a further stage 23 entitled “technical studies.” Representing the most unqualified commitment thus far to Fig.67. Student drawing by R.W. Hermanworkshop training and applied design,7 this new stage promised to cover architectural design; ornamental surface design; ornamental relief design; molding, casting, and chasing; lithography; engraving on wood and metal; and porcelain painting.

The subjects covered in stage 23 corresponded to the so-called special classes offered at Marlborough House between the end of 1852 and 1856, which were special not only in nature but also in terms of their limited access. This comparatively advanced level of study, involving actual creative work and not simply the copying of examples, was restricted to the Central Training School for Art and, even among the students in London, only those able to afford the high fees could contemplate the possibility of workshop training. With the move to South Kensington in 1857, the special classes were discontinued and practical training became largely restricted to a number of workshops established to assist in the decoration of the new buildings.8

Fig.68. Designs based on a study of apples

The establishment of the NCAI signaled a further change of much wider significance for the development of art and design education throughout Britain. The full, twenty-three-stage syllabus described above represented only a small part of the DSA’s system of teaching. Its complete title was “Course for Designers, Ornamentists, and Those Intending to Be Industrial Artists.” As this name implies, it was only made available to those pursuing full-time studies during the daytime at a recognized School of Art (as the Schools of Design were renamed in 1853). All other classes of students were obliged to follow one of three more limited programs, each comprising a different combination of stages from the full course: the “Primary Course for Schools, Principally by Means of Class Teaching,” the “Course for General Education,” or the “Course for Machinists, Engineers and Foremen of Works” (fig. 69).9

In terms of classroom practice, the existence of four distinct syllabuses meant that participants were pigeonholed from the start. Students could not simply pick and choose among courses, as these were offered at different times of day, often in distinct locations and at widely divergent fees.10 This practical subdivision of efforts into several echelons was further enshrined in the Department’s stated policy that it would only subsidize advanced training in the central schools of science and art, mainly in London. Despite protestations from the various branch and provincial schools, from masters, and even from Parliament, the principle of maintaining a multitiered system, with differentiated levels of instruction, was steadfastly preserved even after the administrative reforms of 1863–65.11 As time wore on, the division between day and evening classes widened into something of a gulf, to the extent that they often had little in common besides sharing the same building. Working artisans entertained virtually no hope of pursuing full-time studies, of following the complete syllabus, of achieving National Medallions (fig. 70), and, therefore, of qualifying for National Scholarships which, after 1863, functioned as the principal route to the advanced study of design at the newly reorganized National Art Training School in South Kensington.

The segregation of studies was further enforced by the DSA’s rigorous system of examination and inspection, which effectively prevented individual teachers and schools from deviating too much from the established norms. At the Lambeth School, where John Sparkes introduced a regime of applied technical instruction around 1860, a unique collaboration with Doulton’s manufactory for the production of “art-pottery” received no encouragement from the DSA, despite the high level of commercial success achieved by the new Doulton ware, a large proportion of which was designed and executed by Sparkes and his students. In fact, the Department’s increasingly vocal opposition to workshop instruction after the late 1860s, on the grounds that it constituted a subsidy to particular trades and industries, hindered the initiation and maintenance of experiments of this type.12

Generally speaking, the teaching in branch and provincial Schools of Art tended to remain at an agonizingly basic level, following a progression which led from a slow and tedious process of copying flat examples to a tightly controlled system of drawing from casts and, in a small minority of cases, on to the higher stages of the NCAI. As Hubert von Herkomer—who attended the Southampton School in 1863—later summarized it, the actual practice consisted of “stipple, stipple, stipple, night after night, for six or perhaps nine months, at one piece of ornament something under fourteen inches long.”13 The strict regulation of examinations and competitions ensured that students could not move up the curricular ladder too quickly. On average, a student with no previous experience took from one to two years to produce a medal drawing in one of the lower stages. In 1864 the Select Committee on Schools of Art was told that a “Mr. Fildes” from the Warrington School of Art took six months on a chalk drawing of apples, thus earning him a National Medallion that qualified him for a scholarship at South Kensington. (Luke Fildes ultimately became one of the Victorian era’s most successful painters.) Making it to the National Art Training School was extremely difficult for any single individual, no matter how talented; and even there, at the highest level of studies, the instruction left much to be desired.14

