Navigating the Tensions Between Art Pottery and the Victorian Mass Market
This project developed out of my coursework on British Design History, a three-week intensive taught by the American Material Culture program at Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library in New Castle County, Delaware. In addition to researching Winterthur's collections, the project involved fieldwork on art pottery in Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire, and archival research conducted at the British Library in London, UK.
The project culminated in an essay and presentation for the Winterthur faculty, staff and donors in February 2019 and a follow-up presentation at the annual conference for the Research Society for Victorian Periodicals in Brighton, UK, in July 2019.
Abstract for the Project
While the growth of Victorian print and material culture go hand-in-hand, their connection evokes the classic chicken-and-egg conundrum: which comes first? This project attempts to answer this question by examining the multifaceted work of illustrator, author and British designer, J. Moyr Smith. Smith regularly contributed illustrations to such publications as Punch, Art Journal, Little Folks, and the Girl’s Own Paper, in addition to illustrating (and authoring) books of fairy tales, Shakespeare’s plays, and children’s literature. As his career progressed, he took his fanciful designs into the decorative arts, designing ceramicware, tiles and other material products for the middle-class and luxury markets. Thus, as an artist and designer, Smith was fully aware of a growing mass market predicated on consumers’ social ability to afford leisure. Characters people read about in print could now be purchased in the form of decorative tile, dessert plates, wallpaper, or even furniture. Material objects therefore become not just utilitarian items of everyday use – they become status symbols of one’s ability to afford pleasing decoration. By fluidly moving back and forth between print and material culture, Smith’s work embodies a complex, layered story about the nature of Victorian consumerism and the politics of pleasure.