Innovation and Design in Tudor and Stuart Britain: John Styles Marks the Opening of the New British Galleries at the V&A with a Look at Influences and Innovations during a Dynamic Period of Design History
Styles, John, History Today
IN 1549, IN HIS Discourse of the Common Weal of this Realm of England, the politician Sir Thomas Smith railed against the number of haber-dashers' shops that had recently appeared in London. His anger centred on the attractive imported goods they stocked in such profusion -- `French or Milan caps, glasses, daggers, swords, girdles, and such things.' Many of these goods were, Smith complained, mere fripperies, made from cheap materials -- paper, pins, needles, knives, hats, caps, brooches, buttons, laces, gloves, tables, playing cards, puppets, hawks' bells, earthen wares -- yet in importing them, the kingdom wasted its resources. England was `overburdened with unnecessary forrayn wares', things `that we might ether clene spare, or els make them within oure owne realme'.
The annoyance expressed by Sir Thomas Smith at the rising tide of foreign imports exposes an ambivalence in English attitudes to innovation in the Tudor period. On the one hand, it betrays a suspicion that many of the small, often decorated consumer goods that the country was importing in ever-increasing quantities were wasteful and unnecessary extravagances. On the other hand, it reveals dismay at England's inability to make such goods and resentment at the lost opportunities their import represented for English workers. Disapproval of superfluous novelties was to persist throughout the rest of the Tudor and Stuart period, though it did little to prevent them being bought and enjoyed in ever-increasing quantities. By contrast, dismay at the country's dependence on foreigners to supply those novelties became an important force propelling innovation in design and the decorative arts.
Britain in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was artistically and industrially backward by the standards of her continental neighbours. For much of the period, native makers of high-design goods were largely incapable of performing to the highest Western European levels of technique and aesthetics. The few that could attain these standards consisted chiefly of immigrants. New ideas, new styles, new materials, new techniques and new products were predominantly imported from abroad. Innovation characteristically involved an extended process whereby goods were initially imported in their indigenous foreign forms, then tailored by their overseas makers to British tastes, then copied crudely in Britain, and finally manufactured proficiently by the British. This broad sequence can be seen across a whole range of decorative goods, from German stoneware jugs to Indian painted cottons. More often than not, the initial intention was simply to produce British copies of the foreign products. After all, copying and imitation had few negative connotations at this period. Originality, in its uncompromising modern sense, was not necessarily prized. Yet the mix of skills and raw materials, ideas and tastes that prevailed in Britain and its colonies often demanded adaptations that amounted to substantial innovations in themselves. Silver teapots, wine glasses made from lead glass, even Christopher Wren's London churches all re-worked elements that came originally from abroad into objects that came to be regarded as distinctively English. Their identification as English is testimony to the extent to which innovation was concentrated in London. Throughout the period, the English capital was by far and away Britain's largest manufacturing centre. Innovations initiated there were often taken up only gradually in other parts of the British Isles.
There were, however, obstacles to innovation in the decorative arts in this period. Politicians like Sir Thomas Smith worried about excessive imports of unnecessary trifles. In an intensely religious era, moralists feared that excessive interest in new and beautiful things would divert people's attention from God, or, worse still, seduce them into worshipping God in the wrong way. Established manufacturers and their workers made strenuous efforts to prevent the introduction of new goods that might threaten their livelihoods and the settlement of immigrants with superior skills. …