Wednesday, 26 March 2014

A veneer of gentility

Unidentified maker, occasional table of red cedar with mahogany and rosewood veneers, [Sydney, NSW, about 1845]
If we regard design as a tripartite process of production, mediation and consumption and view it pre-eminently as one of the manifestations of industrialisation, then we have to allow that for much of the nineteenth century the production of furniture fell into what might be described as a design history problematic: it was global yet persistently local; it was modern in its conception and production, yet pre-modern in the methodology of its making. The raw materials used by furniture makers were sourced globally: from exotic timbers such as Brazilian and Indian rosewood and mahogany – used largely for veneers, to more humble woods, such as Baltic pine and deal, which were employed structurally. Over the course of the nineteenth century, furniture production was neither industrialised nor entirely craft-based; and while many of the processes it made use of were increasingly mechanised, those making it were still, largely, organised on the pre-industrial model of master, journeyman and apprentice, although this also changed as the century wore on.

In terms of its mediation though, nineteenth century furniture production, at least that directed for consumption by the middle and upper classes, was entirely modern, relying predominantly for its types and forms on pattern books, catalogues and other printed references. The use of such mediated sources was no new thing and had characterised elements of European furniture production – particularly those directed at luxury markets – since the rapid expansion of printed visual media in the mid-eighteenth century. The difference was that printed material was no longer exclusive to producers but was used, increasingly, to shape market preferences. As society commercialised, middle-class consumers – no matter their location – were increasingly exposed to notions of fashionability. Equally, the availability of printed sources meant that fashionable furniture could be produced outside the metropolitan centres, provided it adhered to the centre’s standards of quality of design and production.

One of the best instances of this derogation of production was the market for furniture that emerged in Australia during the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Thanks to the circumstances under which the continent was colonised by the British, we know quite a bit about the people who moved there, what they did and what they surrounded themselves with: convict colonies were the ideal surveillance society and, free or not, rich or poor, their inhabitants were well observed and the results documented. The trouble for design historians, amongst others, has been the difficulty of matching this archived data with the objects, the things of the period. In some instances, it’s relatively easy; in others it’s quite impossible as the vital connection between thing and documentary context or thing and the observed person has been lost.

John Verge architect, western façade of Camden Park House, Menangle, NSW, about 1835
The contents of Camden Park House, the speculating termagant John Macarthur’s ‘Grecian’ style patrician villa at Menangle, south of Sydney (John Verge, 1835) are uniquely, for a private Australian house of that date, largely intact and well-documented. The Macarthur papers, now held at the Mitchell Library in Sydney, retain many of the invoices and receipts for the objects used to furnish the house from the mid 1830s. Over the past sixty or so years, furniture and architectural historians have sought to match the invoices with what remains in and what is known to have been in the house – there have been a number of family settlements over the years that have led to some dispersals. The research has led to some items of furniture, once proudly identified as ‘made of Australian cedar by convicts on the estate’, being recognised as made of exotic timbers and acquired from fashionable London retailers. It’s easy to make mistakes when it comes to cataloguing furniture, particularly if you don’t have access to sources or are unfamiliar with the timbers used. In the case of Camden Park House such errors of classification really shouldn’t have happened given that it accommodates an extraordinary collection of wood samples, apparently duplicates of those collected by William Macarthur and exhibited by him at the 1855 Paris Exposition universelle.

The study of nineteenth century Australian furniture production has been helped by publications such as Kevin Fahy, Christine Simpson and Andrew Simpson’s Nineteenth century Australian furniture (Sydney: David Ell, 1985) and by the development of that invaluable resource, the Caroline Simpson Library and Research Centre, a vital component of Sydney Living Museums, formerly the Historic Houses Trust of NSW. With their emphasis on economic, social, political and geographic contexts, these empirical resources have contributed to a significant change in the way Australian material culture history is researched and written. It’s an approach emphasising the critical position that design is more than just a production process.