The Department’s commitment to advanced education had been rather halfhearted from the start, as workshop training and technical instruction involved a comparatively high level of investment in specialized teachers and facilities. From the beginning of his tenure in 1852, Cole made official pronouncements that reflect a discernible reluctance to engage in anything beyond the diffusion of elementary knowledge; and, by 1857, he felt confident enough in his newfound convictions to assert quite categorically that technical education, by its very nature, could not succeed.15 Those first few years of the Department’s existence were marked by a less-than-subtle effort to concentrate funds in London by bleeding the budget previously reserved for branch and provincial schools in order to offset elevated expenditures on the activities of the Central Training School. The DSA’s total appropriation was substantially increased at just the time when the special technical classes were abolished and the expenses of the Central Training School thereby radically reduced. Where was all the new money being spent? It is revealing that the demise of organized workshop training under the Department’s auspices coincides perfectly with the inception of its new role as custodian of the South Kensington site and with the intensification of the public display role of its collections.16

With the royal inauguration of the South Kensington Museum in 1857, the DSA’s lukewarm disposition toward advanced instruction began to translate into a concrete shift in investment priorities. Apart from the one-fifth spent on salaries, most of the million pounds or so voted for the DSA between 1853 and 1868 went to noneducational purposes within South Kensington itself, including administration, buildings, and collections.17 The high level of expenditure on the Museum attracted a great deal of criticism both from the press and in Parliament, including angry accusations that it was “nothing but a great toyshop for the amusement of the residents in the west-end,” as one member of Parliament phrased it in 1860.18 The Department countered such accusations by insisting that the Museum was important as a pedagogical aid and that the main purpose of its collections was to serve as examples for the training of students. During the 1860s, however, evidence contradicting this position began to multiply rapidly. Students in local and provincial schools continually complained that the Museum was inaccessible (fig. 71);Fig.71. A circulation logand, in 1864, a written statement from the students at South Kensington declared it to be of extremely limited utility, even to them. As one Lambeth artisan reported to the Society of Arts, the Museum “might as well be in the moon” for any advantage he could derive from it.19

As the frequency and intensity of these criticisms grew, the DSA felt pressured to justify its ever-increasing expenditure on collections, particularly the substantial amounts invested in paintings and other objects of only tangential relevance to design and decorative art, as opposed to the casts and copies which had been the mainstay of the old Museum of Manufactures. In a confidential memorandum of 1869, Cole listed a number of reasons why such spending should be allowed and even encouraged, including, of course, the familiar idea that the examples purchased were essential for study. His strongest argument, however, concerned not education but the idea that collecting was a positive investment in itself. Since ancient works of art tended to increase in value, it was profitable to purchase them whenever possible. If necessary, he surmised, the whole collection could be sold to the United States government for a handsome profit. Besides, Cole argued, since other countries were busy creating institutions similar to South Kensington, Britain would be exposed to contempt and ridicule for grudging expenditure of this type, adding, rather peevishly, that the British Museum and the National Gallery should be stopped from making purchases first because they were of less direct use to industry.20 This important memorandum reveals a very significant shift from the idea of collecting for teaching purposes toward the goal of collecting as an end in itself. For the first time in the short history of government-sponsored education in art and design, the suggestion was being made that the physical possession of antique and/or aesthetically desirable objects was a source of national wealth and prestige, quite apart from any potential for positive influence on people and production.

The emerging conflict between the purposes of education and collecting at South Kensington was to remain open and active long after the retirement of Cole and Redgrave in 1873 and 1875, respectively. When the Committee on Re-arrangement for the Art Division of the Victoria and Albert Museum was appointed in 1908, its main stated concern was the lack of “a clear definition of function” for the collections. Although the Museum had been founded originally as an instrument for stimulating the improvement of manufactures, crafts, and decorative design, the Committee suggested, the scope of that attribution had been almost insensibly enlarged over the years—dating from the acquisition of paintings under the Sheepshanks bequest of 1857—to a point at which the very purpose of the institution was shrouded in confusion.21

Fig.72. A lecture to visitors in one of the V&A sculpture galleriesEven today, this conflict still raises questions of profound importance in evaluating the historical function of the modern museum. On the one hand, there can be little doubt that the purposeful accumulation of historical objects during the nineteenth century was perceived to contribute directly to the improvement of design standards by providing examples for the producer of manufactured goods. On the other hand, the abundant indications that collections were often funded by diverting investment away from the direct training of artisans and designers might suggest that their primary purpose was not didactic but, rather, ostentation and display (fig. 72). A third hypothesis, advocated ever more stridently by Cole after his retirement, argued that the crucial educational role of museums resided in their ability to “create consumers” by molding and influencing public taste.22 Whereas the latter function has certainly been fulfilled by the subsequent development of museums—with the ubiquitous museum shop presenting the most familiar face of a vibrant heritage industry—the conflict between the former two roles remains largely unresolved.

