George Wallis

page 4

4.  London and the Government Schools of Art and Design

By 1841 Wallis had moved to London where he joined the Normal Class for the Future Masters at the Central School of Design at Somerset House.  It is clear that, to have qualified for this teacher training course, he must already have been able to show an impressive body of work.  This school was then under the direction of William Dyce.   In our context there are two important things about Dyce.  In the first place he has been described as “one of the first teachers to place ... faith in botanical nature as a source of inspiration” and his later published work shows his commitment to this subject as well as the important part it played in the teaching of the Central School. This must have appealed to Wallis and relates back to his paper “On the Principles of Natural Form”.  In the second place Dyce had been asked by the council of the Central School to report on the organisation and teaching methods of schools of design in France and Germany.  He visited both of these countries and reported in 1838; and it was on the basis of that report that the Central School's curriculum and teaching were redesigned.  When Wallis was there he was experiencing at first hand the latest, leading views on industrial art education. 

Wallis was a great success at the school as, according to his son, he was awarded six exhibitions (in the sense of prizes or scholarships)  by the Board of Trade.  

It seems that Wallis was maintaining his connections with Wolverhampton.  In 1843 there appeared a book "Ravencourt: a Dramatic Legend in three acts as performed at Wolverhampton" by Henry W. Wynn.  [publishedby Simkin, Marshall & Co, London and Joseph Bridgen, Wolverhampton].  This medieval romance, mainly in blank verse, is dedicated to Mrs. B. Walton, presumably Mrs. Benjamin Walton, the wife of the owner of Walton's Old Hall japan works.  It contains one illustration and that is by George Wallis. 

This is not a very distinguished work of art (though it is difficult to say how much it suffered when the block was cut) and it does not seem that this sort of work was Wallis' forte or interest.  It may well have been done mostly as a favour for old friends.

The signature on the picture, with the G elided with the W, is more elaborate than appears on Wallis' own, later, engravings.

By January 1843 Wallis had left the Central School and had been appointed the Headmaster of the Spitalfields School of Design.  (Spitalfields was a great centre of silk weaving). He was only there until the December.  What went wrong can be deduced from a letter Wallis wrote in 1860 in defence of the Wolverhampton Art School:   “I was Head Master of the Spitalfields School of Design seventeen years ago, and saw plainly enough that the manufacturers there, with their school &c, were, to use an old illustration, like “a cow in a farthingale”, which, for the benefit of modern Wolverhampton folk, may be translated into “a collier in a crinoline”.  How to use it, what to do with it, supported as it was almost entirely by the Government and a west-end charity box, they did not know.  It could not make them what they wanted, cheap designs in the French fashion, because its object was to correct as well as cultivate taste.  Growth and progressive development they did not believe in, because it was beyond their comprehension. It was not my duty to point out how the school could be made useful, but I did so nevertheless, and of course gave offence accordingly.” 

It might be noted here that Wallis seems always to have been an aggressive debater, not much given to mincing his words or suffering gladly those he thought fools.  He probably lacked an easy charm and tact in life as in his writing.  Having had two years at grammar school, left at 16, and never been to university to study the classics, he never espoused the polysyllabic style of rolling periods, that so many Victorians aspired to. 

In December of that year, 1843, he was appointed to the Manchester School of Design which had decided to rearrange its teaching on the principles adopted by the Central School.  Whitworth Wallis says that his father was "promoted" to Manchester from Spitalfields.  It may well be that, as Wallis never suffered fools (or some quite sensible people) gladly, it was seen as a good idea to transfer him elsewhere. 

Wallis's activities in Manchester were not confined to his work at the School of Design. 

This is an1848 playbill for an "Amateur Theatrical Performance in aid of the fund for the purchase of the Birthplace of Shakespeare" ("male characters by gentlemen amateurs, female characters by professional ladies"). 

The bill refers to the Honorary Secretary of the Committee (presumably a local committee) as Mr. George Wallis. 

