Published date: 22 April 2013

The rise of an increasingly affluent Victorian middle class and the availability of mass manufactured goods, including furniture and textiles, contributed to an intense interest in the concept of ‘home’ and questions of taste. Magazines and books giving advice on the subject proliferated, and achieving a tasteful home appropriate to one’s social station became a matter of great importance. This was also the period at which design copyright was introduced, leading to the formation of the unique collection of designs registered for copyright held by The National Archives. The talk discusses this collection, and the insight it gives into Victorian interior design.

Julie Halls works in the Modern Domestic Records team at The National Archives as the records specialist for Board of Trade records, which include Registered Designs.

This talk was based on research for an article published in the Journal of Design History (J Halls, Questions of Attribution: Registered Designs at The National Archives. Journal of Design History, published 22 February 2013).

Author: Julie Halls

Duration: 00:46:39

Release date: 22/04/2013

Producer: The National Archives

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Good afternoon everyone, my name is Julie Halls and I work in the Modern Domestic Records team here at The National Archives. Today’s talk will be about interior design in the Victorian period, taking examples from The National Archives collection of registered design to illustrate the changing styles and approaches to decorating the home.

I’ll talk about the social and economic factors that led to the rise of interest in the decorative arts in the nineteenth century such as increasing affluence, especially amongst the middle classes, changing ideas about what the home signified and the mass manufacture of decorative goods.

Next we’ll look at the factors that led to the creation of the registered designs. These include concerns about piracy of the designs; and also about the quality of British design and the inability of British decorative goods to compete in the markets.

The main section of the talk will be about the Design Reform Movement, the efforts of Henry Cole and his circle to change public taste and the work of the other key figures associated with design reform. We’ll see, despite the efforts in the 1840s and 1850s to dictate what constituted good design, ideas about design constantly changed and evolved. I won’t attempt to talk about every type of home and interior at every level of society, that would be too huge an area to cover, but instead I’ll try to give a broad overview of the main developments.

For many of us ‘Victorian design’ conjures up an image like this one, a painting by Frith called ‘Many Happy Returns of the Day’, which depicts over-elaborate, over-furnished interiors with mahogany furniture, plush curtains, dark walls and heavily patterned carpet. In reality though design in this period was very varied and changed hugely between the beginning and end of Victoria’s reign.

A number of factors came together to cause a huge interest in interior design. Perhaps the most important was the rise in disposable income for a large part of the population resulting in an ever more affluent middle class. Britain was the wealthiest nation in the world with its colonies and industrial dominance and the professional and merchant classes were wealthier than they’d ever been.

The middle classes were divided into numerous strata, and below them, in terms of wealth, were the vast majority of the nation’s population, the manual workers and their families who comprised the working class. As in the middle classes there were many over-lapping hierarchies. Not surprisingly the poorer classes spent a lot of their income on housing and food. But even in the poorest households status was marked by the ability to possess goods. However, the obsession with good taste within the home was broadly a middle class preoccupation

The quote and the title of the talk came from ‘The Journal of Design and Manufactures’ in 1850 which described the appropriate decoration and furnishing of dwellings as ‘a momentous question’. As we shall see the question of taste was a matter of intense discussion and debate, and people were anxious that their homes were a reflection of their social status. Spending on decorative goods was a matter of keeping up appearances; items of clothing, furniture and interior decoration were associated with class and all its gradations and people were expected to show evidence of good taste.

It was a fraught area. The influential style writer, Mary Stickney Ellis thought it ‘scarcely necessary to point out the loss of influence and character occasioned by living below our station.’

At the same time, trying too hard could lead to disapproval. In George Grub’s book ‘New Grub Street’, the home of a character living in one of the new suburbs of London is described as:

‘a small house, rather showily rather than handsomely furnished; no-one after visiting it would be astonished to hear that Mrs Edmund Yale had but a small income, and that she was often put to desperate expedients to keep up the gloss of easy circumstances.’

