There is one carved wooden bread-platter and an ivory bread knife on display at the V&A. Unusually, they have a paper trail recording the client, maker and date. The story behind it was retold by Henry Cole himself in a large footnote in his memoirs. The action merges into the build up to the Great Exhibition which Cole oversaw as an Executive Commissioner. This ‘Tale of Three Breadboards’ consists of a piecing together of relevant snippets, about which we welcome feedback.
In the 1840s, Prince Albert became President of the Society of Arts to further his patronage in the field. He is attributed by the Arts Union with a new movement ‘for the union of Art and Manufactures.’ Artistic output in the 1800s became ‘Art Manufactures’, subject to the same rigors of profitability. While bringing many benefits, one unintended and unfortunate outcome was the impoverishment of cabinet-makers and woodcarvers, who had been esteemed in the 1700s. During Victorian times they became ‘operatives’ at the bottom of the food chain, surviving on ‘starvation prices’. A detailed description of their lives can be found in Mayhew Volume 1 p.333. The Prince found a very energetic and able ally in the shape of Henry Cole.
Firstly, it was an uphill struggle to convince British artists that, ‘men of high minds may condescend to small things… without a sacrifice of dignity’. In 1846 (DNB) Henry Cole became a member of the Society of Arts, possibly to meet artists who would be willing to collaborate. In that same year he entered an earthenware tea service designed by R Redgrave ARA in the RSA’s annual Exhibition of 1846 (50 Years), which was the first fruit of collaboration between artist and manufacturer. It was entered under Cole’s company name ‘Felix Summerly’ and won the silver medal and the top prize of £10.
Although Cole may have joined after the award was presented, Felix Summerly had been in existence since 1843, producing tour guides and children’s books. 23 years later, the Royal Society of Arts judges felt the need to clarify for the record that they were unaware of the connection between Cole and Summerly.
‘The Society was not long in discovering who ‘Felix Summerly’ was, as His Royal Highness Prince Albert, president, presented the prize offered, viz., the Society’s silver medal to Mr. Henry Cole, on the 12th June 1846 .’ (Journal of the Society of Arts Vol 17, Jan 15 1869 p128)
The Art Union described it as mediocre, unoriginal and ‘bad in character’ with a distasteful combination of a lion and a lamb on the teapot. They also expressed dismay at Cole’s clear conflict of interest, as a member the Society of Arts and the recipient of prizes as Felix Summerly, warning that ‘a spirit of impartiality must prevail over its council’.
Spurred on by this success, in 1847, Cole started Felix Summerly’s Art-Manufactures. It was a means to promote Prince Albert’s new idea; the fusion of the practical and the aesthetic. It was also a commercial venture with Cole as the middle-man. Its intentions were laudable: to improve the stylishness of British products, give a competitive edge to British manufacturers and educate the populace about beauty. The Art Union praises his energy in ‘wedding “High Art” to… “Low Art” as to commence a new era for both’ and Prince Albert even purchased certain items.
Cole persuaded artists and manufacturers to cooperate in producing enough items for two Summerly catalogues, 1847 and 1848, with additional advertising weekly in the Gardener’s Chronicle from October 1847 to February 1849. The wares included small statues and useful tableware for embellishing the well-to-do home – including a bread-platter and bread knife. There follows Cole’s convoluted foot note regarding the platter:
‘This bread platter revived the use of wooden bread platters or trenchers and created a new industry still existing.’(*1, *1b) Its history is worth recording.
When John Bell’s plaster model (*2, *2a) was sent to Sheffield, Messrs Joseph Rodgers hesitated to reproduce it, not believing that it would sell.
They were persuaded to have one carved in wood (J Rodgers #1: *3, *3a, *3b, *3c). When done they fixed the price at £4 4s., which seemed prohibitive of a large sale.
An essay was then made to have a platter executed in London (*4, *4a, *4b, *4c, *4d, *4e), and it was proved that it could be sold for £3 3s., with a good allowance for distribution.
This put Sheffield on its mettle: the London copy was sent to Sheffield, and after a short time, a platter (J Rodgers #2: *5, *5a) was forwarded to London by Messrs. Joseph Rodgers who stated that it could be sold retail for £2 2s. From the year 1848 to the present time (1884), the Summerly platter has been sold (*6) – besides numerable other versions produced at the lowest possible prices; in fact, a new branch of industry was established at Sheffield, and, being easy of manufacture, at places more or less throughout the kingdom.
