Saturday, 13 July 2013

Glitches in the modernist narrative

In 1988, in the midst of the bicentennial celebrations of European settlement in Australia, in what was the first critical attempt to evaluate the place of design in Australian history, Tony Fry - a lecturer at the University of Sydney’s Power Institute of Fine Arts - pointedly observed that: ‘From the way design has been written about in Australia, and how this writing exists in relation to a textual field from the metropolitan centres of modernity, it can be clearly seen that like much else the cultural and economic nature of design has been a product of the elsewhere.’ (Tony Fry, Design history Australia (1988), p. 77).  Fry’s observation is even more acutely applicable to the place of design in New Zealand: despite recent attempts to confect an ersatz genealogy of design history in New Zealand, the country’s design culture effectively frames a dislocated space.
Alfred Appleby Longden in Christchurch in 1907
Every now and then, one comes across an oddity, an uncharacteristic glitch, in the received narrative of metropolitan modernity. One such instance occurred in Christchurch between 1906 and 1907 and it concerns a temporarily employed British official, Alfred Appleby Longden (1875-1954), who had been despatched by the British Board of Trade to supervise the installation of British works of art and craft at the New Zealand International Exhibition of Arts and Industries.  In terms of an understanding of the modernist imperative, Longden is of relative insignificance, but for much of his working life he serendipitously, found himself associated with the emergence of key institutional indicators in the emergence of design as an identifiable set of discrete processes.

British art section: arts and crafts in the British government display at the New Zealand International Exhibition, Christchurch, 1906-7. 
Christchurch City Libraries
A graduate of the Royal College of Art, Longden, after working as an art master in Sunderland, was recruited by the Board of Trade as an exhibition assistant, probably for the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exhibition in St Louis. He was then sent to Christchurch where he stayed from September 1906 until June 1907, evidently enjoying himself. Aside from his substantive work installing and running the British fine arts section of the exhibition, he toured the country, painted watercolours, judged exhibitions and fancy dress parades, identified ‘lost masterpieces’ by WatteauRembrandt and Turner and opined on the state of the arts in New Zealand. On his return to the United Kingdom he was appointed director of the Aberdeen Corporation Art Gallery and then, in 1912, was once again recruited by the Board of Trade for its newly established Exhibitions Branch.

In the aftermath of the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1900 British manufacturers were increasingly disinclined to exhibit their products at the great international exhibitions. There was a growing belief that exhibitions were no longer sales opportunities but entertainments for the masses: panem et circenses sort of stuff that satisfied political rather than commercial needs. While there was some validity in the manufacturers’ complaints, the more probable reason for their disinterest was that British wares were consistently outclassed by the output of German, French and American producers and their displays outshone by those of the same nations, which were organised and subsidised by the state.

The British government hubristically concluded that the fine arts were probably the best way the country could maintain a presence at these increasingly showy displays of international one-upmanship. The decision was influenced by the activities of the art entrepreneur Isidore Spielmann (1854-1925) who, from the 1890s actively promoted British art, initially in a private capacity, but later as a representative of the British government. Spielmann’s great moment came in 1906 when David Lloyd George, president of the Board of Trade appointed a committee to enquire into ‘The participation of Great Britain in great international exhibitions’. Spielmann was appointed a member; his recruitment was made on the recommendation of Hubert Llewellyn Smith (1864-1945), the recently appointed permanent secretary of the Board who, inter alia, had an obsessive interest in the industrial arts.

After almost a year’s deliberation the committee reported back recommending the establishment of an exhibitions branch to co-ordinate British representation at international exhibitions. A critical factor in the committee’s decision was the success of the British art exhibit at Christchurch (sales exceeded those made at all previous exhibitions) and ‘the small and unrepresentative nature of the trade exhibits’, allegedly the consequence of ‘distance and the want of market’. As his reward, Spielmann was appointed honorary (unpaid) director of art of the newly established organisation. 

The Exhibitions Branch was a game-changer: for the first time the resources of the state were harnessed to the promotion of British industry under the direction of the state, rather than the manufacturer, individually or collectively. This separation of role between producer and promoter laid the grounds for the emergence of design as a discrete process in the production and consumption of commodities.

Once formed – in 1908 – the Exhibitions Branch took charge of the appearance of British displays at international exhibitions, not only in terms of the venue but also of the selection of items. The branch’s taste was conservative: the pavilions it built were either faked-up replicas of historic British buildings or grand, imperial confections – the British School in Rome, designed by Edwin Lutyens, was constructed as the British Fine Art Palace for the 1911 Esposizione internazionale dell'arte in Rome. The contents chosen to fill these halls were equally traditional, academy paintings and, daringly, the whittled, bashed, blown and woven essays of the members of the Arts & Crafts Exhibition Society.

The work of the Exhibitions Branch was suspended soon after the start of the First World War. While it was resurrected after the war it also prompted the formation of the British Institute of Industrial Art (1919) which morphed into the Council for Art and Industry (1936) which in turn was transmogrified into the Council for Industrial Design (1944) - now known as the Design Council – which, in turn was one of the inspirations for the New Zealand Industrial Design Council (1967). A full circle, if you like.

As for AA Longden: at the outbreak of war he joined up and, as an officer in the Royal Garrison Artillery, was awarded a DSO and twice mentioned in dispatches; for the rest of his life he was known as Major Longden. After the war he was employed as director of the British Institute of Industrial Art (another Llewellyn Smith innovation) until that was defunded in 1923. That same year he returned to working on exhibitions, being appointed assistant director (applied art) for the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley. After the uncertainty of the Institute, Longden seems to have enjoyed himself both as one of the selectors of the British fine art exhibits and as cicerone to visiting worthies. These included the Australian architect John Sulman who took his advice in assembling a collection of 'cheap applied arts' which he intended as a gift for the National Art Gallery of New South Wales. Sulman's generosity was rejected by the gallery trustees and ended up at the Sydney Technological Museum (now the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences, known colloquially as the Powerhouse Museum, after its principal venue) where, in the 1950s, it was dispersed and, in part, disposed of as being of little value; the remaining material has been reassembled subsequently.
A selection of John Sulman's 'cheap applied arts', mostly acquired in London in August 1924
 on the advice of  Major AA Longden.
Powerhouse Museum, Sydney
Following his success at Wembley and having wangled a transfer back to the successor body of the Exhibitions Branch, the Exhibitions Division of the Department of Overseas Trade, Longden worked on a series of international and imperial exhibitions throughout the 1920s and 30s, in the process seemingly ingratiating himself with various authoritarian regimes (he was made a knight grand officer of the Order of the Crown of Italy in 1938). In 1936 he was appointed joint secretary of the Council for Art & Industry but his genial incompetence infuriated its chairman Frank Pick and so he was despatched to the recently established British Council where, as secretary of its Fine Arts Committee, he survived until his retirement in 1947. His last job, at the age of 72, was as director of the Wernher Collection, an extraordinary assemblage of nineteenth century nouveau riche taste and Romanov trinkets then housed at Luton Hoo and he was still there when he died in 1954.