While there have been furniture histories written in and about New Zealand they tend to be decontextualized in the sense that they focus predominantly on objects rather than ideas; narrating the thing rather than its context. Probably the earliest New Zealand furniture history, Stanley Northcote-Bade’s, Colonial furniture in New Zealand (Wellington: AH & AW Reed, 1971) was remarkable in its attempt to both identify a genealogy of furniture types and place them within a specific, colonial, context. William Cottrell’s more recent Furniture of the New Zealand colonial era: an illustrated history 1830-1900 (Auckland: Reed Publishing, 2006) deploys Fahy and Simpson’s methodology along with the facilities made available by modern digital technology to document and analyse a much broader range of types and possible makers.

The problematic of nineteenth century colonial furniture is evident in a piece that turned up at a recent Art+Object auction in Auckland. It was catalogued as ‘lot 715. William IV period mahogany and rosewood work table, single frieze drawer raised on an octagonal tapering column on a quatrefoil base on four scroll legs. W. 510 x H. 730mm’. Rather than being a work or sewing table, it might be better described as an occasional table as, conventionally, work tables have a cloth bag - or the fittings for one - suspended under the top. In addition, while the table is clad with a thickly cut mahogany (Swietenia sp.) veneer with a cross-banded Indian rosewood (Dalbergia sp.) trim to the top, the bulk of its carcase is made of red cedar (Toona ciliata). With the exception of the drawer, which is dovetailed, the component parts of the table are glued and screwed together and the resting surfaces of the scrolled pads or feet protected with pressed metal ‘buttons’. There are no labels, stamped marks or inscriptions.

Both the thick veneer and the cedar carcase suggest that the table was most probably of colonial manufacture. Cottrell notes that New Zealand furniture makers used Australian red cedar, possibly as early as the 1830s and into the 1840s (pp. 312-313) but certainly not in the quantities found in this piece. A more likely place of manufacture would be Australia and more specifically either New South Wales or Tasmania. In the 1840s and 50s, Sydney cabinetmakers such as Andrew Lenehan and Joseph Sly were certainly making tables with quadriform bases, scrolled pads and octagonal sectioned pedestals with Lenehan also setting the pedestals within a turned shallow concave collar (Fahy and Simpson, plate 455). Lenehan is also known to have used rosewood veneers on cedar carcases in the mid 1840s (Fahy and Simpson, plate 496). The turned finials under each corner are made of a different timber from the the other external parts, have a different finish and would appear to be later additions; similar finials are found on Australian furniture dating from the 1870s and 80s. They may have been added to the table to enhance its appearance in the second-hand furniture market.

Title page of John Claudius Loudon’s Encyclopaedia of cottage, farm and villa architecture and furniture
(London: Longman, 1846)
University of Pittsburgh Library System
The design of the table, described by the auctioneer as ‘William IV’ - that is it is based on a design produced between 1830 and 1837 - could have been sourced from the maker’s own drawings, an imported example or, more likely, on an illustrated publication. John Claudius Loudon’s Encyclopaedia of cottage, farm and villa architecture and furniture (London: Longman, 1833) illustrates an écarté table (fig 1956) with a similar base configuration and an overall similar form to the piece under discussion. 

As Fahy and Simpson assert, Loudon’s Encyclopaedia was ‘Probably the most popular and significant publication of the period in terms of its effect and influence on Australian furniture forms’ (Fahy and Simpson, p. 215). Although regarding Loudon’s prescriptions as reflecting a ‘decline in taste’, they observe that the book was ‘Enthusiastically received in Australia’ and that copies were in wide circulation by the 1840s and were available in popular venues such as the library of the Sydney Mechanics Institute soon after 1842. The availability of this pattern, combined with the use of veneers, suggests that the table was probably made about 1845.