The caption reads: ‘Manufactured by J Rodgers and Sons, Sheffield. Society of Arts Exhibition, 1848. S.K.M.’ (*7)
In summary: 1) Bell plaster model – 2) J Rodgers#1 (£4 4s) – 3) London copy (£3 3s) – 4) J Rodgers #2 (£2 2s)
(*1) Despite crediting himself with this invention, it is unlikely that the carved bread-platter or knife were conceived by either Cole or Bell. Tom Samuel asserts that such developments from plain multi-purpose chopping boards would have happened gradually among the competing master carvers, with fanciful ideas being trialed and improved, arriving at a happy medium though feedback from customers. There is no motif on the ‘Bell’ platter which did not already exist.
(*1b) Indeed the Art-Union (1 October 1848, p315) confirms that William Gibbs Rogers in London had been producing top-of-the-range bread-platters ‘for many years’ i.e. since the 1830s, customised with crests and mottos for his aristocratic clients. WG Rogers was certainly at the forefront of this new market for wooden tableware, although it is not clear if he was the innovator since other workshops may have gone unrecorded. Cole would have noticed this trend for ornately carved bread-platters gathering momentum and it was a case of ‘entrepreneurial opportunism’, as Huon Mallalieu in the Times so deftly puts it.
(*2) The Bell plaster cast: is not in the V&A collection and would most likely have been discarded after the wooden prototypes had been made. While presented as an original Bell design, Tom Samuel suggests it is possible that Cole used an existing board by a good-quality London workshop as inspiration.
(*2a) The Art Union of 1847 notes wryly about Cole’s designers: ‘The assistance rendered is slight – little more, we believe than authorising, and perhaps superintending’.
(*3) We do not have a visual record of the Joseph Rodgers #1 prototype, but this example from the collection may resemble it, in the quality and generosity of the motifs. It is strange that Cole did not record a London maker as his first port of call to carve the items, since W.G. Rogers and possibly others were already famous for producing them. Indeed, the pool of skillful woodcarvers would have been quite limited. Roger Cockerill, an architect in 1836, gave evidence to the Select Committee that there was a ‘very great dearth of late years (at least of 50 or more)’ of woodcarvers. The model was sent to Sheffield, where, Cole later boasts, there was no previous industry in bread-platter manufacture.
The A-U: ‘We may also add that Mr W.G. Rodgers, the celebrated wood carver, though he has been in the habit for some years of executing carved bread platters, has on no occasion connected his name with the “Art Manufactures” of Felix Summerly, which comprise the platter from Mr Bell’s design.’
(*3a)The expression ‘to have one carved in wood’, suggests J Rodgers outsourced it to a local carver. J Rodgers were cutlers and routinely ordered their wood and ivory knife handles from independent, specialist carvers called ‘Little Mesters’. To confirm this, the collection contains numerous bread knives with blades stamped J Rodgers and handles identical to other knives stamped with different cutlers’ marks.
(*3b) Cole will have presented the ornately carved plaster model to the cutlery manufacturer, but their Sheffield Mester could only produce it for £4 4s, which was not commercially viable. The sheer labour involved did not allow for two middlemen. The solution must have been to simplify the carving.
(*3c) An illustration of the platter does not appear in the 1847 catalogue, or a maker’s name, or a price, suggesting that Cole was still in negotiations with the makers in London and Sheffield at the time of printing. We can only assume any early customers would have been supplied with a board matching the textual description, until the deal was sealed.
(*4) The London copy: An engraving of the Bell bread-platter did appear in the 1848 catalogue ‘at various prices’. But still no maker is noted. The ivory turner of the paper knife handle was also not credited, only that Joseph Rodgers and Sons fitted the blade. The Art Union made another poke at Cole’s business methods, this time suggesting he should give due credit to all the makers: ‘This will be wise as well as just: for it will be no small gain to stir up a spirit of emulation among British manufacturers’. In Cole’s memoirs he writes in his defence: ‘It was a condition of the Society of Arts, that the manufacturer’s name should be given’. He records overcoming some vehement opposition from pottery manufacturers to stamp their products, as they were afraid of ‘the tyranny of the retailers’, who usually marked the products with their own stamp.