The advice book writer Jane Ellen Panton stated the situation plainly advising ‘in starting to buy furniture… let us consider not what is handsome or effective or taking of the eye, but what is suitable for the husband’s position.’ According to Mrs Panton even the décor of the hallway could make or break a potential friendship, if well decorated it would ‘disclose immediately to the eyes of the caller that here is the abode of people who care for their home…. and thus denote that they are worthy of cultivating, for no doubt they will turn out to be desirable friends.’

Moral values came to be attached to the decoration of the home, for example, extravagance was immoral and thrift was moral. It was best to know one’s place and live accordingly.

A second reason for the huge market for decorative items was the development of what could be called ‘A cult of the home’. As well as having greater disposable income, Victorians began to separate their world into the public sphere of work and trade and the private sphere of home life and domesticity. Following the Industrial Revolution the home became increasingly to be thought of as a refuge. More and more work was moving outside the home, for example piecework, which was produced at home, changed to factory work, and professionals, such as doctors and lawyers, tended to work in offices

Women who had helped their husbands in their work were now separated from where this took place and became housewives instead. Those who could afford to move to the suburbs, away from the cities where they worked, so for many women the home became the focus of their existence. A woman was expected to become what Dickens termed, in his book, Edwin Drood, ‘a ministering angel to domestic bliss.’

This well-known painting by Holman-Hunt, ‘The Awakening Conscience’ shows a kept woman who has suddenly seen the error of her ways. To Victorian eyes the furnishing would have seemed very bright and new and the room quite vulgar in that it contained all the new fashions of that time. This made it obvious that it had been set up for a mistress and that it was not a family home. A strange element in a period so devoted to the idea of progress was that new often equalled bad. Commenting on this painting the critic, John Ruskin said that ‘everything in it showed a fatal newness and nothing had the old thoughts of home upon it’. The decoration of the interior underlined the immorality of the woman’s situation.

A well-kept house was also a reflection of moral rectitude, our friend Mrs Panton was also certain that when people care for their homes they were much better in every way mental and morally than those who only regard them as places to eat and sleep in. The cat playing with a bird under the table and the sheet music on the floor are indications that this is not a well cared for home.

A third cause for the rise in consumption of decorative items was industrialisation, the mass production of goods had really taken off flooding the market with a huge variety of cheap products, catering to all levels of society. Britain led the world in manufacturing, particularly in unfinished goods made using coal and steam, like iron and steel products and cotton yarn and cloth, much of which were exported to less developed countries. However there was a problem, and that was that we were unable to compete in the markets for goods that depended on skilled designers and craftsmen such as ceramics, glassware and furniture, in fact all of the decorative arts. The French in particular were seen to have greatly superior taste and highly skilled craftsmen, whereas the British were churning out poorly designed goods on a huge scale. There was a fear that once France caught up to British manufacturing skills it would overtake the markets completely.

Machine production also exacerbated another problem; piracy of designs. One of the earliest industries to be affected was the textile industry. Technical advances meant that cotton production increased hugely from the 1760s onwards. Producing a design on a global scale only to have it pirated could mean huge financial losses for manufacturers and piracy increased as demand for printed textiles grew.

As we can see from this slide, a plethora of styles were being produced at this time and it was a period of revivals. Rococo, Renaissance, Gothic and Classical styles were all popular and were sometimes combined in the same item. Here we can see a Rococo chair, a Gothic jug, what is described as an ‘Alhambra’ plate (which became known as the Moorish style) and Tudor style sideboard. This was known as ‘The Kenilworth Buffet’ and was displayed at the Great Exhibition in 1851, its now on display at Warwick Castle.

It was growing concern about the quality of British design and about piracy of designs that led to the creation of the Design Records at The National Archives. In 1835 a Select Committee was set up to:

‘inquire into the best means of extending knowledge of the Arts and of the Principles of Design among the People (especially the Manufacturing Population) of the Country; [and] to inquire into the Constitution, Management and the Effect of Institutions connected with the Arts.’

It concluded that the causes of the problem were increasing mechanisation, so that quantity increased at the expense of quality. We led the world in manufacturing techniques but were churning out all sorts of rubbish. Another problem was seen to be poor taste on the part of the general public fed by increasing affluence, the availability of cheap goods, constantly changing fashions and a lack of opportunities to see examples of good taste. Piracy of designs was also blamed for the problems. Manufacturers were reluctant to invest in skilled designers when their work would be copied almost immediately and the copies sold more cheaply.

