Art vs Industry Conference Report

Rebecca Wade, University of Leeds

On the 23 and 24 March 2012, early career researchers, museum professionals and established academics gathered at Leeds City Museum to offer their perspectives on the intersections between art and industry during the long nineteenth century.

Day One

The conference began with a keynote by Lara Kriegel (Indiana), whose paper Lace, Ladies and Labours Lost: A Meditation on Art, Industry and Craft offered an apposite introduction through the historical narratives associated with the perceived loss of the intelligent hand to the industrial machine. Kriegel traced this idea through John Ruskin and the concept of honest labour and its particular moral economy. The discussion of the art and industry of lace was also tracked through the dynamics of gender and class, specifically as an activity invested with the capacity to unify women across historical, national and economic boundaries.

De-Centering the Narrative

The first panel, chaired by Sarah Victoria Turner (York) began with a paper by Lara Eggleton (Leeds) titled Surface Deceits: Owen Jones and John Ruskin on the Ornament of the Alhambra, which effectively contrasted the respective interpretations of the Alhambra through Jones, the design reformer who recognised the commercial applications of its decorative surfaces and Ruskin, who saw only the moral degeneracy of unnatural geometry and abstraction. With the next paper by Sally Tuckett (Edinburgh), we travelled from Moorish Spain to India via Scotland with Colouring the Nation: Scottish Turkey-Red Design and Manufacture. Through an archive of samples, we learnt about the development of the Turkey Red Process, with expensive and rather repulsive ingredients required for a bright and lasting dye.. Natasha Eaton (UCL) provided a philosophical perspective on the agency and anxiety of colour in the context of colonial India. In this instance, Ruskin had associated the lively colouring of Indian manufactures with the perception that their decisions were based on semi-civilised instinct rather than a codified set of design principles. Finally, Renate Dohmen (Louisiana at Lafayette) gave a paper titled The Calcutta International Exhibition of 1883-4: A Differenced Vision of the Great Exhibition? This account contrasted the obstacles of poor weather, uneven organisation and tense Anglo-Indian relations with the contemporary descriptions that declared the event a great success.

The Aesthetics of Technology

Chaired by Mark Westgarth (Leeds), the second panel explored the relationships between art and the developing technologies of production and reproduction, beginning with two connected papers on the electrotype. Alistair Grant (Sussex) began with an informative introduction to the origins and applications of ‘useful electricity’ and the techniques and materials required to manufacture this new commodity through his paper, Galvanic Engraving in Relief: The Origins of the Art of Electro-Metallurgy. Angus Patterson (V&A) followed with his paper, For the Promotion of Art: The Formation and Influence of the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Electrotype Collection. Composed of approximately three thousand examples, many produced by the manufacturers Elkington and Franchi. The collaborations across disciplines continued with a joint paper on Decorative Electricity: The Gendered Aesthetics and Ethics of Domestic Electric Lighting by Abigail Harrison Moore and Graeme Gooday (Leeds). This paper took us on an illustrated and illustrative tour of Standen, the arts and crafts home of the Beale family by the architect Philip Webb, thought to be the first example designed with integrated electric lighting. The contemporary reception of this new technology was investigated, with the harsh and glaring quality of the resulting illumination thought to be poorly tolerated by women in particular. The hybrid characteristics of Webb’s lighting scheme, which featured vaseline glass, elements of historical, handcrafted ornament and the incorporation of the components and fixtures, were positioned as a new aesthetic mediated by technology and gender. These conditions were discussed from a different direction by Anne-Marie Millim (Luxembourg), whose paper “A substitute for moonlight”: The Cultural Value of Mining in The Graphic (1870s), brought our attention to the representation of mining disasters in the nineteenth-century periodical press. These commissioned pictures, constructed as sentimental and didactic spectacles, were accompanied by journalistic text to reinforce the image of the courageous, heroic labourers.

The first day of the conference was brought to a fitting close with a keynote by Tom Gretton (UCL), titled Industrialised Graphic Technologies Feature the World of Art: The Illustrated London News and The Graphic c. 1870-1890. The developing processes of pictorial transcription and translation were scrutinised, from engraving by hand in wood through line block and screened half-tone techniques, each with their own particular conventions of representation. We were guided through the extent to which these images were mediated by successive layers of agency, from ‘our own professional artists’ to the editorial collective. The associated negotiation of old and new artisanal skills was investigated, alongside the relation between commemorative engraving, academic easel painting and the distance between narrative and narrativity.