(*4a) The Art Union in 1848 recognises the platter as that of Philip and Wynne, Oxford Street, exhibited at the Society of Arts that year. Sadly no RS catalogue for 1848 seems to be available in either the RSA archive or the V&A Art Library, where an engraving might have been illuminating.
Their report on the Society of Arts Exhibition:
‘Among the novelties of Felix Summerly’s series… No.381, a bread-platter in carved wood, with electro rims. The design and execution of this object are both commendable. Wheat, rye, barley and oats, a very natural allusion to the purpose of the platter, modelled by Bell, form the border; and but for their being somewhat “petite” for their situation, are, to our minds, just what the ornamentation of such an article ought to be. When produced in porcelain, the same design is hardly as effective.’ This item closely resembles the catalogue engraving and was for sale recently on the Internet.
(*4b) The A-U alerted their readership that J Rodgers and Sons have published a prospectus in Sheffield taking credit for the platter, which they considered misleading, as it was the P&W version, and still advertised in the Summerly catalogue. It illustrates how makers had no rights over their creations, which is still true today. Perversely, the owner of the image has copyright.
‘Messrs. Rodgers have just completed a bread dish (which is carved in wood), and the natural inference to be drawn from such an assertion is, that Messrs. Rodgers are carvers. Such, however is not the case. Messrs. Rodgers of Sheffield are certainly a firm of high standing and respectability in the department of cutlery … but the art of woodcarving is completely foreign to their establishment; and the carved wood platters have already been advertised in our pages and exhibited at the Society of Arts, without the name of Messrs. Rodgers being attached to them, but in their true and genuine light, viz.: as the works of Messrs. Philip and Wynne. Thus it is evident that the attributing to Messrs. Rodgers the execution of the carved wood bread platters, in the first place is untrue, and in the second place is an afterthought, whereby it seems intended that the public should receive a false impression with regards to the real fabricators of the works in question.
(*4c) Messrs. Joseph Rodgers writes in the following month insisting that they are the makers.
‘We learn that Messrs. Rodgers do produce these articles, and that they have been carved in their establishment from the models of Mr Bell. We therefore readily and at once make amende to this firm; a firm of high respect and unquestionable integrity. Our error proceeded from the fact, that the bread-platter was first exhibited as the work of Messrs. Philip and Wynne, who did originally carve it, and we presume do so still. We were not aware that Messrs. Rodgers professed this branch of Art: in Felix Summerly’s catalogue they appear only as “cutlers”. As cutlers we had long known and recognised their ability: there is no reason why they should not be wood-carvers also.’
(*4d) Cole’s memoir reproduces the 1848 Summerly catalogue illustration as the Summerly board, (which is the one we assume J Rodgers reproduced in their catalogue) and states that J Rodgers made it.
So if the Art Union recognised J Rodgers’ illustration as ‘the London copy’, and Cole has confirmed that the catalogue version was ‘Joseph Rodgers and Sons make’, then the catalogue board must be by Philip and Wynne.
(*4e) If Philip and Wynne were ‘still producing it’, then it would suggest it was their product in the first place. They would be fully within their rights to continue to carve their more expensive version which Cole rejected at £3 3s, in favour of the pared down Rodgers #2.
(*5) J Rodgers#2 is, we assume, what we now can view in the V&A’s British Galleries, namely, the third and final version which became ‘the Summerly platter’. Thus Cole was advertising the prototype worth £3 3s but delivering a less ornate one costing £2 2s. It was often the case that the catalogue image was not an accurate representation of the item.
(*5a) On close examination, the platter in the British Galleries is a good deal more simplified than the one appearing in the catalogue. In Rodgers#2 there is one head of wheat less and they are larger for ease of carving; the carving is all low-relief except for one ear of wheat, to save time; the foliage is thick and doubles as background, which simplifies the finishing process.
(*6) The V&A catalogue states that this breadboard was designed in 1847 but only made in 1865, and was bought from J Rodgers for £1 16s in 1865, half the price it was retailed at. Cole was still in charge of the V&A at this point. And yet in the same catalogue entry, it was reportedly exhibited at the Exhibition of Recent British Manufactures organised by Cole at the Royal Society of Arts in 1848.
(*6a) Felix Summerly was ‘a commercial failure’ (vam online) and was in operation only three years 1847-50. As his catalogues declared his manufacturers, clients could simply go straight to the source and save money. So the question is, did J Rodgers continue producing Cole’s board in the years after Summerly closed, as Cole states, or were they possibly spin offs made by other firms in Sheffield.
