Friday, 13 November 2015

The Chamber of Horrors: Exhibiting "Bad Taste" at the Museum of Ornamental Art (1852)

In 1852, the newly created Museum of Ornamental Art (now Victoria and Albert Museum) opens to the public with its first exhibition: 
"Examples of False Principles in Decoration" 

This is a sample of wallpaper that was used to demonstrate 'False Principles of Decoration' at the Museum of Ornamental Art, Marlborough House, Pall Mall, London. It is listed in the catalogue of the Marlborough House collection, issued by the Department of Science and Art, 1853. (Victoria and Albert Museum, London) 

Henry Cole, director of the museum and taste reformer, and designers such as Augustus W.N. Pugin, Owen Jones and Richard Redgrave want to educate the population and to teach them the right principles in design, whatever how obscur the term "right" might be! Cole focuses on the consumer as the key feature to change the art industry and the society, if consumers want "good" product (well-designed and produced) the manufacturers will have to follow their lead. 
Another key idea is education. Educating the population by showing them products/artworks which follow design principles, as explained by Augustus W.N. Pugin or Christopher Dresser. Artists also have a strong role to play, they have to promote these principles in through their work. Furthermore, the museum is perceived as a training place, which explains its close links with the School of Design, founded in 1836.
Pattern of Modern Gothic Paper by Augustus W.N. Pugin (1841)  

These principles start being popularised in the second half of the 19th century. Other design theorists such as Augustus W.N. Pugin or Owen Jones try also to emphasise the importance of design principles. Pugin is mainly focused on the Truth of the material. For example a "true" Gothic wallpaper cannot be a trompe-l'oeil, the patter has to be flat to reflect the flatness of the well. Besides Pugin forbids the use of repetitive architectural elements, especially doors or other artifices such as perpective. Another "bad principle" is related to colours, Cole advices designers to not mix too many colours and too stay in the tones. Good examples of this principle are the wallpapers designed by Augustus W.N. Pugin in his house La Grange, in Ramsgate.  

This is one of six wallpaper samples from The Grange, in Ramsgate, Kent, the house designed by A.W.N. Pugin, the designer and architect, for himself. The house which was built in 1843-4, and the papers were designed around the same time. (Victoria and Albert Museum, London) 

The particularity of the exhibition is to present only "bad examples" to the visitors, who are often chocked and hurt by the exhibition. Often the visitors own the "bad products" and feel attacked by the exhibition, along with the manufacturers who find the attacks on their products really harsh and unfair.  It is worth mentioning that manufacturers create different designs, some might be following bad principles but others are following the "true principles" dogma. 

Charles Dickens who is a virulent opponent to Cole, makes fun of him in his novel Hard Times (1854). He portrays Cole as a crazy professor who shouts at his pupils about a horse wallpaper. The good or bad principles are being mocked by Dickens who only sees Cole as "an utilitarian kill-joy" (Stuart McDonald, The History and Philosophy of Art education, Cambridge, Lutterworth Press, 2004, p.231). 

The False Principles exhibits were drawn from examples displayed in the Great Exhibition of 1851. This fabric was a high-quality and fashionable example of summer furnishing, but it was singled out as bad design. Its three-dimensional, naturalistic style was thought unsuitable for the decoration of a flat textile. Despite this criticism, this type of design remains popular to this day. (Victoria and Albert Museum, London) 

This exhibition has tried to set design principles, a 19th century trend promoted by decoration books and periodicals. English designers feel they are losing the battle against other European nations, especially against France which is still considered the leader in taste. For the advocates of design reforms, this evolution in taste should also mean in change in society, with a fairer and more compassionate environment such as advised by Pugin (and a Revival of the Catholic faith) or politicians like Benjamin Disraeli. Designers believe in educating the population, along with educating the industry, new art schools have introduced since 1836. However, the population is not yet ready for this new aesthetic and still enjoys "false principles" in their home.  

This candlestick was made in the French Style which was very popular and commercially successful in the mid-19th century. Despite this, the candlestick was displayed at Marlborough House as 'An example of the extreme faults of this style; symmetrical arrangement being rejected as a principle, and structured form disregarded, the whole appears the result of chance rather than design.' (Victoria and Albert Museum, London) 


ROTTAU Nadine, "'Everyone to his taste' or 'truth to material'?: the role of materials in collections of applied arts", in POTVIN John, MYZELEV Alla, Material Cultures, 1740-1920, The Meanings and Pleasures of Collecting, Burlington, VT, London, Ashgate, 2009, pp. 71-86.

YASUKO Suga, "Designing the Morality of Consumption: "Chamber of Horrors" at the Museum of Ornemental Art, 1852-53", Design Issue, vol. 20,      n°4, 2004, pp. 43-56.  

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