George Wallis

special supplement on carpet design

George Wallis seems always to have had strong views on the design of carpets and other floor coverings.  His earliest recorded views appear in the Special Report he made on his return from the USA in 1854, when he turned his critical eye upon carpets and other floor coverings.  Amongst the technical details of the factories and their manufacturing methods he notes that The Lowell Manufacturing Company of Massachusetts uses designs which are "varied and of the usual character of such goods.  The designers employed are French and Scotch.  Two female students of the the Boston School of Design are engaged who ... have made one or two very creditable attempts in design".  The designs of the Bigelow Company, also of Massachusetts, "are of the usual character, chiefly floral, though a few good geometric diapers indicated a tendency to a more healthy style".  All this is, at best, damning with faint praise.  But when it comes to floor-cloth, the glows are off.  Of those he saw at the New York Exhibition of 1853 he remarks:

There are a few admirably printed specimens in the exhibition but, with the exception of one pattern, in imitation of oak parquetage, they are as thoroughly wrong in designs, and as antagonistic to everything like the true principles of floor decoration, as the generality of such things are in England.  For instance, one specimen has its surface ornamented with a portrait of Washington and a view of Mount Vernon, alternating in panels, surrounded by a wreath of flowers and the American Eagle!  Yet this is intended as a floor-covering and, of course, to be walked upon!"

On the English scene, in his paper of 1856 Wallis deals in some details with various classes of goods and of carpets he has this to say:

“Yet some progress has been made even in carpet design, which, a few years ago, appeared to be hopelessly abandoned to an incessant ringing of the changes upon artistic pit falls, man-traps and floral stumbling blocks in velvet pile and terry fabrics in wool.  A few manufacturers, as also a few dealers, seem to have arrived at a point that, inasmuch as a carpet is a covering for a floor, it ought to look like a floor – that is, a surface to walk upon – that a carpet is not the only article in the room  and that its lines and colours ought to be subordinate to the more prominent pieces of furniture, than to challenge attention by the brilliancy of its hues in masses, or the tortuosity of its lines in the boundaries of its forms.  A conviction too has arisen that forms in projection are inconsistent with the position of the surface on which they are represented; and that, even granting that flowers, tastefully arranged, are not unsuitable objects for  the decoration of a carpet, yet there is no reason why the flower basket should be represented too.  The statement that floral designs in carpets are still preferred by the customers, and that ladies especially, in spite of the best geometric designs, insist upon roses done in wool, is a fair enough argument in its commercial application, but in an artistic sense only proves that the people lack a knowledge of the principles by which to test these things”.

A carpet, by Crossley, exhibited at the Great Exhibition, 1851.  

The elaborate scrolls and the baskets of flowers would not have been approved by the gentlemen of taste.  But the fact that it had a border - as essential as a frame to a picture - would have been approved, as would the fact that the design was non-directional: it looked the right way round wherever you viewed it from.

Carpets clearly fascinated those present and Ruskin was not slow to leap in and grab the wrong end of the stick.  He said that the audience “had heard an ungallant attack upon the ladies for promoting a base manufacture of carpets.  He could not blame the ladies in this ....”.  But his reason for this seems to be that the world’s largest manufacturer of carpets made many “green carpets, in which floral design was largely introduced, and, he believed, generally to the satisfaction of the public”.   And neither “could he see, since the first thing we did to make ground fit to be walked upon by any festive procession, was always to strew flowers upon it, why we should refuse to have flowers on our carpets, lest we should stumble on them, any more than we should refuse to have pictures on our walls lest we should knock our heads through them”. 

A carpet design approved by Wallace.  It has flowers but there is not attempt to make them three dimensional.  The repeat pattern would have given an overall effect when viewed from any distance.

In the further debate Wallis did not deal with Ruskin’s argument that what was to the general satisfaction of the public was acceptable design, probably doubting that Ruskin could have meant it.  Nor did he have to deal directly with Ruskin’s assertion that Wallis would not have flowers on a carpet because Mr. J. G. Crace – the famous and fashionable interior decorator - pointed out that Wallis had not said that.  Crace went on to make a good point, which Wallis’s writings elsewhere show he would have agreed with, that a design “should be adapted to the nature of the material;  the stitches, so to call them, of a carpet had a certain size, and it was not possible, to imitate the shadows as accurately as by the brush, and he maintained that the beauty of flowers on a carpet was increased by such breadth in the lights and shadows of the flowers as would preserve the flatness so essential to the suitableness of a carpet design”.

Tiles approved by Wallis in his 1880 paper.  Tiles might be floor tiles or wall tiles or both.  Which principles should apply is not at all clear.  But both are nice, stylised patterns, closely based on nature.  In general Wallis would have liked that;  Dresser wouldn't.
A pattern for lino, approved by Wallis in his 1880 paper.  It seems that the same principles should apply to lino as to carpets.  But by 1880 Wallis seemed to think that the overall standard of design of linoleum was good.

