The Select Committee on Arts and Manufactures was appointed by Parliament in 1835 to ‘enquire into the best means of extending a knowledge of the arts mong the people (especially the manufacturing population) of the country.’ Out of it came the schools of design which evolved into our modern art schools.
Witnesses gave two reasons why British design was inferior to that on the continent, singling out France and Prussia and to a lesser extent Bavaria and Italy. The first was that design education was widespread abroad but absent in this country. The second was the lack of adequate protection in Britain for original designs. There were many talented artisans who made work of high quality, but they had, with few exceptions, no formal education and none in the principles of design. Because of the weakness of patent protection, their work was often copied by other manufacturers and consequently employers were reluctant to employ trained artists at greater expense. Lack of education and lack of protection acted on one another and depressed the quality of British goods. In consequence there was much copying from foreign design.
This evidence from men engaged in manufacture and trade about the depression of design standards tells rather a different story from that told by Ruskin and his followers, who made much of the alleged separation of art from manufacture following industrialisation. That story became central to the Arts and Crafts movement and a trope of design reform until the Second World War. It was, for example, repeated by the Gorell Committee in 1932 and the Council of Industrial Design in the late 1940s. Ruskin, of course, lacked practical experience of manufacturing, but he was an eloquent and persuasive writer. Manufacturers told a different tale: there was no separation of art from manufacture but there was no training for designers and designs did not receive the legal protection they needed.