The playbill says:  "An ornamental ticket, commemorative of Shakespeare, has been prepared, after a design by the Honorary Secretary, and will be presented with the ticket of admission;  but both will be required to be shown on entrance.  None of the ornamental tickets will be issued for money taken at the door".

This is the ticket, showing Shakespeare reclining in some foliage and the birthplace itself, similarly embowered. 

He seems to have been successful in his work at Manchester but he left it in telling circumstances.  It seems, though the Biograph is not completely clear on the matter, that Dyce having left the Central School, the government decided that schools of design should adopt a different course of instruction, which included the drawing of the human figure “from flat examples”, was to be adopted.  Wallis, who had taught from casts and anatomy, objected  to this and probably to other features of the course as well, for he had, by this time, got his own decided opinions on how a course of industrial art should be organised and claimed to have proved its value at Manchester.  Wallis resigned. 

In "Rides on Railways" (London, 1851)  Samuel Sidney writes at some length on these matters: 

At Manchester, some of the leading men connected with the calico-printing trade and looms of art, established a School of Design within the Royal Institution, where two rooms were lent rent-free; but, as soon as Government apportioned a part of a special grant to the Manchester School, the Committee, who were also as nearly as possible the Council of the Royal Institution, with that appetite for public money which seems incident to men of all nations, all classes, and all politics, voted £100 out of the £250 per annum for rent.  This school did nothing of a practical nature, and consequently did not progress in public estimation.  The master was a clever artist, but not up, perhaps he would have said not down, to his work.  A School of Design at Manchester is meant, not to breed artists in high art, but to have art applied to the trades of the city.

The master was changed, and, at the request of the local committee, the Council of the School of Design at Somerset House sent down, in 1845, Mr. George Wallis, who had shown his qualifications as an assistant at Somerset House and as master of the Spitalfields school.  At that time the Manchester school had been in existence five years, and had done nothing toward its original object.  In two years from the time of Mr. Wallis taking the charge, the funds of the school were flourishing; the interest taken in it by the public was great, and nearly half the Institution was occupied by the pupils, while the applications for admission were more numerous than could be accommodated.  Under this management the public, who care little for abstract art, were taught the close connexion between the instruction of the School of Design and their private pursuits.

This is what is wanted in all our towns.  It is not enough to teach boys and girls,—the manufacturers and purchasers need to be taught by the eye, if not by the hand.

According to part of Mr. Wallis’s plan, an exhibition was held of the drawings executed by the pupils for the annual prizes, which had a great influence in laying the foundation for the efforts made by Manchester at the Great Exhibition of Industry in Hyde Park.

While matters were proceeding so satisfactorily, the Somerset House authorities (who have since been tried and condemned by a Committee of the House of Commons), proceeded to earn their salaries by giving instructions which could not be carried out without destroying all the good that had been done.  The Manchester Committee and Mr. Wallis protested against this red tapish interference.  It was persisted in; Mr. Wallis resigned, to the great regret of his pupils and manufacturing friends in the managing council.

The result was that the undertaking dwindled away rapidly to less than its original insignificance,—the students fell off, and a deficit of debt replaced the previously flourishing funds.  Out of evil comes good.  The case of Manchester enabled Mr. Milner Gibson, M.P. for Manchester, to get his Committee and overhaul the Schools of Design throughout the kingdom.

The Manchester Mechanics’ Institution was one of the pioneers in the movement which led to the Great Exhibition.  In 1831, was held its first Polytechnic Exhibition for the purpose of showing the connexion between natural productions, science, and manufactures.  Subsequent Exhibitions were carried out with great effect as a means of instruction and education, and with such success as to pay off a heavy debt which had previously cramped the usefulness of the Institution.

In 1844, whilst still at the Manchester School, he had visited Paris for the Quinquennial Exhibition of the National Art and Industry of France and inspected the Ecole de Dessin.  Whitworth Wallis refers to his father as having been sent to Paris, presumably by the Central School or the Board of Trade.  From these experiences Wallis deduced, according to the Biograph, that periodical displays of industrial art were essential but that the French system of design education was not applicable to England.  He deals with what he perceives as the deficiencies of the French system of art education in his "Letter to the Council" and points out that the fact that the people produced by this system might be good does not prove that the same system would produce good results here because the whole context of art education was different. 