In 1836 the report of the Select Committee made three key recommendations:

• Museums and galleries should be established, where the general public could go to see examples of good design. They hoped that exposure to examples of ‘good taste’ would encourage consumers to demand better designs.

• Schools of design should be set up, where artisans could go to be educated and trained to recognise and produce better design.

• A copyright system should be established for all ornamental designs, similar to the one that already existed in France

There was a genuine held belief that the problems in the markets could be solved through aesthetic reform. The Government School of Design, now the Royal College of Arts was set up in Kensington in 1837 and run by the Board of Trade. After a shaky start, the civil servant and design reformer, Henry Cole took over the running of the school and it became much more successful with numerous other Schools of Design set up around the country.

The third recommendation, a system of copyright for ornamental design was implemented in 1839, which is where the Registered Designs enter the picture. In 1839 the Designs Registry was set up under the Board of Trade to protect ornamental design, the records for designs registered under this original Act are in The National Archives Record Series BT42.

In 1842 the scope of copyright was extended and thirteen material classes were introduced to try to cover all the decorative arts. The classes included earthenware, glassware, wallpapers, metalwork and various categories of textiles. These records are in The National Archives Record Series BT43 and BT44, which cover the period 1842-1883 and they are the main set of records that we will be looking at today

A number of other Acts followed, including one in 1851 which covered inventions shown in the Great Exhibition. Setting up the Designs Registry was one of the key ways in which reformers hoped to improve the quality of design. The hope was that manufacturers would feel it was worthwhile to spend money on good designers and good designs safe in the knowledge that they wouldn’t be copied straightaway. The Records consist of Registers which include the allocated Register Design Number, the name and address of the proprietor (this was the copyright holder usually a manufacturer or retailer rather than the actual designer) and sometimes a brief description of the object.

Along with the Registers, there are Books of Representations. Proprietors had to provide two representations of their design at the time of registration. One they kept and one would be stamped with the Registered Design Number and retained by the Registry. Representations can consist of drawings, paintings, photographs and samples of cloth and wallpaper. These were pasted into leather bound volumes, many of which are huge and extremely heavy, as you can see from this photo of a volume of wallpaper samples; the paperback is just to give a sense of scale.

The Records in BT43 and BT44 have recently been cataloged online by item, so you can search for design by Registered Design Number, proprietor, date, address and description. There is a research guide on Registered Design on our website that has more information about various Record Series.

The drive to improve design gave rise to what became known as the Design Reform Movement. Henry Cole, one of the main figures in the movement, lobbied the government for support in his campaign to improve standards in industrial design getting the backing of Prince Albert. In 1840 he collected together ornaments to demonstrate excellence in design and manufacture to be used to educate students at the School of Design. In 1852 this collection became the Museum of Ornamental Art at Marlborough House, before eventually moving and evolving into the V & A.

Cole was hugely influential, but was sometimes critised for his didactic approach. In the drive to improve the taste of the general public he put on an exhibition in the museum in Marlborough House called ‘False Principles in Decoration’, which became known as the ‘Chamber of Horrors’ to illustrate where British manufacturers were going wrong.

The chief of vices was seen to be direct imitation of nature, demonstrated by a furniture chintz imitating ribbons and roses on a flat surface and lacking a symmetrical pattern, like the carpet design shown here. Another faux-pas was to mix different styles, as in this furniture fabric which has Spanish bull-fighting scenes and a chintz design mixed together and the wallpaper which is imitating metal and has a three-dimensional effect. Decoration of an object should be true to the object, what appears to be a stuffed fox does not reflect the function of a footstool

The ‘Chambers of Horrors’, although popular, led to great nervousness amongst home-owners about correct taste and this fear is much parodied in novels and journals of the time. The Registered Design are full of what the Design Reformers thought of as those horrors, and to look through them suggests that flowery wallpaper and carpets never went out of fashion. Ideas about design also changed rapidly, making it hard to know what to choose and giving ride to a huge number of advice manuals and journals as we saw earlier.

