In 1911 the government produced a damning report on the Royal College of Art (RCA). It focused on the shortcomings of the school of design, headed by W. R. Lethaby, saying he encouraged petty handicrafts of little economic significance, failed to acquaint students with the requirements of industry and left them unsuited to practical employment. Not surprisingly it was highly controversial and triggered a vigorous public debate.
The driving force behind the report was Sir Robert Morant, permanent secretary at the Board of Education. On his initiative the committee of inquiry was set up and members were recruited who could be expected to come to the conclusions the Board wanted – that is to say, the conclusions he wanted. It’s not entirely clear what his motivation was but it’s reasonable to suppose that he responded to industry criticisms and disliked what he saw as drift and muddle at the RCA.
Morant was a clearsighted and forceful civil servant with long experience of education and a commitment to improving it. In the late 1890s he had been instrumental in creating the Board of Education, which brought into one place the administration of elementary, secondary, technical and university teaching. His great achievement was the 1902 Education Act, which extended secondary education and put it under the control of local authorities instead of the mass of little boards that had existed previously. Later, after leaving education, he set up the national insurance scheme.
Before the report was initiated the Board arranged for Lewis Foreman Day to replace Walter Crane as an RCA Visitor (that is to say, a College inspector) so as to have in place someone who would speak frankly about Lethaby’s shortcomings. Day warned Morant that if he was appointed, he would have to speak his mind. Morant accepted that and told his minister, Sir Walter Runciman, that they had been thinking of getting rid of Lethaby anyway. (As it was, he remained until his retirement in 1918.) Day’s highly critical internal report then prepared the ground for the public report.
Day had recently helped to form The Design Club, which brought together designers, manufacturers and retailers, and he believed that high quality products were made when artists and industrialists worked together. This approach was bound to have recommended itself to the Board.
The differences between Day and Crane – which may be summarised as the difference between the industry outlook and the handicraft outlook – were well-known and Lethaby’s views at this time were closer to Crane’s than to Day’s. Day’s differences with Crane had been set out in their book Moot Points, where they discussed how far the artist should accommodate himself to industry and how far he should stand aloof from it. Crane said how much he disliked the way that artists were forced to make work that would sell and the fact that they were likely to starve if they did not. He looked forward to a society where there was no profit motive and no pressure to sell, where the artist would be free to follow his imagination and where he would be rewarded for doing so by an appreciative community. Day thought Crane took himself too seriously as an artist and that his demand to do whatever he liked was self-indulgent. Both the quality of the art and the character of the artist would be improved in his opinion by the artist learning to design within constraints.
In reality, Day’s, Crane’s and Lethaby’s ideas may have differed in emphasis rather than essence and Day and Crane may have exaggerated their differences in Moot Points for rhetorical effect. A few years later, Lethaby was one of a group of dissidents in the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society who formed the Design and Industries Association. Crane was a practical designer of wallpapers, fabrics and pottery and a prolific illustrator of children’s books and knew full well how to adapt his ideas for manufacturing. His eminence derived in large measure from his achievements as a designer and he was a member of Day’s Design Club. At the RCA Lethaby set his students design exercises intended to give them skills they could apply to a wide range of work. Lethaby’s biographer, Godfrey Rubens – who naturally takes Lethaby’s side against Day and the Board of Education – makes the interesting suggestion that these exercises anticipated the sort of studies that came into the art schools as Basic Design forty years later.