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Panton, Mrs J. E., Nooks and Corners being the Companion Volume to ‘From Kitchen to Garret’ (London: Ward & Downey, 1889), p. 103

Last year the History of Design programme ran a class entitled ‘ornament’, which partly explored and questioned how and why the ornamentation of an object might influence whether objects are believed to be examples of good design, or brandished as examples of bad design. We were asked to each bring an item with us to the class which, when we arrived, was then placed in the middle of the table for us to organise in a hierarchy of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ ornament. The object that we all agreed to have the best ornament was placed at one end of the table whilst the object that we agreed had the worse ornament was placed at the other end. For the next twenty minutes or so we debated, with some disagreement, where to place our selection of objects within this hierarchy, and finally set upon an order that we were happy with. Our next task was to discuss why we had placed the objects in this particular order. Issues relating to the aesthetics, quality of materials, quality of making, usefulness and personal taste were all brought into the debate. There was one object, in particular in the group that sparked a good deal of debate within the class. It was a small, oval-shaped, plastic box decorated with pink and purple plastic jewels and feathers, and we were quickly able to establish that this was designed as a kind of trinket box for the use of a child. The general consensus within the class was that this was an ugly item, made of poor quality materials, and with a relatively useless purpose and so it was firmly placed at the ‘bad ornament’ end of our spectrum and thus regarded as an object of bad design. The only element that seemed to redeem this object for us was the fact that it was designed for a child, and apparently the child who actually owned it thought it was beautiful and loved it. With this information in mind, at the time I remember feeling that the rules of ornament and taste, by which we judge objects on a daily basis, did not apply so strongly to the box. This is because I felt that children stood apart from these types of social and cultural rules and that they should be free to follow their own aesthetic and ornamental preferences.

The class debate calls to mind some of the nineteenth century design discourses that I have been exploring in my own research on children’s nursery design from 1850 to 1914. During this period children’s design became a hot topic of discussion amongst two of the most prominent figures of the design reform movement, namely Henry Cole and John Ruskin. Not only this, but many of the household writers, magazines, artists, designers and shops who associated themselves with the desire to improve British design and who took guidance and inspiration from the proponents of the movement, also discussed the subject of children’s design. The consensus amongst these groups was that children’s design needed to be improved and as a result writers provided advice on how it could be made better, whilst the designers and shops produced and sold products that realised this advice. In 1843, under the pseudonym “Felix Summerly”, Henry Cole began the Home Treasury Series of Books and Pictures, ‘purposed to cultivate the affections, fancy, imagination, and taste of children’.[1] In this series he provided a set of illustrated stories for children which he believed could be replacements for the popular types of children’s books that he saw as being unimaginative, boring and with poor quality illustrations. Ruskin’s ideas about children, meanwhile, were presented to the public in his lecture from 1883 entitled ‘Fairyland’.[2] In this lecture, like Cole, Ruskin also discussed the types of books and art that he thought should be made for children. For Ruskin, the importance of children lay in their innocence and imaginative abilities, thus he promoted images by artists such as Kate Greenaway and books that he believed to be true and pure examples of fables. He argued that these both reflect and nurture the innocent and fanciful natures of children.

Behind both Cole and Ruskin’s discussion of children was the popular nineteenth-century notion that children were easily influenced by their surroundings and the objects that they came into contact with. This was expressed by Samuel Smiles in his work about human character when he said: ‘it is in childhood that the mind is most open to impressions, and ready to be kindled by the first spark that falls into it’.[3] Combine this notion with that which was expressed in 1886 by the social reformer William Mitchell when he said: ‘the children of to-day will be the nation of to-morrow’, and we can begin to understand why figures like Cole and Ruskin looked to children’s design as a crucial sphere through which they could promote their ideas about what constituted beautiful and useful design, to the future British nation.[4]

It would be fair to say that in Britain today the majority of people would not be averse to purchasing items for a child if the child thinks that they are pretty, even if we might personally find those items are ugly because they do not reflect our own culturally-informed ideas about tasteful ornament and form. However, during the nineteenth century, there was a strong movement that demanded that children’s design should not be taken so lightly. For the design reformers and their followers, the adult needed to make careful choices when purchasing children’s goods because their decisions could, in their eyes, affect the child’s future aesthetic taste and appreciation of beauty. To quote the household writer Robert Edis:

To surround our little ones with decoration and every-day objects, in which there shall be grace and beauty of design and colour, instead of the common-place vulgar tawdriness which in so many houses is thought good enough for the nurseries, will imbue them with a love and appreciative feeling for things of beauty and harmony or form and colour.[5]


Sophie Farrelly
Sophie Farrelly studied History of Art and English at the University of St Andrews where her interest in the British decorative arts of the nineteenth century began. During her time on the RCA/V&A Masters programme she has developed this interest further by writing essays on topics such as Arts and Crafts furniture and metal bedsteads. She has now chosen to write her dissertation for the RCA/V&A masters programme on children’s design from 1850-1914.


[1] Felix Summerly (Henry Cole),(ed.), The Home Treasury: Sir HornBook, or Childe Launcelot’s Expedition a Grammatico-Allegorical Ballad (London: Chapman and Hall, 1855), no page given

[2] John Ruskin (1883):‘Lecture IV: Fairyland: Mrs Allingham and Kate Greenaway’ in The Art of England: Lectures Given in Oxford by John Ruskin During His Second Tenure of the Slade Professorship (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1884), pp. 79-108, <> [accessed Nov 12] [3] Samuel Smiles, Character (London: John Murray, 1874), p. 34

[4] William Mitchell, Rescue the Children (London: W. Ibister, c.1886), p. ix

[5] Robert W. Edis, Decoration and Furniture of Town Houses; A Series of Cantor Lectures Delivered before the Society of Arts, 1880, Amplified and Enlarged (London: C. Kegan Paul & Co., 1881), p. 231

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