It is not clear when Wallis left Manchester.  The Biograph refers to his being there “from two to three years” which may mean that he left at the end of 1844 or sometime in 1845;  but the RSA obituary says that he held this office until 1846.  And his "Letter to the Council" is dated 30th October 1845 when he was still in office.    The performance put on for the Shakespeare Birth Place fund (mentioned in the captions to the images above) was on 20th December 1847 and refers to Wallis's address as 53 Renshaw Street, Greenhayes and there other indications in that material that he was in Manchester at that date.  But it could well be that  he was continuing in a role he had started well before he left Manchester.  On the whole it seems likely that he left Manchester at the end of 1845 or at the beginning of 1846.

An idea of what Wallis was doing between 1845 and 1851 is given by Widar Halen who, in his book on Christopher Dresser, writes:  “Two other famous protagonists in the early history of the reform of design in Victorian Britain were George Wallis and Owen Jones, both of whom lectured at the School in the late 1840s and exercised a considerable influence on Dresser’s early education”.  Dresser himself mentioned that he attended Wallis’s lectures “when quite a boy” – he went there in 1847 at the age of 13.  So presumably at this time Wallis was a teacher at the Government School of Design at Somerset House (which moved to Marlborough House in 1852) and it may be that it was to take up this appointment that he left Manchester.  Presumably, also, he stopped that work when he took up his next appointment in Birmingham.

He had also started a long connection with the Art Journal.  Whitworth Wallis says that his father's report on the Paris Exhibition of 1844 lead (though he does not say how) to the Manchester Exhibition of 1846.  This drew Wallis to the attention of Sir Henry Cole who asked him to write for the Art Journal.

In 1845-46, perhaps on leaving Manchester, he organised an Exhibition of Art and Industry at the Royal Institution.  (The Art Union, later the Art Journal, had a special supplement on the exhibition in its January 1846 issue).  During the course of this Exhibition he lectured on “The History, Principles and Practice of Ornamental and Decorative Art”.  “This”, says the Biograph, “was really the first effort to systematically illustrate the relation of art to industry”. 

In the Spring of 1847 Wallis was, according to his son, requested by the Board of Trade to report on the condition of Schools of Design in the country and to "prepare a systematic statement of his views regarding a progressive system of instruction".  Wallis's report, dated 19th June 1847, was entitled "A Draft of a Plan of Instruction in Art and Science, furnished by Mr. George Wallis to Mr. Shaw Lefevre, Secretary to the Board of Trade".  Of this report Wallis's son says:  "It lays out a systematic plan of instruction for Schools of Design and to this day forms the basis for the instruction in Government Schools all over the country."  This is a large claim, made by a proud son.  It deserves further investigation.  To this Whitworth Wallis adds:  "Especially important was his systematic attempt to introduce the teaching of elementary drawing from the blackboard, which he had used in experimental classes in 1838 in this town [sc. Wolverhampton].  It is therefore probable that Mr. Wallis' efforts in Wolverhampton were the earliest in this country in teaching elementary art by means of the blackboard.".  It would be interesting to check this against the general history of the backboard in teaching.    

In 1848 Sir Henry Cole established the Journal of Design, to which Wallis contributed a number of articles, the first of which was “Provincial Exhibitions of Manufactured Art”.  Wallis seems to have been closely associated with Cole at this time.  David Crowley says:  “Through the Schools of Design and Summerley’s Art Manufacture there emerged a core of artists, designers and intellectuals linked to Cole.  The keys figures in this - ‘the Cole Group’ – were [John Bell, Richard Redgrave, William Dyce, Daniel Maclise and] Matthew Digby Wyatt, Ralph Nicholson Wornum, Gottfried Semper, Owen Jones and George Wallis.  ....  The Cole Group became the design establishment of mid-19th century Britain”.  

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