Saturday, 3 August 2013

Archives and design history

Memorandum from George Laurence Watkinson, an assistant secretary at the British Board of Trade, relating to the formation of the design promotion body that emerged as the Council of Industrial Design in December 1944. The last entry on the page was made by Alix Kilroy as the principal responsible for the initiative. Board of Trade papers at the National Archives of the United Kingdom (BT 64/3384)

Pretty much every week the Professional Historians' Association of New Zealand/Aotearoa emails its members with lists supplied by Archives New Zealand of those public documents intended for disposal under the terms of the Public Records Act 2005. These lists are distributed in order to garner comments from interested parties and to prevent egregious destruction. It’s a long way from the situation prevailing up to the beginning of the century which saw government departments and agencies disposing of archives without reference to anyone. In fact the New Zealand government’s approach to its archives has been extraordinarily negligent; the most appalling example occurring in 1952 when a fire in an annex of the Hope Gibbons Building in Wellington consumed the ‘early’ records of the Departments of Public Works, Lands and Survey, Labour, Agriculture and Marine.

This rat from about 1830, with a stomach full of chewed document, was used by Henry Cole in evidence of the poor condition of the records. National Archives of the United Kingdom, ref: E 163/24/31
Such a situation is far from unique. The shocking condition under which public records were preserved in the United Kingdom prompted the formation in 1836 of a parliamentary select committee to probe the affairs of the Records Commission, the body then charged with their care and maintenance. The report of the committee not only excoriated the commission but also led to the formation of the British Public Records Office and, not coincidentally, launched the stellar career of its author, Henry Cole, as 'the great bureaucrat' of nineteenth century industrial arts. But, despite these reforms, the destruction of official archives continued. In her memoir of her life as a civil servant in the British Board of Trade, Alix Meynell (née Kilroy) ­­– best remembered to history for her role in forming the Council of Industrial Design during the Second World War ­– recalled that as a new recruit she was put to sorting through her department’s files at the end of the 1920s and, without any guidelines or indexes, recommending their destruction, expressing the ‘fear that my simplistic advice may have been acted upon’ (Alix Meynell, Public servant, private woman (1988), p. 97).

If the public service was negligent about its records, then the private sector was often and inevitably worse. Business records, once their commercial usefulness had expired, were systemically trashed. And those that were retained were often stored under the worst of all possible conditions, well into the 1980s and 1990s. It is only recently that the value of these holdings has been recognised, but for all the wrong reasons. As the great manufacturing concerns have collapsed into bankruptcy, inevitably brought on by speculative buyouts and other financial ploys, their receivers have been seeking to realise every possible asset, particularly when company pension funds are involved. The example of the Wedgwood Museum in Barlaston, Staffordshire, which is currently making its way through the British legal system, is a case in point. The museum thought that, no matter the fate of its founding company, Josiah Wedgwood & Sons (which over the past decade absorbed Doulton & Co Ltd, which, in turn had absorbed Minton's Ltd), it was, as an independent trust, safe from depredation. The courts disagreed, interpreting the Pension Act 1995 as making the museum chargeable for the founding company’s pension indebtedness. As a result it's entirely possible that these collections and their associated remaining archives will be sent to Sotheby's in atonement for the sins of the speculators who had already trashed what they hadn't created.
Decorative metalwork awning designed and made by Wunderlich Limited for Farmer and Company Limited's department store in King Street, Sydney, New South Wales. E A Bradford, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia, 1920s. Photographic print from the Powerhouse Museum, Wunderlich Ltd Archive Collection, A7437-28/113
The shenanigans currently surrounding the Wedgwood Museum have their roots in the collapse of commodity manufacturing during the 1980s which affected companies around the world. In Australia, Wunderlich Ltd, inter alia, manufacturers of tiles and pressed ceiling panels, was closed by its owner, the Colonial Sugar Refinery Co Ltd (CSR) in 1979 and its Redfern factory abandoned. It was somewhat serendipitous that the firm’s closure coincided with a decision by the University of Sydney’s Department of Archaeology to launch a course in historical archaeology. Students from the course, together with curatorial staff from Sydney’s Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences, undertook the colossal task of retrieving and preserving the company’s paper archives along with a significant tranche of moulds, pattern stamps, samples and the like. These are now held at the Powerhouse Museum and while not displayed are publicly accessible.

In New Zealand things have been no better. The archive of the pottery manufacturers Ambrico/Crown Lynn/Ceramco was quite literally abandoned when the company turned from being a ceramic manufactory into a speculative concern and closed its New Lynn factory. Much was retrieved thanks to the indefatigable work of the late Richard Quinn who collected files, reports, advertisements, production schedules and the like as the factory was demolished in 1989. After protracted and disputatious negotiations this material is now preserved by the Portage Ceramics Trust and in the library of the Auckland Museum.

