a pioneer of industrial art



Frank Sharman

1.  Early days in Wolverhampton

In the flood of names of Victorian design gurus the name of George Wallis has almost vanished.  But he was one of the pioneers of industrial art and design.  He has probably been lost sight of because he did not produce artefacts that generations of the chatteratti could mull over and bring in and out of fashion and the antique dealers could promote.  He did not go out and sell his work, like Dresser, nor sell himself, like Morris.  Unlike Owen Jones he never published a book of rules on how to do it.  There is no distinctive style attributable to him.  But what he did do was promote education in industrial art, through design schools, exhibitions, and writings in the style journals of the time. In his role opf Keeper of the Art Collections at the South Kensington Museum (later the Victoria and Albert Museum) he promoted industrial design, particularly through his introduction of loan collections.   He kept the question of industrial design before the public for more than fifty years. 

Wallis was born in Wolverhampton on 8th June 1811.  According to Joseph Jones, in his history of Wolverhampton’s art and literary institutions, both of his parents died when he was young.  According to a biography in The Biograph and Review, August, 1879, and to some genealogical notes in the collection of a descendant, it was only his father who died.  This death occurred in 1818, when Wallis was seven.  In any event he was adopted by his uncle and aunt who, says Jones, “set before him an example of honest integrity and industry”.  The Wolverhampton Grammar School Register has the following entry under 1825 (when Wallis would have been fourteen):

WALLIS, George.  Born June 8th 1811.  Son of John Wallis.  Headmaster of South Kensington, 1858. Keeper of the Art Treasures, South Kensington Museum, 1863-92.  F.S.A.   Author of numerous essays and lectures (Simms Bibliotheca, Staffs).  Died Oct. 24th, 1891.

However, in the "Catalogue of Works by the late George Wallis", published in connection with an exhibition at the Wolverhampton Art Gallery in 1919 - their first exhibition after the War, when the military had moved out - there is a biography of Wallis, signed "WW".  Since most of the exhibits were loaned by members of Wallis' family, it seems reasonable to assume that "WW" was Sir William Whitworth Wallis, George Wallis' son and, at the time, the Director of the Birmingham Art Gallery.  He seems a more reliable witness than Jones.  According to him, Wallis's father died when Wallis was aged eight and he was adopted by his father's uncle, Mr. Worralow, "a maker of cut steel objects".  (Presumably the school had entered his father's name in its Register even though his father was deceased at the time.)

An example of cut steel jewellery: a cut steel mount for a tortoise shell comb.  Most cut steel jewellery is made up steel studs in a limited number of shapes and sizes;  the craftsman-designer combines these few and simple shapes into a wide variety of elaborate patterns.

The passing reference in the catalogue rather underplays the importance of the information it contains.  Mr. Worralow was John Worralow, one of the greatest of the cut steel jewellery makers, who had been appointed steel buckle maker to George III or, possibly, in view of the dates, his son.  This identification is confirmed by George Wallis who, in 1860, writing in defence of the Wolverhampton Art School, reflects on the old arts and skills of the town and says: 

"As a boy, [Wallis left Wolverhampton in 1832, so he is talking about a date around 1822] I have addressed parcels to the last of these [Parisian import] houses "Rogette et tu Peleur".  These fine steel ornaments, chains, chatelaines, sword handles, &c., were often purchased at their weight in coined gold - Spanish dubloons in one scale, steel goods in the other!  Single chains, by first class makers, would fetch 25 guineas.  The beaus and belles of the French and Spanish courts glittered on state occasions in the steel ornaments of the little Staffordshire town, the skill of whose artisans made native iron glisten like diamonds. A relative of my own made an inkstand in steel, which was thought worthy to be a gift to the Queen of England.  As a child I have rolled upon the floor with rusty steel ornaments, as toys, which I would now delight to possess as an artist." 

