Wherever ornament is wholly effected by machinery, it is certainly the most degraded in style and execution; and the best workmanship and the best taste are to be found in those manufactures and fabrics wherein handicraft is entirely or partially the means of producing the ornament…
This quote by the British artist Richard Redgrave (1804 – 1888) is taken from the fourth Jury report of the Great Exhibition of 1851. It can be found on pages 710-711 in the report entitled Supplementary Report on Design to Class XXX. His criticism really cuts to the heart of what some people perceive as Henry Cole’s intention for the Exhibition – namely the presentation of hand-made goods as superior to machine-made products. Some see the organisation of the Great Exhibition as a reaction to what was considered the deterioration of design as a consequence of the machine-focused making process, and therefore to the absence of the artisan. If this was indeed the intention of Cole, the chair in the image below can be seen as a prime example of this cause.
The Bath-based upholsterer Henry Eyles made this chair to be displayed at the Great Exhibition in 1851. On the V&A’s website the chair is described as follows: “The shaped back and ‘cabriole’ legs indicate that it was inspired by French furniture styles of the 18th century, which were very fashionable for drawing rooms in the 1840s and 1850s. The pale colours and delicate embroidery on the original seat cover also show that the chair was intended for a feminine interior.” A closer look at the chair, however, renders its use in such a manner questionable and raises the likelihood that it was only to be used as a display piece.
The frame of the chair is made from walnut, which is beautifully carved and inlaid with darker and lighter, almost golden wood. The back splat is made up of a frame that holds carved openwork and an oval plaque in its centre giving the chair an air of lightness, even fragility. The chair’s description reveals that this plaque is made of porcelain, which – along with the female figure shown on it – adds to this sense of fragility, and thus arguably genders the chair. Apart from that, this material raises questions about the object’s functionality. A chair is made to sit on with a certain degree of comfort. Therefore the choice of porcelain for the back splat appears odd, as well as the elaborate portrait, which would be covered by anyone seated on the piece of furniture.
Taking a closer look at the portrait one sees a crowned figure in an ivory dress adorned with golden jewellery, a tasselled belt element around the waist and a blue sash. A throne can be seen in the background, covered partly with red fabric that has an ermine fur trim. The crown, throne and piece of fabric reveal the person in the portrait to be a royal personage – it is in fact a portrait of the then reigning royal, Queen Victoria.
This is further reinforced by the chair’s upholstery. The seat is covered by a piece of embroidered satin, which shows an elaborately decorated crown, roses and foliage, as well as the letters ‘V’ and ‘R’ standing for ‘Victoria Regina’. This piece of furniture clearly is an homage to the reigning Queen Victoria and therefore the aspect of use appears more and more unlikely. Would it not show a lack of respect for the Queen to sit on her initials, and to turn your back to her face? Thinking about the piece of furniture in this manner puts the object in a peculiar place of ‘functionlessness’. The chair has lost its potential to provide a comfortable place of rest for a person and instead pays homage to someone who will never sit on it and makes such an action impossible for anyone else.
However, beyond this alteration of the chair’s function from being an object of use to becoming an object of display, its materiality should be examined more closely. The different crafts involved in producing this object are remarkable, and although it is unclear if the object was made by Henry Eyles alone, it is a perfect example of what the Great Exhibition aimed to show – namely, the superiority of the hand-made. In order to produce this object its maker(s) needed knowledge of woodworking to produce the frame, carvings, and inlays; and knowledge of working with fabrics in order to embroider the satin and create the upholstery. Finally, a Worcester porcelain manufacturer and porcelain painter were involved in producing the portrait plaque. This chair almost embodies ‘man-made craft’ itself by being made from an amalgam of different crafts and artisans, thus, according to proponents of the handmade, such as Cole or Redgrave showing its superiority and excellence.
 Adrian Forty, Objects of Desire. Design and Society since 1750, (London: Thames and Hudson Ltd, 1995), p. 49.
Have you seen any objects that intrigued you lately? Perhaps you have encountered something that piqued your curiosity in a museum or gallery (or in a shop or in the street?), or as part of your art or design practice, as part of your research, or as part of your daily life. Please don’t be shy! We welcome submissions on objects of all sorts, between 500 and 1,500 words, and we do ask that you own the rights to your images or use those belonging to the V&A. If you aren’t sure if your idea is right for our column, it certainly never hurts to ask, so please get in touch with us: firstname.lastname@example.org
Luisa Coscarelli –
Luisa did her BA in History of Art and German Literature at the Humboldt University in Berlin. Although completing it with a focus on contemporary art, she has now joined the Renaissance strand and is now interested in the relationship between smell and design. For her dissertation, Luisa is asking questions about ‘smelly objects’, and how olfactory environments were designed in the Renaissance period.
© Luisa Coscarelli 2014. All Rights Reserved.