Understanding Art Education: Engaging Reflexively with Practice

By Nicholas Addison; Lesley Burgess et al. | Go to book overview

Chapter 2
A return to design in art and
design
Developing creativity and innovation

John Steers


Introduction: A brief history of design education in
the UK

It can be argued that formal design education in the United Kingdom can be traced to the Great Exhibition held in London in 1851. This event was intended to raise the level of industrial design and to display products from Britain and the Empire, with the intention of acquiring new and larger markets. In part, it was a competitive response to the highly successful French Industrial Exposition of 1844 and, significantly, both governments’ recognition of the importance of design to their respective economies. In the second half of the nineteenth century, one outcome was the further development of municipal schools of art and design in most major British towns and cities.

The art schools had a triple function: they offered training for the professional artist, courses in drawing and painting for polite society (segregated for gentlemen and ladies), and training for the artisans destined to work in the manufacturing industries such as ceramics and textiles. The latter aim was not always enthusiastically embraced and the following example illustrates how there is a tension that continues, to this day, between art and design education seen as a matter of economic necessity and ‘art for art’s sake’. In 1888, the principal of the Royal College of Art, the designer and illustrator Walter Crane, had recently reorganised the curriculum to face what he saw as the challenges of the approaching twentieth century and to absorb the Arts and Crafts philosophy into teaching. Sir Christopher Frayling, rector until 2009, describes Crane’s thinking and curriculum thus:

The key, [Crane] said, was to engage in a debate with the new world of manu-
facturing industry – not by stimulating it, as the high Victorians wanted, but
by criticising it through the medium of beautiful one-off pieces or artefacts
within a craft tradition, which would be seen by the public as criticisms of the
general shoddiness of mass-produced goods available in the high street. “One
hour of creative life says ‘yes’” he wrote, “but all the others say ‘no’ … we are
gradually impoverishing the soil while we are forcing the crops”. It was art
and design education against the world, and the model of how the College
studios were to be run was the alternative one of the medieval workshop

-24-

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