Objects of desire struggle to unite

Design and the Decorative Arts, Britain 1500-1900
January 11, 2002

The fairest way to review this monster of a book - "the largest", it claims, "and most ambitious that the [Victoria and Albert] Museum has ever published" - is to describe it as an enjoyably confusing experience and then settle for a judicious balance of grumbles and gratitude. Being half way between an exhibition catalogue and a public-relations exercise designed to make us forget the V&A's recent shameful past, it does not come cheap at £45. But after charging for several years an elitist price for entry, it is good to find the museum buckling down to what it is meant to do: charming and educating an incorrigibly philistine sector of the British public out of its aesthetic stupor, though even now, at a price.

One sentence in the acknowledgements explains its perverse structure and curiously detached tone. It reads: "The book was written and put together mainly in the Research Department of the V&A, to very tight deadlines." Their idea of a "tight deadline" is three years, even so they seem to have been rushed and it was "put together" under not just two authors but by a flock of 26 contributors, most of them staff, with, apparently, no single overseeing editor to discipline them. There was no one to cut out the repetitions inherent in the clumsy chapter arrangements. Ranelagh and Vauxhall Gardens, Christopher Dresser, William Morris, Gothic design and several others come round twice after long gaps. The illustrations are disturbingly out of chronological sequence - Artisan Mannerist Swakeleys (1629) is set before pure Tudor Barrington Court (1552) on facing pages - and there was no one with the nerve to tell the chief curator to rewrite the leaden prose of his six-page foreword. Was he trying to bore readers into not noticing that the book is not, as its title claims, about design and the decorative arts in Britain, but about them in England with a bias towards London and neighbouring counties? Wales is given marginal coverage and Scotland's is minimal, despite that oxblood Melville four-poster bed appearing alone on the front of the dust jacket.

Then there is something incongruous in this reformed V&A's staging of a patriotic exhibition dedicated to Britishness when the museum was founded in one of those rare periods when a normally puritanical and minimalist country was in a mood of decorative excess and eclectic self-indulgence. The V&A's collections are richly and deliberately European and international in their coverage. To make their splendid illustrative show the editorial board has had to draw heavily on the Royal Collection, the Soane Museum, the Science Museum, City companies, the National Gallery, the British Museum, the National Trust, Greenwich Maritime Museum, the Royal Institute of British Architects, Oxford and Cambridge colleges, county record offices and private collections, all pulled together by a satisfying show of architectural photographs.

The format used to marshal and order these is ill considered. It was not wise to divide the book into three sections when the first, Tudor and Stuart, should have been two distinct sections pivoting around the career of Inigo Jones. What has King's College Chapel got in common with Clarendon House? Each of those three sections is divided into five chapters:

"Introduction", "Style", "Who led taste?", "Fashionable living" and "What was new?" The second and the fifth of these inevitably tread on each other's heels; they also destroy any sense of chronology. A reader comes to John Vanbrugh's Castle Howard, turns a page and then finds Henry VIII looking defiantly fat in a sepia-tinted reproduction of a Holbein fresco by a mid-17th-century Dutch artist. The chapter "Style" has time-tripped back to "Who led taste?" and there are 13 of these backward somersaults in the course of the book. Add to them the 26 double-page essays by staff contributors, each of which breaks the main narratives without warning, often in mid-sentence, and the book has all the illogical richness of the museum that "put it together".

Most of these two-page interruptions are visually stimulating. Linda Parry's - one on Aestheticism, the other on Arts and Crafts - are instant education, resembling potted TV programmes for Channel 4. Maurice Howard's "Renaissance: Classical or Gothic?" poses a complex question and answers it with six artefacts: a candle snuffer, a valence for a bed, a scrap of terracotta and the like, set next to the Bedingfield chantry chapel in Oxburgh church, a juxtapositioning that slips the Islamic contribution to Italian design ingeniously into the reader's mind.