These are examples of designs that conformed to Henry Cole and his circle’s theories of ‘correct’ taste. This water carafe was designed by the artist Richard Redgrave who became Headmaster of the Government School of Design in 1848 and became Art Superintendent in 1852. It was made for Henry Cole’s design company, Felix Summerly Art Manufacturers. The colouring and decoration of water reeds was deemed appropriate for a water carafe

The wallpaper was designed by Owen Jones, another Design Reformer, which has the flat, geometrical pattern deemed appropriate for wallpaper; three dimensional effects were considered incorrect. Similarly, the tile has a flat pattern and does not attempt to imitate nature like the flowery carpet on the previous slide.

The Grandville chair is by Edward Wellby Pugin (the son of Augustus Pugin), now best known for his work with Charles Barry on the Houses of Parliament. The form is simple and functional and what Pugin regarded as honest. The functional elements are not disguised but, instead, are essential to the design. The chair clearly shows the link between Augustus Pugin’s precepts, which we’ll look at next, and those of the Arts and Crafts Movement later in the century.

Henry Cole’s principles of design didn’t impress everyone. The influential critic, John Ruskin, was offended by the idea of a rule-bound system. He believed that each individual craftsman should get their own inspiration from nature and, as we shall see, many designers formed their own ideas of about what constituted ‘good taste’.

This is an important collection of records, not least in terms of the numbers of examples of the work of most of the leading figures of the Reform Movement. These examples are an opportunity to study the designer’s work firsthand. The fact that the designs were registered may reveal something about their working methods

Pugin was a pioneer of Design Reform and advocated a revival of the Gothic style, which he associated with a pre-Industrial Age when craftsmen were valued, society had a clear structure and Christianity was reflected in everyday life. He believed that a nation’s art was a symptom of its moral health.

We hold a number of Pugin’s design, including fabrics, carpets and wallpapers. [As] Registered Designs are registered by the copyright holder, usually a manufacturer or retailer; it can be difficult to trace an individual designer. It’s a bit easier to attribute designs in the case of well-known names because we know which companies they were associated with.

Pugin was the first architect and designer to design items for general use by members of the public. He worked with the manufacturer John Crace, as well as the tile company Mintons who carried on selling his designs long after his death in 1852. This tile was registered by them in 1873, which is very similar to a design in the British Museum, which has been given a probable attribution to Pugin. It bears all his hallmarks, the bird motif, Gothic script and improving motto (‘Deus providebit’ – God will provide). There must have been a companion tile with the rest of the motto on, but this doesn’t appear to have been registered.

We’ve been able to give the furniture fabric a definite attribution to Pugin, and a curator from the V&A has confirmed that this wallpaper is also a Pugin design. These examples illustrate his use of medieval and rich decoration. He used flat patterns, believing that creating an illusion of depth was somehow dishonest. His belief, that a piece of architecture or design should clearly express its purpose both symbolically and practically, became a cornerstone of Victorian Design Reform.

The Registered Designs provide a great opportunity to see not only ideal examples of particular styles, but also the ways in which they were popularised and misinterpreted. They are an exceptional resource in this regard because every day, often ephemeral material is far less likely to survive than artefacts aimed at a more elite market, which are more likely to have been preserved in museums and galleries. Pugin was mortified by the way his Gothic precepts were misinterpreted, for example he described wallpaper such as this one as ‘what are termed Gothic pattern papers are a wretched caricature of a pointed building is repeated from the cornice to the skirting in terrible confusion, door over pinnacle, pinnacle over door.’

However, these wallpapers remained popular and were often used in rooms that were considered the domains of men, such as libraries. This jug, known as an ‘apostle’ jug was a very popular and affordable item and depicts figures in architectural niches. The Gothic style became all-pervading and became adapted for every type of item getting further and further away from Pugin’s intentions.
We have registrations for a Japanned Gothic Coal Vase, a Gothic pickle bottle and a Gothic door for a bird cage, literally going from the sublime to the ridiculous.

