3. Art, industry and the laws of nature: the South Kensington method revisited

Renate Dohmen (The Open University)


This essay examines approaches to art education in Britain from the late eighteenth century to the 1880s. It explores issues of art and industry with an emphasis on the so-called South Kensington method adopted by the Schools of Art and the national curriculum implemented by Henry Cole, Secretary to the Department of Art and Science, which will be considered in relation to the educational provision offered by the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, Mechanics’ Institutes, the Schools of Design and the Female School. The discussion presents that the prevalent scholarly dismissal of this approach as inartistic, ineffective and commercial obscures its radical departure from elite notions of fine art as well as its quest to foster a modern conception of art for the working man that combined beauty with usefulness, unified art and science and emphasised geometry and ornamentation rather than life drawing as a matter of principle. It presents that the Department of Art and Science’s approach to training designers for industry was one of ‘manuring the nation’ through public art education in elementary drawing and the education of art teachers, which was thought to raise national standards of taste and would thus ‘naturally’ improve British manufacture and bring forth designers for industry. It moreover suggests that the South Kensington method and its emphasis on line, basic geometric shapes and ornament needs to be examined in relation to the ethos of German natural philosophy, which considered art and science as integrally connected and articulated an aesthetic approach to scientific enquiry that countered the notion of the transcendental ideal. The essay also highlights South Kensington’s inadvertent facilitation of women’s art education and suggests that it needs to be acknowledged among the precursors to the Bauhaus.

Keywords: South Kensington Method, Henry Cole, art and industry, Mechanics’ Institutes, German natural philosophy, Goethe, geometry, ornament, women’s art education, Great Exhibition, Society of Arts, Schools of Design, Female School of Art, Richard Redgrave, William Dyce, Christopher Dresser

Full text: OAJ_Issue9_Dohmen_Final (PDF 6.9 MB)

DOI:  http://dx.doi.org/10.5456/issn.2050-3679/2020w03

Biographical note 

Renate Dohmen is Lecturer in Art History at The Open University. She edited and co-authored Art and Empire: British India (Manchester University Press and The Open University, 2018). Her monograph, Encounters beyond the Gallery: Relational Aesthetics and Cultural Difference (I.B. Tauris, 2016), examines issues of contemporary art, relational aesthetics and Deleuze-Guattarean thought, anthropology and issues of cultural translation, challenging Eurocentric perceptions and modes of critical address of tribal and folk visual practices. She has published in journals including the Journal of Design History, Ecumene: A Journal of Cultural Geographies, Victorian Literature and Culture and South Asian Popular Culture, and is currently working on a book-length study of nineteenth-century exhibition culture in British India supported by the Leverhulme Trust that examines issues of amateurism, gender and race.