Empirical histories are vital tools in decoding the information embedded in objects but they tend not to be all that illuminating when it comes to contextualising or understanding the dynamics of commodity production, mediation and consumption. To achieve this, another approach that is needed, one that provides a critical understanding of context, artefacts, space and connections, across timeframes and cultures. In her 2007 paper ‘Furniture design and colonialism: negotiating relationships between Britain and Australia 1880-1901’ (in G Lees-Maffei and R House, eds The design history reader (Oxford: Berg, 2010), pp. 478-484), Tracey Avery comments on the connection between the desire on the part of both makers and consumers for a British appearance to furniture designs and ‘the tenuous place of Australian timber in the hierarchy of domestic suitability.’  While Avery's focus is on a later period than that in which the occasional table was made, her view is equally pertinent. Her conclusion is that ‘the achievement of the appropriate furnished ‘British’ domestic interior in Australia involved certain reassignments of meaning around style, labor (sic), and materials.’

Designed elsewhere, but veneered to express both gentility and sameness to the culture that provided its design, the occasional table expresses the moment in a colonial culture where the local market’s capacity for production surpasses the social, economic and aesthetic urge to sustain haptic links with the colonising culture.

Camden Park House continues to be a residence for the descendants of John Macarthur. It is open to the public once a year, during the second last full weekend of September. For further information see:

Sunday, 2 March 2014

Progress; empire; art; whatever?

by Daniel Stephen
Palgrave Macmillan, £65.00, September 2013, 978 1 137 32511 2

From the 1851 Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations, held at the Crystal Palace in London, to the 1900 Paris Exposition Universelle, international exhibitions were the show-stopping marvels of the time. In a subfusc age, they were the blingy, multi-coloured rainbows of enterprise, the seductive handmaidens of trade and commerce. They were the panoramic glory of the second half of the nineteenth century, packed with steam gadgetry, chemical fantasies and human exotica. Not only did these showcases of industrial enterprise attract displays and tourists of all classes from all corners of the globe, they also projected the economic, social and political aspirations of the exhibiting nations, or at least their rulers. Daniel Stevens quotes Umberto Eco’s apt description of these overwhelming commodity spectacles as ‘the Missa solemnis of traditional capitalist society’ and he isn’t far wrong. Exhibitions were pure ideology, deployed under the guise of an enhanced familiar space; they were, ostensibly, all about trade, commerce and profit.

They were also one of the principal mechanisms for the visual and technological education of their visitors. Until the Education Acts of the 1870s and 80s, education remained a privilege, rather than a right; the exhibition phenomenon became a significant, progressive, driver in changing attitudes to technical education. Quite deliberately, the 1851 exhibition spawned what became the Victoria & Albert and Science Museums whilst, in Sydney, the 1879 Sydney International Exhibition delivered the New South Wales Technological, Industrial and Sanitary Museum, an ungainly title for a radical production, one that soon after was truncated to the Technological Museum, notwithstanding the fact that, as the original title suggested, it collected almost everything. 

However, by 1900, the allure of exhibitions was diminishing, even if attendance rates remained significant. Increasing numbers of manufacturers were becoming reluctant to be involved in these spectacles on the grounds that the format had lost its novelty, other kinds of advertising had improved and the ‘surroundings’ of the exhibitions were more suited to entertainment than trade. Other disincentives for attendance included: a decrease in the value of awards; the trouble and expense of participation, particularly if the exhibitions were located outside Europe; the danger of goods being copied by competitors; and, not least, the assertion that many manufacturers were apparently ‘too busy to attend’. (Great Britain. International Exhibitions Committee, Report […] with reference to the participation of Great Britain in great international exhibitions. Cd 3772 (London: HMSO, 1907), pp. 3-4.).

The official British response to this conundrum was to reconfigure the nature of the country’s participation in international exhibitions by establishing a central organisation within the Board of Trade, the Exhibitions Branch, which would regulate and organise British involvement in international exhibitions, by being more selective about where it showed and by focussing on specific themes and emphasising particular aspects of British life. World War One put a stop to these activities and, in 1919, responsibility for the Exhibitions Branch was transferred to the recently formed Department of Overseas Trade, a miscegnated administrative confection, invented to satisfy the influence of business interests in the post war coalition government.