Owen Jones was another key figure from the Design Reform Movement. He was a leading architect and designer who was asked to create the interior of the 1851 Great Exhibition building. He was also a key figure in the founding of the South Kensington Museum, later the V & A, along with Henry Cole. He traveled widely, researching different styles of design and was particularly inspired by Islamic designs, as we can see in the names of some of these wallpapers.

Jones’ book, The Grammar of Ornament, published in 1856, attempted to categorise types of design by style and period and became hugely influential. His design principles became part of the teaching framework for the Schools of Design. He developed a whole language of design, one element of which, like Pugin, was all ornament should be based on geometric construction. Jones’ design precepts differed from Pugin’s in that he was motivated by commercial as well as aesthetic concerns and one of his aims was to improve the status of British decorative art overseas. We have many examples of his wallpaper designs at The National Archives; these ones were registered by John Tromble and Company.

Owen Jones was particularly influenced by Islamic design and led the way in the Victorian revival of what is termed the ‘Moorish’ style in architecture and decoration. Jones was given joint responsibility, along with Matthew Digby Wyatt, for the decoration and layout of the new Crystal Palace in Siddenham in 1864. They designed a series of fine arts courts which would take the visitor through a tour of the history of design and ornament. Jones built a recreation of the Alhambra Palace, Spain, which he had visited years earlier and which had greatly influenced his theories on design. He also designed the Egyptian, Greek and Roman courts.

By the 1890s, ordinary domestic interiors were being filled by Eastern promise, probably not quite in the way in which Owen Jones envisaged. This was probably due to the influence of the department stores, Liberties, which set up a furnishing and decoration studio in 1883, initially specialising in Moorish furniture and imported latticework.

Around 1860, ideas about the links between fine and decorative arts changed in a way that had a profound effect for the development of style. The activities of art furnishers promoted a new attitude towards design by producing furniture and other decorative items that had artistic content. At first this was a minority taste promoted by people like William Morris and the Pre-Raphaelites, but by the end of the century the term ‘artistic’ had become a signal of the latest in design led by the idea that art and artistic feeling are as much led by the design of furniture and other items for the home as the fine arts of sculpture and painting.

Morris was also a key campaigner in the movement to reform design and was strongly influenced by Pugin. Like Pugin he associated good design with moral values and believed in the intrinsic value of craftsmanship, the value of art for everyone, the importance of pleasure in work and the democratisation of work. He always regretted that his handmade methods inevitably meant that his products were only ministering to the swinish luxury of the rich. I’m not sure how that would have gone down with his wealthier clients!

Morris and company fought against contemporary commercialism and aimed to produce every type of furniture and furnishings. The National Archives hold at least 50 William Morris samples, including ‘Trellis’, shown here, which was the first wallpaper design by Morris, Marshall, Faulkner and Co., set by Morris with the Pre-Raphaelites. The original design was on display at the recent Pre-Raphaelites exhibition at Tate Britain. ‘Trellis’ was designed by Morris for the Red House and the birds were drawn by the architect Phillip Webb. We also hold a number of original Morris and Co designs including the furniture fabric design on the left.

These are four more samples of William Morris wallpaper and fabrics held at The National Archives. ‘Daisy’ was also registered by Morris, Marshall, Faulkner and Co and was the first wallpaper by the company to actually be put into production. The design was inspired by a 15th century illuminated manuscript and reflects the influence of Pugin’s medievalism. Along with one of Morris’ more popular designs, ‘Pomegranates’, they also demonstrate his interest in naturalism in ornament. The official disapproval of the direct imitation of nature didn’t extend to all use of natural ornament and it was considered appropriate if the design reflected the natural behaviour of plants. It’s easy to see why the public got confused and needed so many advice books.

The 19th century was a period when colour schemes changed rapidly, crimson had been the height of fashion, then peacock blues, magentas and pink came into vogue with the advent of new dying technologies. Other fleeting colour fashions were known as ‘Britannia Violet’, ‘Manchester Yellow’, ‘Manchester Brown’, and the tempting sounding ‘London Dust’. But William Morris and the advent of the Aesthetic Movement brought softer colours into fashion.