The 1908 Committee was perhaps confusing cause and effect in singling out the acquisition of paintings as the point of rupture with the original task of technical instruction. The objets d’art included in the Bernal and Soulages collections (see cats. 50, 53, 71, 74), acquired even earlier, can similarly be subjected to a particular way of looking at objects that is intrinsic to the concept of collecting extraordinary specimens for their beauty, artistry, tastefulness, or superior design. The theory underlying the didactic display of objects of this kind would suggest that to do so incites emulation on the part of the producer and discernment on the part of the consumer or, in other words, that taste is thereby elevated and craftsmanship encouraged. The actual result of displaying objects in a museum setting has often been, however, to endow each of them with an aura of uniqueness and to enhance their claim (and that of their makers) to the status of model, archetype, or “original,” in relation to which anything similar is judged a mere imitation, good or bad. Ironically, such attributions of uncommon value tend to defeat the didactic purpose, transforming discernment into snobbery over possession and emulation into what nineteenth-century commentators commonly decried as “slavish copying.”

The DSA’s educational policymakers could not necessarily control the uses that were made of objects in the Museum, even though they sometimes desired to do so. Designers and manufacturers routinely appropriated historical patterns and shapes, reproducing them integrally or combining them in eclectic variations (see cat. 17). Both procedures violated Owen Jones’s sacrosanct rule that the forms of the past were never to be copied but only studied in order that their fundamental principles should be better understood.23 Display could thus function as a concrete stimulus to design, even if bypassing the formal mechanisms of instruction. The organizers of museums like those of South Kensington were to some degree aware of the contradictions involved in fetishizing individual objects and struggled to guard against them by contextualizing artifacts within broad typological displays, emphasizing not only differences between individual pieces but also their similarities. For them, the notion of “good design” rested implicitly on contrast with the bad and on exhaustive explanation of the principles underlying such distinctions (fig. 73),Fig.73. "The School of Bad Designs" especially in terms of understanding materials and techniques (see cat. 32). Thus, the labels for tinned peaches (cat. 21) exhibited in the early part of the twentieth century in many ways echo the sort of comparative display made famous by the “chamber of horrors” (as the 1852 “False Principles” installation was colloquially described). By focusing on the mundane and burying individuality in type (see cat. 30), this sort of display avoided the pitfall of subordinating the didactic purpose of collecting to the purely acquisitive one.24 Perhaps the more irreversible blow to the educational aspirations of South Kensington’s collections came when the objects and processes of production were largely split apart into separate museums of science and art.

The historical tension between collecting for the purpose of teaching and collecting for the purpose of hoarding treasure lies, fundamentally, in the way that objects are viewed and endowed with value. Although the growth of South Kensington’s collections during the latter half of the nineteenth century depended to a great extent on a deliberate erosion of its educational mission, these two aims are certainly not necessarily opposed. The thrust of outside criticism at the time was never that collecting should not be undertaken at all but that it should be made to conform to objectives and guidelines more general than the logic of accumulation for its own sake; and the main complaint on the part of DSA students was not that the displays were useless in themselves but, rather, that the difficulty and expense of gaining access to them negated their inherent value. It would be easy to condemn the accumulation of great collections as an example of how readily public monies are manipulated for more or less private purposes; yet, the objects themselves are not the problem, for they are capable of serving a variety of ends and, as A Grand Design demonstrates, are eminently susceptible to reinterpretation. The deeper ethical dilemma appears to lie in the relative value attributed to objects and to people, in the manner that the former are used to exclude a variety of social groupings from that broad set of aspirations encompassed by the word “culture” or, alternatively, to include them within it.25

During the early years of South Kensington’s existence, the pursuit of advanced popular education was undoubtedly sacrificed to a narrow vision of culture for the privileged few. From the vantage point of today, however, we cannot allow ourselves the luxury of looking back on that past with any sense of smugness. In an age when the noble ideal of public service is increasingly under threat, more than ever the challenge endures to reclaim the museum’s original educational mission, not by denying altogether the value of museums but by ensuring that accessibility and outreach continue to be treated as unassailable priorities.

Fig.65. Detail of cat.26.