The design of the cover for the official guide reflects initial attempts
to invest the appearance of the exhibition with a sense of modernity
The 1924-25 British Empire Exhibition held at Wembley was one of the more tangible results of this administrative rethinking although Stephen fails to identify this specific institutional context in his account, notwithstanding the fact that the first general manager of the exhibition, Ulick Wintour, was the foundation director of the Exhibitions Branch until the start of the First World War. Instead he focuses on the political and economic contexts of a loss-making exhibition that, rather than acting as the celebration of empire its organisers sought, revealed its economic inadequacies, political rifts and fundamental racism. While the - mostly British - visitors to the exhibition were ‘suggestively shown ways in which the British Empire seemed strong, secure, productive, even glamorous, and a force for “good” in an uncertain world’, the non-white subjects of empire found its approach humiliating, demeaning and exploitative while the overseas ‘Britons’ of the book’s title, the inhabitants of the ‘white dominions’, were, on the whole, unimpressed.

Unidentified designer, British Empire Exhibition, 1924. Dobson, Molle & Co. Ltd, London. The official map to the exhibition reverts to an ersatz sense of traditionalism in keeping with political changes made to the exhibition's governance in 1922.
Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. Eph-D-EXHIBITION-1924-01-map

Stephen lists an impressive bibliography of material relating to the exhibition and those involved with it, while simultaneously ignoring official publications. Most of these references are, by necessity and, speculatively, geography, somewhat tangential because very little of a critical nature has been written about the Wembley exhibition itself and the surviving archival material remains largely unexplored. Probably the most incisive text to date is Ann Clendenning's recent on-line essay for the Branch Collective 'On the British Empire Exhibition 1924-25', which would seem both to post-date Stephen's publication and to flag the future publication of her own book on the subject. However, like Stephen, Clendenning disregards the key role played by the arts at the exhibition not only in the way they were used to define its overall image but also how they were deployed as material manifestations of Britishness in the overall perception of the exhibition. 

Palace of Arts [British Empire Exhibition, Wembley, 1924], Fleetway Press.
Brent Archives, London
The relatively modest, but nonetheless  monolithic, Palace of Arts was probably one of the Wembley exhibition's more successful venues, notwithstanding an entry surcharge of 6d (about $2.50 in today’s terms). While its popularity was probably due to a pastiche eighteenth century neo-classical doll’s house - the Queen’s Doll’s House designed by Edwin Lutyens – rather than a pastiche renaissance-revival painting ‘Service and sacrifice’ by the now almost forgotten society artist Alfred Kingsley Lawrence (1893-1978), the arts – fine and applied - had formed a core element of the British exhibition strategy since the surprising profitability of the British Art Exhibit at the 1906-07 Christchurch New Zealand International Exhibition. Sadly for the overall appearance of the exhibition, the sacking of Wintour by Conservative party interests in 1922 led to the dilution of his concept of a visually coherent, almost modernist, space of ‘concrete buildings of Egyptian dimensions’ and its replacement by an overwhelming atmosphere of twee traditionalism, interspersed by moments of colonial exotica.

James Cowan opined in 1910 that ‘New Zealand has had a weakness for Exhibitions from the first’, but its capacity to either host them locally or attend them internationally has always been circumscribed by distance, inadequate organisation, insufficient funding and a certain degree of naivety. Between 1865 and 1930, there were four so-called ‘international’ exhibitions held in New Zealand. The first, the New Zealand Exhibition, held in Dunedin in 1865, was organised by the Otago Provincial Council; the second, the first New Zealand and South Seas Exhibition of 1889, again organised by local interests, was held in the same city; the 1906-07 New Zealand International exhibition moved north to Christchurch and, for the first time, saw the involvement of the state; and the second New Zealand and South Seas Exhibition of 1925-26 was again held in Dunedin and locally organised. Notwithstanding their titles, they weren’t  particularly ‘international’. While they all sought to emulate the grandeur and excitement of the European and American spectacles, these simulacra ended up being more akin to a few muttered prayers in non-conformist chapels than grandiose masses in increasingly over-ornamented cathedrals of the Eco metaphor.