When I began to question what readership the book was aimed at - American tourists, sixth-form art-history classes, first-year university courses or nerdish culture vultures - I had to admit that it had stirred me quite often, however. Some of the furniture and the pottery on show at the Great Exhibition of 1851 was astonishingly sleek and elegant: a bentwood rocking chair that looked to be a 1920s design, a vase anticipating the chaste green simplicities of the early 1900s. One printed cotton dress fabric of grey and fawn leaves and branches upon cream, possibly by William Kilburn of 1790, looked like superior Laura Ashley 170 years before its time; and I had never appreciated that when the Chinese were sending us all that English armorial porcelain in the 18th century, we were shipping them the most outrageous "Chinese" clocks with mechanical figures and bells. This is a book designed for the bird-brained - which means all of us on occasion - profitably to dabble in shrewdly compressed information.

Even the episodic stumbling backwards and forwards through time suggests some startling insights. The refined elegance of the engineering that went into Georgian carriage design seems to have created a tradition that carried right through the awful "Puffing Billy" first railway engines to emerge again in the fastidious lines of the 1837 Great Western locomotive North Star , or the 1890 Midland Railway's Beatrice . Was it a resurgence of that national minimalism that led Robert Smythson to reject the distractions of Flemish ornament and design severely English houses such as Hardwick and Wotton in the teeth of continental influences?

Predictably, being a V&A book, it is good on the 19th century. Christopher Dresser and Owen Jones come over as a welcome balance to the usual emphasis in design on the roles of A. W. N. Pugin and William Morris. With the earlier centuries, there is more corner cutting and some suspect generalisations. The main text has been carried by John Styles on historical background and Michael Snodin on style. Experts, even V&A experts, claiming to cover everything definitively from Henry VI's relationship to Henry VII (it was step-uncle, not uncle) to Remington typewriters, are liable to fall back on cultural cliches. The Puritan interlude of 1646-60 is dismissed as "not echoed in architecture or the applied arts", when in reality it established a bleak Puritan minimalist classicism for ordinary house building that prevailed for the next two centuries. "The baroque in England" is projected, in a Tessa Murdoch two-pager, as a significant episode on the strength of one bust of Charles II carved in Genoa and Antonio Verrio's lost decoration of the Chapel Royal at Windsor. Yet Christopher Wren's City churches, with all their elaborate woodwork, are ignored, perhaps because they were built at a time when they should have been baroque but manifestly were not.

England's rococo is given a rough treatment. The V&A happens to have rescued the 1748-56 Rococo Music Room from Norfolk House and has used it in the press as a flagship of their exhibition. But very little of its hotel foyer-type decoration is English or is remotely close to the native English rococo that flourished in the West Country under Dublin influence, producing lively, witty and figurative work quite unlike the gilded heaviness of the Music Room. This is typical of the museum's London bias. Where the Gothic is concerned, Snodin ignores its real pioneers, the prime minister Henry Pelham at Esher and Batty Langley in his published books. Instead he follows populist convention and credits Horace Walpole, though Walpole was trailing a whole decade behind the inventors of that most English of styles.

When grumbles are put aside, a substantial residue of gratitude remains. When I shut my eyes, a chain of images from this lavish book, all new and mind-shaping, float past: a blue medieval chasuble radiant with stylised golden leaves, an Art Nouveau silver basin of 1635, yes, 1635, Bishop Fox's crozier, the painting of the East India Company's Yard at Deptford in 1660, Canaletto's Alnwick Castle, the Powderham Bookcase of 1740, which really was baroque if tardily so, Sir Joseph Paxton's first sketch for the Crystal Palace on blotting paper, and a Chippendale bureau dressing table for Harewood House, infinitely superior to its contemporary French equivalents.

So, this is a stimulating book, worth the price, just; and great in several senses of the word. But be warned: if it is bought chiefly for display, then the legs of your coffee table will need special reinforcement.

Timothy Mowl is lecturer in the history of art, University of Bristol.

Design and the Decorative Arts, Britain 1500-1900

Editor - Michael Snodin and John Styles
ISBN - 1 85177 338 X
Publisher - V&A Publications
Price - £45.00
Pages - 488

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