French Silk brocade from a costume, c.1735. It may be the work of French handloom weavers who settled in England. The design is almost certainly by the famous silk-designer from Lyon, Jean Revel. (Victoria and Albert Museum)
Pursuing that obsession of British design reformers in the 19th and 20th centuries, the inferiority of British design compared to that in continental Europe, I wondered whether it really was inferior or whether British manufacturers and their advocates simply had an inferiority complex. The idea that Britain lagged in design was a preoccupation of politicians, artists and critics, and to a much lesser extent of businessmen, and it was explored by parliamentary committees from the Select Committee on Arts and Manufactures in 1835 to the Gorell Committee in 1931.
Much of the debate concerned consumer goods and the application of decoration. The modern concept of design as problem solving and product engineering was hardly developed. The concern of the reformers was the decorative arts and the potential contribution of the artist to manufacturing.
The 1835 Select Committee was set up under the chairmanship of William Ewart, MP “to inquire into the best means of extending a knowledge of the Arts and of the Principles of Design among the People (especially the Manufacturing Population) of the Country”. The stimulus was the perceived inferiority of British goods in what was called the fancy trade and the inquiry concentrated on silk, printed cotton, shawls and ribbons, lace, porcelain, brass, and architectural mouldings.
The view of many of the witnesses was that British workmen produced work of good quality and that some of them had a native artistic talent but that they were uneducated in the principles of design and that, despite their best efforts, they could not be said to be designers. Employers were reluctant to go to the expense of employing trained artists because original designs were not protected by copyright law and anything new would be quickly stolen by competitors. On the continent, however, particularly in France, there was ample design education, subsidised by the state, and original designs were protected by copyright. Out of the Ewart Committee came the British schools of design, which developed into our modern art schools.
But a hundred years later, almost as if nothing had happened, the Gorell Committee was making similar complaints about the inferiority of British design and it even quoted the the Ewart Committee. In the intervening years the argument had been influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement and it was now being said that a major cause of poor design in Britain was the unhealthy separation of the arts from manufacturing that had come about as a result of the industrial revolution (a singularly unconvincing explanation, I think, since France, which was supposed to have higher standards than Britain, had also had an industrial revolution). The conclusions of Gorell were tamer than those of Ewart and it recommended little more than the promotion of exhibitions of good design, the ultimate outcome of which was the Council of Industrial Design.
If continental design was in truth superior to British, could it have been because on the continent there was a long history of state intervention in industry and of regulation of manufacturing standards? In France in particular (though also to a degree in Prussia and Saxony) there had been royal direction of luxury industries, and in France under the system of Jean-Baptiste Colbert there had been regulation of trades and professions, inspection of quality, materials and finishes. The details of Colbert’s regulations are staggering to the modern liberal sensibility. The following passage is a short extract from the fifty-six regulations for cloth and serge manufacture in Beauvais, drawn up in 1667 under Colbert’s influence:
“Wool for the warp to be dried in a specified fashion. Weaver to weave into the top of each piece of cloth the initial of the first name and the whole surname of the person to whom the cloth belongs. Weavers not to use damp and dry wool in the same woof, under penalty of a 6 livres fine. If a weaver makes a poor selvage, 5 sous fine. If a weaver leaves a piece of cloth dirty and mussy, 2 sous fine. Weavers must make over all small spots where the work was sloppy. One sou fine. Weavers to pay one sou fine for each shuttle hole. If a weaver makes the distance between the threads of the warp unequal, 6 deniers fine ; or, in bad cases, 2 sous. If the warp is not tight, 2 sous 6 deniers fine if a piece unevenly woven, 5 sous fine.”
Did this kind of quality control bring about French superiority in design? There are three reasons to doubt it.
First, economic historians think it was damaging to industry and tend to say that that Colbertism prevented competition, discouraged innovation and kept prices high. If that was the case it may not have encouraged good design.
Second, by the 1830s, at the time of the Ewart Committee, Colbertism had been dead forty years, having been swept away in its entirety by the French Revolution, and although there had been some return to regulation, the regulation that existed was nothing like what it had been under the ancien régime. The alleged superiority of French design in the early 19th century was therefore very unlikely to have been a product of any contemporary regulation and, if it existed, it must have been a consequence either of habits and structures surviving from an earlier time, or of something else. The explanations most often put to Ewart were the existence of a system of design education in France and the legal protection of intellectual property.
Third, Colbert’s system regulated workmanship and although it may have ensured that goods were made to a high standard, that was not the same thing as good design. Both design and workmanship are needed in superior articles of manufacture but it is possible for well-made things to be badly designed and vice-versa.
One of Ewart’s witnesses was Claude Guillotte, a French loom maker who had been instrumental in bringing the Jacquard loom to England. He was extremely well informed about silk weaving and the skills and abilities of silk workers. He agreed that French design was better than English and he attributed it to the fact that there were artists working in the French industry, particularly at that point in the Jacquard process, the so-called mise en carte or mapping, where the design was transferred to squared paper, in which the columns represented the warp of the fabric and the rows represented the weft, after which the map was translated into holes on a card that controlled the loom. As a result of this process, less skilled workers were able to make richly-figured silk of a kind that they would have previously been incapable of. According to Guillotte, the English were the equals of the French in the making of plain silks, and both countries were comparable in the manufacturing quality of their figured silks, but the French designs were better because in France the metteur en carte was an artist, whereas in England he was not.