Sculpture Journal

Revisiting the relationship between art and industry in nineteenth-century Britain from the manufacturer’s perspective

Sculpture Journal (2021), 30, (1), 31–52.

Abstract

The mid-nineteenth century critical discourse compartmentalized art and industry by crediting each with specific powers. Manufacturing was identified with the development of technologically advanced processes, materials and products, while fine artists were given authority over the aesthetic aspects of industrial design. The idea that the two sectors had separate areas of responsibility has proved extremely enduring, and continues to influence our perceptions of Victorian manufacturing. This article contributes to the wider task of re-evaluating the relationship between art and industry in nineteenth-century Britain by examining the role of design in potteries and art metalworking firms from the manufacturer’s perspective. It shows that contrary to the picture painted by Victorian critics, design was central to the ambitions and commercial operations of manufacturing businesses. Crucially, decisions about the recruitment of design staff were shaped by the close connection between the creation of new products at the drawing board, and their fabrication in the workshop. Since each branch of manufacturing had its distinctive characteristics, there were significant practical, aesthetic and commercial advantages for manufacturers in employing experienced designers who knew the trade, and were fully conversant with production practices. Unless a professional sculptor joined a firm, they were unlikely to have this inside knowledge, which made commissioning one-off designs from artists a riskier proposition. Manufacturers found that one of the best ways to get around this was to make reductions of sculptures, and initial demand for statuettes in Parian suggested they would be profitable for all concerned. In the end, the market did not live up to its early promise, but the publicity given to Parian statuettes compensated manufacturers and sculptors. Overall, it was this increased public exposure for art manufactures that was the prime benefit of the mid-nineteenth century critical discourse for the industrial sector.

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Author details

Compton, Ann