At this point we can mention Thomas Gradgrind’s contribution to this matter.

Charles Dicken’s “Hard Times” was published in 1854, two years before this lecture.  Chapter 2 is worth quoting extensively.  In it Mr Gradgrind and his friend are examining the pupils at Gradgrind’s model school:

‘Very well,’ said this gentleman, briskly smiling, and folding his arms. ‘That’s a horse. Now, let me ask you girls and boys, Would you paper a room with representations of horses?’

After a pause, one half of the children cried in chorus, ‘Yes, sir!’ Upon which the other half, seeing in the gentleman’s face that Yes was wrong, cried out in chorus, ‘No, sir!’ — as the custom is, in these examinations.

‘Of course, No. Why wouldn’t you?’

A pause. One corpulent slow boy, with a wheezy manner of breathing, ventured the answer, Because he wouldn’t paper a room at all, but would paint it.

‘You must paper it,’ said the gentleman, rather warmly.

‘You must paper it,’ said Thomas Gradgrind, ‘whether you like it or not. Don’t tell us you wouldn’t paper it. What do you mean, boy?’

‘I’ll explain to you, then,’ said the gentleman, after another and a dismal pause, ‘why you wouldn’t paper a room with representations of horses. Do you ever see horses walking up and down the sides of rooms in reality — in fact? Do you?’

‘Yes, sir!’ from one half. ‘No, sir!’ from the other.

‘Of course no,’ said the gentleman, with an indignant look at the wrong half. ‘Why, then, you are not to see anywhere, what you don’t see in fact; you are not to have anywhere, what you don’t have in fact. What is called Taste, is only another name for Fact.’ Thomas Gradgrind nodded his approbation.

‘This is a new principle, a discovery, a great discovery,’ said the gentleman. ‘Now, I’ll try you again. Suppose you were going to carpet a room. Would you use a carpet having a representation of flowers upon it?’

There being a general conviction by this time that ‘No, sir!’ was always the right answer to this gentleman, the chorus of NO was very strong. Only a few feeble stragglers said Yes: among them Sissy Jupe.

‘Girl number twenty,’ said the gentleman, smiling in the calm strength of knowledge.

Sissy blushed, and stood up.

‘So you would carpet your room - or your husband’s room, if you were a grown woman, and had a husband - with representations of flowers, would you?’ said the gentleman. ‘Why would you?’

‘If you please, sir, I am very fond of flowers,’ returned the girl.

‘And is that why you would put tables and chairs upon them, and have people walking over them with heavy boots?’

‘It wouldn’t hurt them, sir. They wouldn’t crush and wither, if you please, sir. They would be the pictures of what was very pretty and pleasant, and I would fancy - ’

‘Ay, ay, ay! But you mustn’t fancy,’ cried the gentleman, quite elated by coming so happily to his point. ‘That’s it! You are never to fancy.’

‘You are not, Cecilia Jupe,’ Thomas Gradgrind solemnly repeated, ‘to do anything of that kind.’

‘Fact, fact, fact!’ said the gentleman. And ‘Fact, fact, fact!’ repeated Thomas Gradgrind.

‘You are to be in all things regulated and governed,’ said the gentleman, ‘by fact. We hope to have, before long, a board of fact, composed of commissioners of fact, who will force the people to be a people of fact, and of nothing but fact. You must discard the word Fancy altogether. You have nothing to do with it. You are not to have, in any object of use or ornament, what would be a contradiction in fact. You don’t walk upon flowers in fact; you cannot be allowed to walk upon flowers in carpets. You don’t find that foreign birds and butterflies come and perch upon your crockery; you cannot be permitted to paint foreign birds and butterflies upon your crockery. You never meet with quadrupeds going up and down walls; you must not have quadrupeds represented upon walls. You must use,’ said the gentleman, ‘for all these purposes, combinations and modifications (in primary colours) of mathematical figures which are susceptible of proof and demonstration. This is the new discovery. This is fact. This is taste.’

The girl curtseyed, and sat down. She was very young, and she looked as if she were frightened by the matter-of-fact prospect the world afforded.

Perhaps the remarkable thing about this is that Hard Times was published in 1854, two years before the Wallis- Ruskin spat.  Perhaps neither of them had got round to reading it or, if they had, they chose to ignore it. 

Eventually it was Christopher Dresser who obliged Thomas Gradgrind by laying down the rules for carpets.  In his Principles of Decorative Design (undated) he stated “in axiomatic form, the conditions which govern the application of ornament” to carpets.  There were eight of them, of which the fifth is:

A carpet should, in some respects, resemble a bank richly covered with flowers; thus, when seen from a distance the effect should be that of a general "bloom" of colour; when viewed from a nearer point it should present certain features of somewhat special interest; and when looked at closely new beauties should make their appearance.