Day Two

Colin Trodd (Manchester), opened the second day of the conference with a keynote on Affinity and Alienation: Civility, Barbarism and Discourses of Design Culture, 1862-1894. The relation between art and mechanised manufacture was read through Ruskin’s engagement with William Blake. Blake’s imaginative, integrated and autonomous labour provided a model of the creative producer and the ideal social and cultural man, independent of the structures of patronage and commercial obligations. This singularity, which ‘spooked’ Ruskin, was reinforced with a discussion of a design philosophy not based on concrete geometric principles or illusionistic representation, but the more nebulous qualities of rhythm, dynamism and vision.

Making and Mechanical Perception

Chaired by Danielle Child (Leeds), this panel investigated the relation between mechanical instruments and the production and perception of sculpture and painting. Ann Compton (Glasgow), delivered a paper on Building a Better Class of Craftsman? Re-examining Issues of Education, Craftsmanship and Professional Practice in Sculpture and Related Trades, c. 1880-1925, which began with a discussion of the collaborative nature of sculpture and the contested and hierarchical relationship between sculpture and architecture. This paper also drew attention to the ways in which the arts and crafts movement informed art and design education, particularly at the South London Technical School of Art from 1879. Similarly, Gabriel Williams (York), used Veiled Vestal by Raffaelle Monti to draw out the discursive context of the production and reception of sculpture in his paper, ‘Mechanical Dexterity’ and Sculpture Machines at the Great Exhibition. The term ‘mechanical’ was applied as a pejorative judgement in this case, in contrast to the praiseworthy status of the products of the pantograph and other explicitly mechanical apparatus displayed at the Great Exhibition. The commercial and artistic possibilities of new industrial instruments was further investigated by Nicole Bush (Northumbria), whose paper Mechanical Patterns: The Role of Brewster’s Kaleidoscope in the Age of Morris and the Machine demonstrated the applications of symmetrical, repeatable tessellations derived from the kaleidoscope. It was argued that this tool could be used as an efficient means of composing designs by circumventing wasteful experimentation. To complete the panel, Patrizia Di Bello (Birkbeck) delivered at paper called ‘Camera-Medusa’: Stereoscopic Photographs of Statuettes, which discussed the documentation of the London International Exhibition of 1862 by the London Stereoscopic Company as a popular and legible means through which sculpture could be contemplated in three dimensions.

Labour, Class and Invention

The final panel of the conference was chaired by Kate Hill (Lincoln). It began with a paper by Jasmine Allen (York), titled ‘Why are the painted windows in the industrial department?’: The Status of Stained Glass at the London and Paris International Exhibitions, 1851-1900. The production and display of stained glass was shown to refute established taxonomies, with temporary structures and private pavilions used to elevate the status of the objects. Operating between the categories of art and industry, the former was applied to the process of design and the latter to its execution. Questions of contested status continued with Frances Robertson (Glasgow), whose paper Crank-Pin Tracks and Corinthian Columns: Engineers and Draughtsmen as Visual Technicians provided a revisionist perspective on the accepted assumption that mechanical drawing represented servile and thoughtless labour. To complete this panel, Ben Russell (Science Museum) delivered a paper on James Watt’s Workshop: A Nexus Between Art and Industry, an account of the protracted process of transferring the contents of the workshop from Heathfield to South Kensington. Circumventing the steam engine, this paper offered an expanded reading of Watt as a ‘scientific entrepreneur’ through his collection of hand tools, sculpture copying machines, plaster moulds and musical instruments.

To conclude the conference, Steve Edwards (Open University) provided a tantalising snippet of his recent research with Picture Capitalism, a paper which connected the patent for the Daguerreotype process held by Richard Beard to the concept of authorship and the practice of early modern photography. Antoine Claudet was discussed as an an exception to this legal structure, whose studio on the roof of the Adelaide Gallery shifted the profession away from polite science and towards artisan radicalism. A later studio on Regent’s Street was discussed in relation to the negotiation of art, antiquity and French national character, each deployed to invest photography with the attributes of civilised luxury and exclusivity.

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