(*6b) The Art-Journal (formally Union) reports on the Society of Arts Exhibition of 1849 that a cheese dish was made by Messrs. Taylor, Williams and Jordan, who are credited in the Summerly catalogue with ‘Machine Wood Carving, Lambeth’. The catalogue lists a cheese-platter as nearly ready, so it is possible Messrs. TWJ continued their collaboration on the wooden items.
‘We much admire a Stilton cheese stand, ornamented with appropriate subjects, among which are the cowslip, daisy &c’.
(*6c) The London Illustrated News, runs a bitter-sweet article on the 1849 Society of Arts Exhibition of Recent British Manufactures in March. The source of the opinions is not stated:
‘WOOD-CARVING – When a good idea has been originated, generally it has many servile imitators; thus Mr Bell’s well-known bread-platter has been the parent of many others of various degrees of merit, which share the fate of all imitations, viz. “those that follow must needs be behind”. One good that has resulted from this movement is an increased attention to woodcarving as applied to domestic implements, resulting in bowls for bringing the potato hot to our tables, …differing from the bread platters in having an independent originality.’
(*6d) The article finishes with an oblique criticism of professional British wood-carvers as being over-priced, quoted from Journal of Design Vol 1:
‘Wood-carving may be made auxiliary to other occupations. It is so with the Swiss goat herds; and hence the cheapness of Swiss wood-carving.’
(*6e) The Art Union of the same month reports the very same increased interest in making wooden items, from Prince Albert’s more idealistic perspective.
‘Last year at the suggestion of Prince Albert, prizes were offered for …works of artisans, not professional wood carvers, … with a view to encouraging home occupation, such as prevails in Switzerland and Germany, secondary to other pursuits.’
(*6f) At the Great Exhibition, where Cole was Executive Commissioner, wood carving was placed in the Fine Art Court, suggesting it was considered, at this point, Art. Wood sculptures such as the specially commissioned cradle for Princess Isabella by WG Rogers and the trophy birds by WT Wallis of Louth won prizes and were much celebrated.
(*6g) However, the Illustrated London News of Nov 8 1851 p578 demoted wood from the ranks of Art, with reasons, and included a hierarchy of materials, whereby marble was superior to wood. Interestingly, this position informed Art Education from then on.
‘Amongst the decorative arts, Wood Carving has a distinct and legitimate position, and, confined within due limits, is always effective. Nevertheless its province is a restricted one; it should be viewed purely as an appliance for the ornamentation of the material, when applied to a useful purpose and not as a work of art per se. Another restriction should be put upon the fancy of the operator; namely that the object decorated be one proper for decoration, that it be decorated with appropriate devices, and that the devices be not in excess as to character, nor in dimensions, so as to risk being injured themselves, or inconveniencing those who are to use the articles to which they are applied. All attempts to confound woodcarving with sculpture we utterly denounce; and for the simple reason that the material is not worthy of a work of the highest art, and that its colour is more inappropriate to represent the colour of the human frame than white marble; whilst it is also less susceptible of fashioning into the round and smooth surfaces than that material… and this is the principle that we now contend for’.
The newspaper does not approve of artists in wood over-decorating pieces inspired from poetry and architecture as it leads to ‘high art playing second fiddle to the cabinet-maker’.
(*6h) To this day wood-carving is not considered an Art and has never been exhibited at the RA. To illustrate this point at grass-roots level, it is taught in South Thames College, not at Putney School of Art.
Should the government re-categorise wood-sculpture within Art, alongside marble, ivory and bronze? It would mean officially reconnecting current and future wood-sculptors with the inspirational masterpieces of the 1700s.
Cole, Henry Fifty years of public work of Sir Henry Cole accounted for in his deeds, speeches and writings, (in two volumes) London, Bell and Sons, 1884
The V&A collection: http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O77623/bread-board-bell-john/
Mayhew, Henry; London Labour and the London poor
The Art-Union 1843-1851
Summerly Catalogues 1847 and 1848
Penguin Dictionary of Decorative Art
The London Illustrated News 1848-51
Parliamentary Papers 1836, ix 25th Aug
Images from Wikipedia, Royal Mail
Journal of the Society of Arts
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