Just as an aside, interior design in this period carried with it some risks. As well as lead in paint, many wallpapers were made from dyes containing poisonous materials. Green wallpapers were particularly dangerous, as they were made with an arsenic base. The historian Judith Flanders suggests that this is why a change of air was often worked well for invalids. They were being slowly poisoned at home and felt better once away. Recent research on a sample of William Morris’ ‘Trellis’ wallpaper suggests that despite his careful manufacturing methods even the green dye used in the stems contained arsenic.

Nowadays we associate William Morris with the Arts and Crafts Movement, but this term was not actually coined until the 1880s when the Guild of Handicrafts was formed. Morris was the President of the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society from 1893-1896, the year of his death. His wallpapers and fabrics were also hugely popular with followers of the Aesthetic Movement.

Whereas William Morris and his followers still associated good design with moral values and the belief that exposure to beauty could exert an improving moral influence. The Aesthetic Movement championed art for art’s sake, its followers believed art, in which they included decorative items for the home, didn’t need to have any underlying moral purpose but only needed to be beautiful.

The wallpaper shown on the top left, by Bruce Talbot, won a gold medal at the International Exhibition in Paris in 1878. Talbot was one of the most prolific and inspirational designers of the Aesthetic Movement, designing furniture and metalwork as well as wallpapers and fabrics. We have a number of examples of his designs at The National Archives.

This peacock wallpaper by Walter Crane was registered by the art wallpaper company, Jeffrey and Co which used a version of it as their logo. The sideboard shown on the top right has become one of the most famous pieces of nineteenth century furniture. Its geometrical form and plain ebonised surfaces continued to appeal to modernists throughout the twentieth century. It demonstrates the influence of Japanese art and design on British decorative arts especially in the 1860s and 1870s, as does the ebonised chair by Godwin. The original design for this, which was registered by the cabinet maker William Watt.

There were many examples of what became known as art designers amongst the Registered Designs. This may be because copyright became a hotly contested issue again by the 1870s, with the rise of named designers who equated their work with fine art and were keen to keep control of their work, registering designs was one way of doing this.

The Books of Representations are full of designs which use the Aesthetic Movement’s symbols of sunflowers, peacocks, blue and white china and Japanese fans. This artistic approach to design was eclectic and was heavily influenced by Japanese traditions. Its followers included the artists William MacNeil Whistler and Gabriel Rosetta and the designers Bruce Talbot, E.W. Godwin, Christopher Dresser and Walter Crane. Many of the key avant-garde architects and designers interested themselves not only in working for wealthy clients, but also in the reform of design for the middle-class home.

Although to us, a room decorated to William Morris designs might look a little overwhelming, it created the opposite impression at the time and was considered to be an indication of subdued good taste. Writers on interior design recommended papers in quiet or subdued colours, but were rich yet grave or calm but cheerful. The photograph here is of the Dining Room at Linley Samboune House, at 18 Stafford Terrace in South Kensington.

The Sambourne’s were a prosperous middle-class family. Linley Sambourne was a cartoonist for Punch magazine and the house is one of the best surviving examples of the Victorian middle-class home decorated in the Aesthetic Style. Although Sambourne parodied the movement in his cartoons, his own house was full of fashionable trappings. The walls are decorated with William Morris’ popular wallpaper design ‘Pomegranates’, we can’t see it very clearly here but the advice was to divide the wall into three sections with different but complementary patterns in the dado, frilling and frieze.

Broadly speaking the Aesthetic Interior contained far fewer ornaments and less furniture than had been customary in the middle of the century although as we can see here, they were still very full by our standards. In the Aesthetic home heavily carved furniture, large mirrors in gilt frames, white ceilings and bright colours were considered vulgar. While shades of soft green, blue and white porcelain, Japanese fans and peacock feathers and William Morris wallpaper were the mark of an artistic home. Incidentally Linley Sambourne House is open for guided tours if anyone would like to go and see it!

