Photoplastic Protoplasm

The following is our first student ‘guest post,’ submitted by Ann Christie … enjoy!

I’m one of the students on the MA in History of Design at the V&A/RCA and just starting to research textile production at the turn of the twentieth century for the dissertation next year. One of the sources for this research is the pattern books which survive in the archives of many textile manufacturers.

Before I started research I imagined pattern books would generally equate to the manufacturers’ books of swatches a customer today can use to view a range of available fabrics. But in fact they serve a whole range of purposes from this interface with the customer, to the firm’s internal records of orders, to notebooks with samples of other manufacturers’ fabrics used to analyse the weave or estimate the costs of production. It’s fascinating how many different ways there are to record this visual and technical information.


These huge early twentieth century books of Courtaulds in the V&A’s Archive of Art and Design at Blythe House are literally sample books, with large swatches of fabrics woven as prototypes to test specified designs and yarns for internal departments or outside customers. Other information, such as the weave instructions, or results of the tests with recommendations, is often stuck into the same page alongside the sample:

The nice thing at this early stage of research is that in the interests of gathering context it seems quite justified to ramble about picking up and turning over possibly useful bits of background information. I came across five turn-of-the-century books from one of the companies Courtaulds acquired, J.W and C. Ward, which (though probably nothing to do with my research) are enticingly listed as ‘containing small photographs of curtains and furnishing fabric designs’. Among various methods of recording patterns – from the swatch itself to diagrams to the technical languages of weave analysis – it’s the first time I’d seen photographs mentioned. So it became a brief and intriguing diversion into the history of industrial photography.

What these books seem to be is a reference list of patterns, numbered consecutively and mostly with a very brief description such as ‘tapestry curtain’. Notes occasionally suggest markets – the UK, the US, the world – or that the design has been withdrawn. Only very occasionally are the patterns recorded with a swatch of the fabric itself, otherwise by pen and ink drawings or by tiny photographs. Some of these are cyanotype prints – the iron-salts process which makes a permanent image of startling Prussian blue, as in the image below left.


I thought at first these might have been taken as a photogram directly from the fabric, but the scale would be useless for the purposes of the records in this little book. So they would have to be contact printed from negatives, as is clear from those which show the draping of the fabric (above right).

The rest are (I presume) gelatine-silver prints in tones of warm brown to cool blacks, and they range, like the cyanotypes, from intimations of the materiality of the fabric – its texture and 3-dimensionality – to photographs of designs where the object photographed is a sketch on squared paper:


So what’s going on here? Is there some sort of hierarchy of authenticity which, largely dismissing the real fabric as impractically bulky for this purpose, takes the photograph as the next best thing?

The image (above right) of the photograph pasted over a coloured drawing – on the face of it a better and clearer record – suggests that might be happening…  Is a photograph seen as evidence of ownership of the design? Or is it something to do with skill and time, that the job of drawing, and to scale, designs for record purposes would take those draughtsmen away from other work, whereas the photography could be done (sometimes conspicuously badly, as in the image to the left) by anyone with an interest and access to basic photographic equipment? Certainly the lack of uniformity in the photographs suggests they weren’t commissioned professionally, and not done as a retrospective project but over time. Could one of the senior members of the firm have had a particular enthusiasm for photography?
A clue to this might just be in one of the designs. Among the huge variety of designs – intricately patterned, geometric, art-nouveau-ish, only a few have any hint of the provenance of the design itself. There is a nice note on one example referring to the inspiration of a fifteenth century painting.

Some of the later ones list the designer, among them prominent names such as Harry Napper and the Silver Studio; one is labelled Dresser – presumably Christopher, though dated four years after his death. But one odd image of dark organic blobs is titled ‘Photoplastic Protoplasm’ which suggests how photomicrography and X-rays were revealing structures and patterns in nature with the potential for translation into design:

Jennifer Tucker’s book Nature Exposed: Photography as Eyewitness in Victorian Science gives a great account of popular as well as scientific interest in bacteria, for example, through the role of photography in contemporary publications.

So I wonder if there was a personal interest here in what photography can do for production; not just as a way of recording but as a tool for design.