James Weaver Allen, Dunedin Exhibition building 1865.
Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. PA2-0012
Other than the New Zealand government and a few, token, local manufacturers and primary product convertors, the exhibitors at the New Zealand exhibitions tended to be from either Britain or its colonies and their principal concern seems to have been with seeing off any competition for their products rather than in entrancing New Zealand visitors with the fruits of their enterprise or engendering further trading opportunities. The country was, after all, a captive market for British goods.

New Zealanders in the late nineteenth century wishing to see something a little more spectacular than the local efforts without having to travel to the other ends of the earth were able to assuage their desires by simply crossing the Tasman. International Exhibitions were held in Sydney in 1879 and in Melbourne in 1880 and 1888. Most of the New Zealand exhibitions were held in temporary structures; only the 1865 exhibition was displayed in a building with any claim to architectural merit or permanency. Although intended by its architect, William Mason, to be converted into a market building following the exhibition, the edifice was ultimately transformed into the Dunedin Public Hospital, which, tragically unregarded, was demolished in 1930; that's what usually happens to New Zealand's built heritage. By contrast, the Australian venues, in Sydney and Melbourne, were architecturally sophisticated, grandiose, permanent structures and they attracted significant numbers of overseas exhibitors including those from France, Belgium, Switzerland, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, the United States and Japan. To the despair of its inhabitants, the Sydney venue, the timber-built Garden Palace in the Botanic Gardens, combusted three years after the exhibition’s close.

Campbell-Gray Ltd, New Zealand pavilion [British Empire Exhibition, Wembley, 1924], Fleetway Press.
Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. Eph-POSTCARD-Ellis-11
New Zealand was an eager recruit to the Wembley Exhibition. Stephen highlights the country’s somewhat ingenuous enthusiasm for this project of imperial consolidation when he notes that the ‘New Zealand premier (sic) W F Massey expressed hope on Wembley’s opening day that the exhibition would help in “peopling the empty spaces overseas with energetic and enterprising British citizens”’. It was not to be. Perhaps unmoved by serried displays of refrigerated butter and cheese, ‘the largest item of the Dominion’s trade’ - a refrigerated life-size butter cow was, unfortunately, trumped by the Canadian refrigerated life-size butter statue of the Prince of Wales in First Nation drag, the ‘refrigerated cabinet containing specimens of sporting fish caught in New Zealand rivers and bays’ and ‘the finest collection of red deer heads presented to the British public’, the New Zealand pavilion failed in its attempts to attract immigrants to ‘better Britain’, or, more accurately, an agriculturally-inflected, reproduction Britain, located in a slightly alien and definitely distant environment. Nor for that matter, despite the existence of state-subsidised travel, were many New Zealanders inspired to visit the exhibition and those that did seem to have been underwhelmed by the way they were represented. 

The British Empire Exhibition at Wembley wasn't much of a success generally, notwithstanding a decision to extend it for a further season in 1925 in a vain attempt to break even financially. But, as the 1924 Board of Trade Committee on Industry and Trade reported in 1929, 'exhibitions have not in recent years yielded practical advantages to British participants commensurate with the expense occurred'.  (Great Britain. Board of Trade, Final report of the committee on industry and trade. Cmd 3282 (London: HMSO, 1929), p. 169).

However, in keeping with his reticence in identifying the part played by the arts at Wembley, Stephen makes no mention of a contemporaneous international exhibition, one that was not only profitable but also adjudged to have been a roaring success: the Paris Exposition internationale des arts décoratifs et industriels modernes. Where the exhibition at Wembley sought to project an untenable fantasy of empire, the Paris one was a fantasy of imperial proportions, one that popularised not only commercial modernity - hence the term 'art deco' - but also architectural modernism, thanks to the effrontery of Le Corbusier's Pavillon de l'Esprit Nouveau and the revolutionary constructivist Soviet pavilion of Konstantin Melnikov. The British exhibited in Paris, albeit to no great acclaim; the New Zealanders seem to have been barely aware of the exhibition's existence until long after the event.