And the sixth is:

As a floor is a flat surface, no ornamental covering placed on it should make it appear otherwise.

A carpet design by Christopher Dresser.  If this had been produced in closely matched colours, the effect of the grotesque design would have been lost and useless.  If in contrasting colours, the result would have been dizziness or a bad headache or both.  Dresser designed several carpets in his career.  None of them sold well.

In 1871 too The Art Journal Catalogue of the International Exhibition, 1871, was published, again with Wallis acting as commentator and critic.  We can get some idea of Wallis’s design principles from what he writes here.  He says of carpets:

“Twenty years ago nothing could possibly be more inappropriate than the whole mass of designs executed for carpets;  but now the fact that the carpet is a decorated covering for the floor, and that the floor is a horizontal place to be walked upon, and that the design ought not to contradict these facts, seem to be pretty generally understood and acted upon, thanks to the incessant attention, and consistent action, of a few able artists, such as Mr. Owen Jones, Sir M D Wyattt and Dr. Dresser, whose attention to this department of industrial design has had a marked influence on its present position”. 

This is certainly an idea of “appropriateness” of design.  But note too that Wallis refers to artists (not to designers or ornamenters) and claims no credit for himself.  He never did, directly, but this does reflect his feeling that it was in the traditional arts that the basis of good design was to be found.  He does not seem to have gone along with Dresser’s view of ornament abstracted from nature as being a higher form of art and ornamentation – but nevertheless he seems to have appreciated what Dresser was trying to do and is one of the few Victorian design gurus to give him a mention.

Wallis talked about carpet design again in his "Decorative Art in Britain" published in 1877.  At one point he is arguing against a speech given the year before by Mr. Mark Pattison, the Rector of Lincoln College, Oxford, which had been critical of the art and design education movement, claiming that it had achieved nothing and that the point was proved by, inter alia, the bad design of carpets.  Wallis says:

"Take carpets since Mr. Pattison has quoted them.  He is utterly mistaken as to the very extensive demand for Smyrna carpets prior to 1851.  Some of the houses which now import and supply them so largely had no existence at that date, or if they had, their trade was of a totally different character to what it is now.  As regards English designs, which were mostly French made for the English manufacturer, we had flowers the size of cabbages represented in full relief sprawling over our floors, and not only the flowers but the flower basket in perspective; scrolls in imitation of carved work, and the endless cococo [sic] panelling in the style of Louis Quatorze, with a bouquet stuck in each.  A design representing a plane to walk upon, or a geometric pattern of any kind could not be got for love or money.  There is still plenty of room for improvement, but these abominations are very scarce, if they exist at all."

Perhaps Wallis was a little too optimistic.  Abominations of realistic flowers continued to be available and the battle of the carpets was to go on a long time.  Joanna Banham, Sally Macdonald and Julia Porter, in their Victorian Interior Style, Cassell, 1991, say of William Morris’ carpets:  “their patterns were uncompromisingly two dimensional.  Morris had a particular dislike of the cabbage-rose and scrollwork designs popularised in the mid-century and, like other reformers of domestic design, he argued that the illusionism of these motifs was both inappropriate and visually disturbing on a flat and solid surface like a floor.”    But even if Wallis (who was still very much around at the time) could have said “I told you so”, he might also have had to admit that his education of manufacturers and the public in the tasteful design of carpets had not succeeded – yet. 

A picture carpet from the 1930s.  Wallis, Ruskin, Dresser and Gradgrind would have been united in their condemnation of it.  It was not symmetrical - someone standing at the far end could only see it upside down.  The flowers are three dimensional - you would think you were going to trip up.  It was not a suitable background for the furniture or anything else in the room.  

You could only appreciate it if the room was empty of furniture and you were having an out-of-body experience, somewhere near the ceiling.  It is really something to hang on the wall - a tapestry - not a carpet.  

For further and later example we can take A History of British Carpets by C. E. C. Tattersall, Lewis, 1934.  Tattersall was in the Department of Textiles at the Victorian and Albert Museum.  He writes:

“In the matter of design, few know, or appreciate, the enormous amount of thought and trouble expended by carpet makers.  Even nowadays, large majority of carpet users know or care little about design as such; but they look at carpets before buying them and they will, perhaps for inscrutable reasons, choose some and reject others.  The manufacturer must see to it that he has plenty of the first sort to offer, whatever his own opinions may be.  There are others who want to march with the times: they must have modern patterns even if they do not really like them.  They must also be catered for, and yet who is to say how soon their taste will alter and how soon a successful pattern will lose its popularity?  Perhaps there is less real difficult to in supplying those who demand something that is truly beautiful.  Fine reproductions and good original designs can be produced with a reasonable degree of certainty, and are not likely to fall out of favour and remain unsold.  The last class of customers, it may be believed, is loudest in its criticism of the manufacturers for supplying those less worthy products that the public insists on having.”

  Wallis would have been disappointed.  On almost all counts. 

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