But for all the archives that have been saved, a far greater proportion have been lost, often due to ignorance and a failure to understand the way that commodities are manufactured, distributed and mediated. Historically, greater significance has always been attributed to the role played by manufacturers, presumably on the basis that their place in the hierarchies of production was the most readily identifiable. But this attribution reflects a flawed way of looking at the processes of material culture history because it assumes both that manufacturers operate in an hermetic environment and that the manufacture of commodities is a one-way process from manufacturer to consumer, which, of course, they don’t and it isn’t.

A case in point can be made with the production of ceramics made for the New Zealand market by the British manufacturer Doulton & Co. The company was probably one of the most important suppliers of ceramic goods to New Zealand during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries: in the 1860s its stoneware sewer pipes (made at its Lambeth factory) were specified by the richer New Zealand municipalities and, from the mid 1880s, the company became one of the leading suppliers of table and ornamental wares (made both at Lambeth and its newly acquired  Stoke-on-Trent works) to New Zealand consumers.  The man primarily responsible for this market capture was Doulton’s agent in Sydney, John Shorter (1853-1942) who, from the mid 1890s, was responsible for the New Zealand market.

John Shorter about 1930 
Shorter, who was Staffordshire born, was sent out by Doulton & Co to install its display at the 1879 Sydney International Exhibition. One of Shorter’s more interesting ways of activating the high end of the local market – one that was emulated by any number of British ceramic manufacturers – was to send paintings of local flora (Miss Ada Rutherford of Bathurst was his favoured supplier of designs) to be copied onto standard forms by china painters in the Doulton factories. This initiative developed from Shorter’s collaboration with Richard Baker, curator of the Sydney Technological Museum, who adhered to an idea first proposed by the ex-Communard painter Lucien Henry that ‘a national art form’ must develop out of the applied arts and that the best way of achieving this was to seek inspiration in nature.

New Zealand 1d postage stamp commemorating the New Zealand Exhibition of Arts and Industries from 1906. The first commemorative issue and the first to be entirely designed, engraved and printed in New Zealand
Shorter followed the same rationale in preparing Doulton’s exhibit at the 1906-07 Christchurch New Zealand International Exhibition of Arts and Industries. But for this occasion he picked up on one of the theme of  the exhibition, its presentation of what might be described as ‘Māoriness’, a Pākehā vision of a Māori culture that was at once patronising, demeaning and inaccurate, but entirely consistent with the prevailing treatment of non-European cultures at international exhibitions. It seems that on Shorter’s direction, Doulton produced two lines for the exhibition - alongside a range of cheaper souvenir wares: ‘Māori Art’ and ‘Māori Ware’. The former design was based on an illustration in Augustus Hamilton’s 1897 Māori Art of kōwhaiwhai collected by HW Williams in the east of the North Island during the early 1890s.
Transfer-printed and painted porcelain dinner plate 
from the Doulton ‘Māori Art’ service, designed about 1906
Verso of the plate. Impressed marks indicate
the blank was produced in 1928
But this Australian connection has been lost from the received history of design in New Zealand. In 1979, nearly three quarters of a century after the design was conceived, John Shorter Pty Ltd lost the Doulton agency and in 1982 John Shorter’s grandson, another John Shorter died and the company ceased its trade in ceramics. The significance of the company’s archive was not recognised and, like the greater part of the Doulton archive in England, it was destroyed. The consequence of this absence of documentation has prompted a number of myths relating to the ‘Māori Art’ design: the general editor of Te Ara, the official encyclopedia of New Zealand, Jock Phillips, has asserted that it was designed in the 1920s. And in his biography of Āpirana Ngata, Ranginui Walker states that the pattern was ‘commissioned to be made in England’ by Ngata and that it was ‘a cultural statement that Māori decorative art and design had a place in the modern world’ (Ranginui Walker, He tipua: the life and times of Sir Āpirana Ngata (2001), p. 165).

It was indeed a cultural statement; but while Ngata may have ordered a ‘Māori Art’ service and it was appropriately decorated with a design possibly based on a Ngāti Porou kōwhaiwhai - Ngata belonged to that iwi confederation - the statement was most probably made by an Australian-domiciled Englishman; it was a statement of colonialism. Unfortunately, as a result of the destruction of the relevant archives, we will probably never know for certain if the application of the design was the harbinger of a cultural shift or the result of commercial pragmatism.