Whitworth Wallis said that it was to these cut steel objects that "Mr. Wallis always used to attribute much of his love for art and decoration";  and certainly the Worralow family would have provided a life in which an interest in art is more likely to have been encouraged than discouraged.  Naturally, it would have been the start of his continuing interest in jewellery.  It must be significant that though Wallis's early teaching career was mostly in textiles and that was his major area of concern in the 1851 exhibition;  yet when G. Phillips Bevans published his monumental "British Manufacturing Industries" in 1876, the section on jewellery was written by George Wallis.

As late in Wallis' life as 1883 the Wolverhampton Evening Express published letters from him relating to the locally born artists Edward Bird and John Barney and the then proposed book of Old Wolverhampton by John Fullwood.   The letters serve to show that Wallis still had a continuing interest in the town and that he must have been a regular visitor there.  One of the matters in issue was the exact location of the house in which Bird was born.  Now in his seventies, Wallis's recollection is still clear.  He writes:

"A propos of [sic] houses connected with Bird's family, I may as well state here that the house to which I used to go as a boy, occupied by Bird's sister Mary, and where I used to see Bird's pictures ... was "The Old Watch House", at the angle of Queen Street and Berry Street, reconstructed some 40 or 45 years ago as a chemist and druggist's shop.  The entrance to the house was reached by two flights of steps - one from Queen Street, the other from Berry Street, and angle being formed by the parapet, and facing down Horseley Fields.  In the centre of this angle was a door to a porch, down steps, leading to an inside door, which was that of the cell of the watch-house.  Here the town's watchmen of "Old Charlies" assembled nightly to be sent to their respective "beats" which were usually changed from night to night, and then those arrested during the night were locked up in durance until taken before the justices the next day.  They had a blazing Staffordshire fire to keep them warm, and good broad seats around the walls to sit or lie down upon. As a boy I would have gone with a relative who had charge of the place at night, to see the watch turn out in the ghostly guise of white flannel overcoats, and swinging hand lanterns, as a treat, in its way, to a youngster who ought to have been in bed".  

In a later letter Wallis expands on this whilst correcting various mis-spellings in other parts of the original letter.  (A copy of one of the letters in Wallis's own hand shows that, by that time at any rate, his handwriting was very bad and the typesetters at the Evening Express can hardly be blamed for the numerous errors). 

"I wrote that the relative with whom I occasionally went to the watch house to see the watchmen sent out to their duty "had charge of the peace of the town at night".  This has been converted into "had charge of the former place (i.e. the watch house) at night".  This was the duty of one of the watchmen, selected each night for that purpose.  My relative was Mr. John Worralow, who held the position of Chief Officer of the Town Commissioners, the body by whom the township of Wolverhampton was governed before the Municipal Corporations Act was applied to the Borough, a responsible post, held for many years, and involving, even at that time, considerable administrative power.  In fact I have always attributed any administrative ability and tact I may possess to the training, up to sixteen years old, which I got under this relative, my great uncle".

It is not clear whether John Worralow's post with the Town Commissioners was a part time one or whether he had taken up this employment after the downturn in the buckle trade.  But Wallis's reference to having himself rolled on rusty steel ornaments rather suggests the former.

It may be significant that two of the engravings by Wallis, now in the Wolverhampton Art Gallery, are signed with a minute W; and that of all the cut steel work produced in Wolverhampton only Worralow ever signed any of his work - with a minute W.

Two character sketches by George Wallis, dated 1826, when he was about 15.

By courtesy of Amanda Bell.

Apparently “his love of art and power to sketch from nature, were very early developed” (Biograph).  And an enthusiasm for it lasted all his life, even when he was no longer a professional artist.  Whitworth Wallis said "his father sketched everywhere and with extraordinary rapidity - in railway trains and on omnibuses and once, so it is reported, in a hansom cab outside Hyde Park Corner".

Jones says (though the Biograph does not mention it) that Wallis “was afflicted with deafness” but that “he overcame this disadvantage by earnestness of spirit and a spirit of ceaseless inquiry”. Wallis's descendants know of no tradition that he was deaf but it may be significant that it is noted in the Appendix to his Letter to the Council of the Manchester School of Design (1845) that a class for young people from the Institution for the Deaf and Dumb "was introduced at the request of Mr. Wallis, who has undertaken its sole tuition as an experiment, the Council having remitted the usual fees, trusting that much benefit will result to the youths who compose it". 