The Aesthetic Style was hugely popular and was promoted by well-known names, notably Oscar Wilde who wrote and gave lectures on the subject of The House Beautiful. Famously saying ‘I find it harder and harder every day to live up to my blue china’. But despite being satirised in the press, the style remained popular until the end of the nineteenth century

Christopher Dresser was a radical and a pioneering designer, and a close associate of Owen Jones. He was educated and lectured at the London School of Design and wrote extensively on the subject. In 1855 he became Professor of Artistic Botany at Department of Science and Art and many of his design illustrate his interest in organic plant forms. Dresser produced startlingly modern looking ceramic and metalwork designs, as well as a large number of wallpapers and textiles. Although he was a contemporary of William Morris, he differed from Morris in that he embraced new technologies and designed for industrially-based manufacturers making full use of the latest techniques of mass production. He is sometimes referred to as the Father of Industrial Design.

However, he shared Morris’ belief in the moral potential of design, believing that ornamentation was a fine art that ‘should ennoble and elevate our fellow creatures’. Dresser designed utilitarian objects for the general public, his most innovative designs were for objects to be made in metal, like this teapot on display at the V & A, which isn’t at all what most of us picture when we envisage Victorian design.

His design for metalwork objects are often completely abstract shapes, by contrast his designs for ceramics and glass often resemble plant forms in their shapes. The shape of this vase is sometimes called ‘double-gourd’. The vase was made by James Cooper and Sons in Glasgow and was sold exclusively through Liberty’s who registered it in 1888.

Dresser’s central idea was fitness, or adaptation to purpose, and he believed it was possible to produce artistic objects that were entirely without ornament, a revolutionary concept! Dresser complained in the 1870s that designs were appearing under his name that were not his work, which may explain why he registered a number of his designs, including textiles, wallpapers, metalworks, ceramics and glassware.

Along with Bruce Talbot and Christopher Dresser, Walter Crane was one of the key designers associated with both the Aesthetic and Arts and Crafts Movements, as well as being one of the driving forces behind design reform. He became the first President of the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society formed in 1887 and Head of the Royal College of Arts in 1897. He began designing wallpaper in 1874 after his name was suggested to Netford Warner, the Director of Jeffrey and Co, by the designer Bruce Talbot. He subsequently became one of Jeffrey and Co’s most important designers. As well as wallpapers, he designed textiles, stained glass and ceramics.

Crane was a campaigning socialist who believed passionately that handicrafts were equal in beauty and value to what was termed the fine arts, as we can see in this quote from the Introduction of the Catalogue of the first Arts and Crafts Exhibition of 1888. He said:

‘The true root and basis of all Art lies in the handicrafts. If there is no room or chance of recognition for really artistic power and feeling in design and craftsmanship, if art is not recognised in the humblest object and material and felt to be as valuable in its own way as the highly rewarded pictorial skill, the arts cannot be in a sound condition. If artists cease to be found among the crafts there is a great danger that they will vanish from the arts also and become manufacturers and salesmen instead.’

These are two of Crane’s earliest designs for wallpaper, created in 1875. They demonstrate his imaginative use of flat pattern design which he recommended for wallpapers. The stylised forms of the swans are suggestive of Greek vase paintings which influenced his style at this time. ‘Swan, rush and iris’ was designed as a dado, with ‘Iris and kingfisher’ being intended as the filling or main section of wallpaper.

By the 1870s the English had become world leaders in terms of the quantity of wallpaper sold and were also winning awards for design. Walter Crane, Bruce Talbot, William Morris and Christopher Dresser were much admired abroad, especially in the United States, and their work became to be identified with a distinctive English school of decoration.

Walter Crane was well known as an illustrator of children’s books and he was asked by Jeffrey and Company to design a series of wallpapers for children. ‘Froggy, he would a wooing go,’ was registered in 1877 was particularly popular. He designed figurative, often narrative, wallpapers, drawing on Greek myth, fairy tales and nursery rhymes. ‘Almond blossom and swallow’ was intended to be a frieze and was exhibited at the International Exhibition in Paris in 1878 where it was awarded a gold medal. The design is suggestive of Japanese art, very popular at this time. ‘Peacocks and amorini’, a more formal design was used by William Morris in part of his commission to redecorate parts of St James Palace.

