Monday, 20 December 2010

Wallpaper Design by Richard Redgrave

Illustration: Richard Redgrave. Wallpaper design, 1849.

The English artist and designer Richard Redgrave was an influential voice within the design reform movement of Britain during the mid-nineteenth century. Along with Henry Cole he produced the Journal of Design and Manufactures, a ground breaking once a month publication that was produced between the years 1849 and 1852. It concentrated solely on the relationship between creativity and industry, promoting the idea that design and the designer were part of a relationship between the product and industry and not, as many industrialists saw it, one of the least important elements of the process. That the designer should represent a more significant and much truer reflection of the finished product seemed to both Cole and Redgrave, an obvious conclusion.

This particular wallpaper design produced by Redgrave in 1849 was actually an example printed within the Journal of Design and Manufactures. It was meant as a wallpaper design for a specific purpose, as a backdrop for fine art exhibitions. Redgrave who was also an accomplished and popular fine artist was the perfect individual to straddle the two worlds of fine and decorative art. The idea may seem strange to us today of using pattern work as a backdrop to fine art. We have become institutionalised as to the format of plain white walls in galleries, judging that they are the most neutral and therefore less inclined to distract from any form of artwork. However, in the nineteenth century, wallpaper was still common in galleries and museums, and Redgrave's example was considered a good pattern in which to balance art work. Many of the wallpapers used during this period were considered wholly unsuitable, often being garish in both pattern and colour. Complaints about the clashing between background walls and fine artwork in galleries and museums were common and sometimes vociferous. The criticism of inapropriate wallpaper design was so acute that this particular wallpaper design was hung as a small example in an exhibition space at the Society of Arts in London. The wallpaper specimen was sandwiched between examples of fine art painting so as to judge its suitability as a harmonious partner to fine art work.

This red-berried bryony design was seen by the Journal as well as critics in general, as a particularly subordinate design that although catching the eye with its pattern work, was deemed retiring enough to allow the paintings to predominate. It is a simple stencilled design that plays on its simplicity. However, when considering the time period of mid-nineteenth century design and decoration it is staggering in its straightforwardness, its clarity and easiness on the eye. In some respects it pre-empts much of the philosophy, but also the practicality that was behind large sections of the craft level design and decoration work that was be produced in the name of the English Arts & Crafts movement.

There is something almost naive and undisciplined about this particular wallpaper design that borders on what has been termed peasant or folk art. The design might well have been mistaken as being part of a decorative effect often seen in poor rural settings, such as stencilling on bare woodwork on ceiling beams for example. However, although the naivety of this design does play an important role in its overall effect, it is also very much a designed piece. There is a good sense of balance and harmony within the composition with colour and tone being particularly well controlled as can be seen in the restraint used between the muted leaves and background, the middle toned leaves and then the red berries.  

Although it should be born in mind that this wallpaper had the specific purpose of being produced for the use as a gallery backdrop, and was not meant for general domestic use, Cole and Redgrave were still making a point. Their Journal of Design and Manufactures stated that many who were used to mid-nineteenth century excess, particularly within the discipline of wallpaper design, would see this particular pattern as being daring, even shocking in nature. However, that an obvious contrast between the standard excess of the age and the toned down and disciplined design work of Redgrave should be made was not in doubt by either man. It is a good and clear example of the direction that the Journal felt design within the manufacturing industry should at least explore, if not take on board wholeheartedly. The fact that over one hundred and fifty years later surface pattern is still largely treated with a degree of casualness by industry is born out by the use of television celebrities producing wallpaper design work, despite the fact that few have any surface pattern experience. This along with the inapropriate use of both wallpaper and textile mediums to promote ill thought out movie and TV media merchandising motifs, shows how little progress we have really made, and in some respects shows that we have even retreated from the position that Cole and Redgrave found themselves in 1849. A need for real design reform is perhaps even more pressing today than it was even in the mid-nineteenth century.

Reference links:
Manual of Design: Compiled From the Writings and Addresses of Richard Redgrave R.a. [1882]
Richard Redgrave
Century of British Painters (Landmarks in Art History)
Richard Redgrave C.b., R.a; A Memoir, Compiled From His Diary
Inventory of the Pictures, Drawings, Etchings &c. in the British Fine Arts Collections ... Being for the Most Part the Gift of John Sheepshanks
Fifty Years of Public Work of Sir Henry Cole ... Accounted for in His Deeds, Speeches and Writings [Ed. by a S. and H.L. Cole].
King Cole: A picture portrait of Sir Henry Cole, KCB 1808-1882
A Hand-Book for the Architecture, Tapestries, Paintings, Gardens,

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