Fig.74. Plaster casts of fragments of architectural decoration Fig.76. Illustration from the builder Fig.77. An art student sketching Michelangelo's David Fig.78. The royal Danish throne room
Fig.75. The cast making workshop of the V&A
I wish to acknowledge the support of the Brazilian Ministry of Education (CAPES) in funding the research Upon which this article is based.
For standard accounts of this process, see Pevsner, 1940, pp. 191-242; and Macdonald, 1970, pp. 20-31.
The history of the period 1837-52 is covered in Macdonald, 1970, chs. 3-5; as well as being rather colorfully described in Bell, 1963.
On the formation of the collections, see Physick, 1982, esp. pp. 13-8; and Purbrick, 1994.
As a Royal Academician and former teacher at the metropolitan School of Design, Redgrave occupied an ambiguous position in the debate between those who believed in the virtues of fine art training for prospective designers and those who advocated an entirely different type of ”technical" instruction geared to the particular demands of trade and industry; see Redgrave, 1891, pp. 358-9. For more on Redgrave's career, see Burton, 1988.
See, for example, Argles, 1964, p. 21; Macdonald, 1970, p. 157; or AIlthorpe-Guyton, 1982, pp. 21, 83-5.
Redgrave, 1853, p. 59.
Department of Science and Art, 1856, pp. 26-7.
For an overview of the development of the London school, see Frayling and Catterall, 1996, pp. 20-8.
Department of Science and Art, 1856, pp. 26-7.
Amateur day classes, for instance -which were officially encouraged from 1853- usually cost not less than 10s. 6d. [ten shillings and sixpence] per quarter and often as much as 21s. Evening classes for artisans, on the other hand, usually cost around 2s. 6d. per quarter, sometimes less. For basic data on types of classes held in local Schools of Art and their operation, see Select Committee on Schools of Art, 1864,
See Department of Science and Art, 1854, pp. xi-xlvi; Cole, 1831-82, vol. 9, pp. 13-4; Department of Science and Art, 1865a, p. 14; A. S. Cole and H. Cole, 1884, vol. 1, p. 305; and Macdonald, 1970, p. 176.
Select Committee on Schools of Art, 1864, pp. 47-8; Royal Commission on Technical Instruction, 1881, Second Report (1884), pp. 98-103; and Bishop, 1971, pp.177.
Herkomer, 1890, p. 20.
Select Committee on Schools of Art, 1864, pp. 65-9, 72, 92. For descriptions of the teaching regime at South Kensington, see Poynter, 1879, p. 106; Clausen, 1912, pp. 155-61; and Fildes, 1968, pp. 3-4.
See Department of Science and Art, 1857, p. 6; and A. S. Cole and H. Cole, 1884, vol. 2, p. 289; see also Burchett, 1858, p. 28.
For an insightful analysis of the inception and development of the Museum, see Purbrick,1994.
Cole, 1831-82, vol. 9; Select Committee on Scientific Instruction, 1864a, vol. 15, pp. 47-8, 450-1.
Hansard's Parliamentary Debates, 3rd series, vol. 160, p. 1308. For examples of press criticism, see Building News, 1864, p. 320; and Smith, 1864, p. 219.
Select Committee on Schools of Art, 1864, pp. 74, 81; and Journal of the Society of
Arts, vol. 16 (1868), p. 179.
Cole, 1831-82, vol. 16, pp. 51-2. The sum expended on purchases and acquisitions in 1869 was £30,147, equivalent to thirteen percent of the total parliamentary vote for that year.
V&A, 1908, pp. 4-5, 12.
Cole, 1878, p. 13.
Jones, 1856, pp. 1-3.
Unfortunately, the taxonomical dimension of this type of Museum project lent itself admirably to the worst excesses of cultural imperialism as well; for more on this, see ´The Empire of Things" articles in the present publication.
For a fuller discussion of the social and ethical dimensions of collecting, see Elsner and Cardinal, 1994, esp. pp. 2-5.
Catalogue Images
cat.14. The Grammar of Ornament cat.15. Album Book cat.16. Architectural Model of a Large Lateral Arch cat.17. "Alhambresque
cat.18. Samples of textiles in silk and cotton cat.19. Printed Furnishing cat.20. Gas Jet cat.21. Labels for "Sunny West" Tinned Peaches
cat.22. Cresting from a Gate cat.23. Four Pilaster Capitals cat.24. Ornamental Panels cat.25. The West Front of Santiago Cathedral
cat.26. Fig Leaf for David cat.131. Michelangelo's Madonna and Child cat.28. Two Rosenborg Castle Lions cat.29. Saint Luke
cat.30. Group of Candlesticks cat.31. Ornemens Inventéz par Jean Berain cat.32. The Process of Cutting a Shell Cameo cat.33. Saint Agnes
cat.34. River Scene cat.35. The Great Pyramid, and the Great Sphinx cat.36. A Professor Showing an Experiment on an Air Pump cat.37. Cruelty in Perfection
cat.38.1. The Large Woodcut cat.38.2. The Large Woodcut cat.39.1. The Sexton Disguised as a Ghost cat.39.2. The Sexton Disguised as a Ghost