The Arts and Crafts Movement was associated with moral and political theories as well as a return to traditional craftsmanship, it was an approach to manufacture as well as to style, and developed in the 1880s as a group of artists and designers came together to share their ideas. The Movement was heavily influenced by the theories of William Morris who, as I mentioned, was the President of the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society for the three years to his death in 1896.

The Movement had a strong socialist element championing the rights of craftsmen to be properly rewarded and their skills appreciated. Members of the Movement turned away from huge factories and set up small workshops which concentrated not on speed and economy, but on the practical skills of the workers and the pleasure derived from craftsmanship. Like Pugin before them, the Movement believed that the architecture and interior design of a building should form a cohesive whole. Their furniture design stressed honesty of production which structural features often becoming the focal point of the decoration.

At the end of the nineteenth century and intro the beginning of the twentieth century, we can begin to see the development of the curved flowing lines and sinuous shapes that the style shared with Art Nouveau. This spoon was designed by Archibald Knox for Liberty’s, possibly to celebrate the coronation of Edward VII, Knox’s work has been described as both Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveau, illustrating the difficulties of trying to categorise designs.

This unassuming looking stool was also registered by Liberty’s and became something of a design classic, selling in huge numbers. The textiles you see here also show the move away from formal geometric patterns to far more free flowing designs.

So were the 1835 Select Committee’s recommendations followed and was design reform successful? By the end of Victoria’s reign, attitudes towards the decorative arts had changed and the concept of art manufactures had elevated the status of the decorative arts. Design became to be recognised as an art form. Countless books and journals on the subject were being devoured by the public. The British reputation for design in the market had improved and the market for British decorative items, both at home and overseas was huge. The work of both the Aesthetic and Arts and Crafts designers was especially popular.

The Museum of Ornamental Art at Marlborough House and subsequently the South Kensington Museum were revolutionary in the way they made design accessible to the working classes. When the South Kensington Museum opened in 1857, Henry Cole, the first Director, stated that the Museum should be a school room for everyone. It was the first public institution to try and educate students, manufacturers and the general working public through its collections of decorative art. The Museum was also revolutionary in that it was open six days a week and opened until ten o’clock in the evening three days a week so that working people could visit after work. There was free admission on three days a week and, from the beginning, the Museum arranged travelling exhibitions to industrial towns and cities so that tits holdings could be more widely be appreciated.

The Copyright Arts also helped to improve the status of design, raising awareness of the damage done by copying designs and encouraging investment in designers . The huge number of designs registered, over 400,000 between 1842 and 1883, along with the fact that many of the work of the art designers was registered, is an indication that the registration of designs must have been seen as worthwhile.

By 1882, the Government School of Design had moved to South Kensington where it had grown into the National Art Training School. It was renamed the Royal College of Art in 1896. It was the hub for seven schools in London and a hundred and fifty across the country. Artisans and would-be designers flocked to the National School and its branches.

Trying to assess to what extent the taste of the general public changed is very difficult. Certainly a large swathe of the middle classes embraced the work of the art designers and there was also a more general interest in the decoration of the home across the social classes. However a look through the Registered Designs suggests there was still a considerable market for designs that would not have been approved of by the design reformers. The calls for reform in Victorian design were originally driven by commercial concerns but the raised awareness of the importance of good design which this prompted resulting in an amazing outpouring of creativity and an unprecedented level of interest in design

We’ve looked at the work of several of the most important figures in the design reform movement and I hope that the talk has also shown what an amazing resource the Registered Designs are for the study of design history.

If anyone is interested in doing some further reading I can recommend these three books:

• Inside the Victorian Home by Judith Flanders gives a fascinating insight into Victorian domestic life and social importance of home decoration

• Jeremy Cooper’s ‘Victorian and Edwardian furniture and Interiors, and Michael Snowdon’s and John Style’s Design and the decorative arts, both give a very good introduction to the decorative arts in the Victorian period

Thank you

Transcribed by Lucy Palmer as part of a volunteer project, May 2015

  1. 13 February 2014
    4:00 pm

    James Seddon.

    Excellent and very informative, many thanks, James Seddon, Lancaster.

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