Old King Cole's reign - from the sewers to symphonies

The Great Exhibitor
November 14, 2003

So many of his Victorian contemporaries described Sir Henry Cole as a "monster" that even now in the always-dubious light of history it is difficult to confront him as the extraordinary human that he was. The adjective "eminent" is quite inadequate, although it is interesting, if not particularly rewarding, to speculate on what Lytton Strachey would have done with him. The people to whom Cole should be compared are the winners, as he was, of the coveted Albert Medal of the Society of Arts, not all of them British - Rowland Hill of penny post fame, the first holder of the medal; Napoleon III, at first sight an unaccountable choice; W. F. Cooke and Charles Wheatstone, pioneers of the electric telegraph; Joseph Whitworth, Manchester manufacturer; Justus von Liebig, agricultural and industrial chemist; and Ferdinand de Lesseps, "creator" of the Suez Canal.

Cole, born in 1808, received the medal in 1871, and in retrospect it seems appropriate that the Society of Arts, for which he had done so much, honoured him with the highest award it could offer four years before he received a knighthood. In 1875, Cole was an establishment figure, but in the previous year he had been forced into retirement both as secretary of the Department of Science and Art and as director of the South Kensington Museum. He had held both posts in duality for a quarter of a century. It was a measure of his continuing determination and energy that his retirement was nominal. "Old King Cole", as he had come to be known, had new and diverse things to do, such as setting up a School of Popular Cookery, planning for a Royal College of Music - his friend Arthur Sullivan was its first principal - and helping to launch and direct a company that would convert sewage not only into manure but into cement.

At that point, Cole's preoccupations converged with those of Edwin Chadwick, to whose life Cole's may be compared. They had known each other since the 1820s, when they were both "philosophical radicals" pinning their hopes on the utilitarian radicalism of Jeremy Bentham. It was a measure of Cole's continuing influence on the Society of Arts that he persuaded it to set up a standing committee on the health and sewage of towns and to arrange three conferences on the subject, in 1876, 1877 and 1878.

Elizabeth Bonython and Anthony Burton pull together efficiently - the right Benthamite virtue - many different strands of Cole's life, clearly identifying as he himself did, its significant turning points. As authors and researchers they have both been as closely associated with the Victoria and Albert Museum as Cole himself was with the Society of Arts. Bonython has already written memorably about Cole in 1982: Burton has published Vision or Accident: The Story of the Victoria and Albert Museum (1999). In 1983, the V & A renamed an incorporated wing after Cole. Yet, when the museum was first opened in 1909 no speaker mentioned Cole. Nor did The Times reporting the event. It was left to the then secretary of the Society of Arts to write a letter protesting that Cole had not been offered "a word of recognition".

Young or old, Cole always sought recognition. That he often failed to get it was due, in part, to his natural disposition: stubborn, temperamental, easy to offend, even to wound, incapable of understanding why other people could disagree with him. Nevertheless, there was more to the failure than Cole's private traits, which his friends, like the potter Herbert Minton, often warned him against, suggesting at times that he was his own worst enemy. Cole listened to them and sometimes was prepared to follow their advice. What was at stake in his openly public career, however, was not simply personal: it concerned the capacity of old institutions to change themselves.

Utilitarianism was concerned with institutions as well as with individuals, and Cole had to struggle with institutions as well as with individuals who were hostile to change, some of them running the institutions most in need of change. What he hated most was idleness, including his own enforced idleness when action was needed. Bonython and Burton sensibly refuse to draw analogies with early-21st-century phenomena. They never resort to easy cross reference to "modernisation" or to "spin". They rightly take the 19th century on its own terms. Cole was more than an improver. He was a reformer, who appreciated the need for agitation as well as for conciliation. He was quick to exploit new means of communicating with the public, and this in itself made him enemies. For this reason alone, this scholarly biography is a necessary read for historians of Victorian England, including those who are uninterested in whether or not Cole's "correct principles" of design were correct or not.

Much of the biography is inevitably - and for me happily - about design, which allows Dickens but sadly not William Morris to enter into it. There is a useful chapter on "Design reform" (1846-52), which concerns ordinary as well as extraordinary things and leads to the largely narrative chapters, now almost too well trodden, on the Great Exhibition. Part four, "The levers of power", moves at a more measured pace than Cole himself did, and discusses administration (the word "management" was not used) as well as "principles". Chapter 11 describes Cole's "exercising power with a hidden hand"; and chapter 12 "consolidating the stronghold". Cole entered other men's strongholds too, staying more than once at Hatfield, where Lord Salisbury reigned, and at Mentmore, the pseudo-Elizabethan mansion designed for Baron de Rothschild by Paxton, designer of the Crystal Palace. Chapter 13, the climax of part four, presents Cole "supreme at South Kensington" where, unlike them, he kept a chamber of horrors. This is the chapter that discusses the Royal Albert Hall, designed by an engineer, which now has a Cole Room where there are musical visitors who learn about Cole for the first time in a concert interval. They might be interested to know that Sullivan played the organ at Cole's funeral.

Lord Briggs has just published a revised edition of Victorian Things .

The Great Exhibitor: The Life and Work of Henry Cole

Author - Elizabeth Bonython and Anthony Burton
Publisher - V & A Publications
Pages - 328
Price - £35.00
ISBN - 1 85177 326 6

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