Wallis attended the Wolverhampton Grammar School “for a few years but it was soon seen that his mind was of no common order – he had indomitable industry, perseverance and self-reliance”.  One of his contemporaries at the school was Rupert Kettle, with whom he maintained a life long friendship.

The Grammar School buildings in St. John's Street.  This is where Wallis would have gone - the school moved out of these premises in 1874.

Photo courtesy of Ron Easthope.

What happened next is not clear.  Both the The Biograph and the 1919 Catalogue say that in 1827, his uncle (or, maybe, both his uncle and aunt) died, throwing him upon his own resources and those of his widowed mother.  But Jones has his uncle and aunt living very much longer and his mother as long dead at this time.  It is certainly likely that Wallis left the Grammar School in 1827, at the age of 16.  Whitworth Wallis says that, but for the death of his uncle, George Wallis would have gone to university but, as it was, he apprenticed himself to a "coach and heraldic painter" and, while there, was "also making designs and drawings for well known firms of japanners in Wolverhampton".  This is a clear indication that Wallis had started a career as a consulting industrial designer, selling his designs where he could.  It might be remarked that this may not have been unusual and was certainly well in advance of Dresser, often put forward as the first industrial designer doing anything of the sort.  

The cartouche from the 1827 map.

Taken from "Mapping the Past", Wolverhampton Archives, 1993. The Archives hold an original print.

A further indication of Wallis making his living as an artist is the map attached to Steen's Trade Directory of Wolverhampton, published in 1827.  This map bears a simple cartouche in which the words "Geo. Wallis pnxt" appear.  Whether or not Wallis conducted any sort of survey for this map is not clear but the map is neat and clear and simple.  Whilst not a notable example of the map maker's art, it is a creditable effort for a 16 year old, doubtless working to strict time and cost constraints.   In addition to this sort of work Jones says that  “when quite a youth he began to teach drawing and painting to others”. 

There is another indication of what Wallis may have been doing at this time.  In Samuel Sidney's "Rides on Railways ...", of 1851, in his description of Wolverhampton,  Sidney comments that Wolverhampton's japanned wares are "equal in taste and execution to anything produced in Birmingham;  indeed it was at the manufactory of the Messrs. Walton that the plan of skillfully copying the landscapes of our best artists on japan were originated.  The first tea-tray of the kind was copied from one of Turner's Rivers of France, by a gentleman who has since taken up a very important position in applying the true principles of art to British manufactures".  This must be a reference to Wallis who was clearly employed by or commissioned by Waltons.  Exactly when this was is not clear from Sidney's account but Wallis was clearly getting first hand knowledge of industry and design.

(One might as well comment here, as anywhere, that Wallis's story brings up a number of hints at close links with Christopher Dresser.  It may be relevant that, of all the better known Victorian art gurus, Wallis and Dresser were the only ones without a university education.  That shared background may have given them attitudes and approaches in common, and it may well have lead both of them to being more securely rooted in the practicalities of industry than many of their contemporaries).

It is therefore seems that, in the five year period from 1827 to 1832, Wallis was trying to make his way and earn a living as an artist, designer and art teacher in Wolverhampton.  He was probably also continuing his education as far as he could.  Jones records that in 1869, in a speech in connection with the opening of the Free Library, Wallis "greatly interested his hearers ... by telling them how he laid the foundations of his after-advancement in life in the technical knowledge gained as a student at the old Mechanics' Institute, being one of the first members to have his name entered on the books after the institution was founded".   The early history of the Institute is not all that clear but a foundation date of 1827 is most likely.  

But Wallis seems to have been very conscious of the fact that he needed further training as an artist - perhaps any sort of training at all beyond the most rudimentary.  And for this he would need to leave Wolverhampton.  London would have been the obvious choice but Wallis did not choose it, probably because of the cost.

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