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From artisan to artist

12/29/2009

Wolverhampton Art College, today a vibrant part of the city’s University, was established by a seemingly unlikely catalyst – the japanned ware trade.  From modest beginnings at Old Hall Wolverhampton from 1767, firms like Walton and Loveridge grew to be famous for their japanned ware, decorated in increasingly elaborate and artistic styles.

Early trays were often decorated in ‘Chinoiserie style’, in imitation of the original Chinese and Japanese imports. Bronzing, gold leaf and pearl shell decoration followed in succession, and in 1832 ‘natural’ flower painting, developed originally by the Birmingham firm of Jennens & Bettridge, became popular, placing increasing demands on the artistic skills of the workers.

The most famous of these, Joseph Booth, created a piece for the Prince Regent, and the emerging Wolverhampton art form was shown off at The Great Exhibition of 1851.

There was, however, threat from across the channel: japanned ware from French and German workers was also on display, and the standard of quality was high.  Manufacturers decided there and then that if Wolverhampton, and therefore England, was to stay competitive and keep its prized position at the top of the papier mâché podium, something would have to be done.

Print of Rembrandt's etching 'St Jerome Reading, in an Italian Landscape', ~1653, from the Reproductions of Prints in the British Museum, Third Series, Part VI: 'Specimens of Etching by Rembrandt, Livens and Bol, 1630-1680'

So began the Wolverhampton School of Art in 1854, with the intention of teaching drawing and design to the local craft workers of the future.  The idea was such a hit that it was extended into a national campaign to keep British craftsmanship at the forefront of world trade.

The British Museum responded by producing portfolios of Old Masters, prints and architectural designs from its collections and distributing them to art colleges springing up all over the country.  At a time when travel to London was impossible for many working people, this was a wonderful opportunity to see reproductions of the best art in the world, and many students benefited.

One of Wolverhampton Art School’s most famous students was Sir Charles Wheeler, born in Codsall and the first sculptor to be president of The Royal Academy.  The portfolios are now held by Wolverhampton Art Gallery.

Sources

Yvonne Jones, Georgian & Victorian Japanned Ware of the West Midlands (ISBN 0950432415)

Oxford DNB article: Wheeler, Sir Charles Thomas (accessed 03/12/2009)

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