Art and Industry

Art and Industry  (1890) 
by William Gladstone

The speech given by William Ewart Gladstone MP, Leader of the Liberal Party, upon the opening of an art exhibition in Dundee on 29 October 1890.

Mr President, my Lords, Ladies and Gentlemen - I proceed to discharge that duty which is the simplest in the world, and certainly not the least agreeable, which has been imposed upon me by your President, and to declare the present exhibition to be opened. Having done that, is it right that I should detain you from looking at the exhibition by any remarks of my own? Your exhibition is, I am quite sure, full of beauty. I will not pretend to pass a deliberate judgement after a very cursory inspection, but I will say that I have seen many works of art even in the course of my walk through the rooms, which have impressed me very favourably indeed, and I cannot think that any observations that I may make can have a beauty in them to compare at all with that of the works upon the walls. Therefore, you will understand that anything I say on this occasion is not at all to enter into competition with it, as I know that in that I should be defeated. I suppose I may, in a few sentances, express to you opinions that will show that I am not discharging this duty as a perfunctory obligation. It is most pleasant for me to be brought into contact, even for a moment, with an exhibition of this kind. I cannot consider your exhibition as apart from your permanent picture gallery.

Exhibitions, I think, have been tried - and have been successfully tried - in various towns of the country at an earlier date than that at which they have aspired to be the possessors of permanent picture galleries. The whole thing is a question of progress from year to year. I need not say that I can recollect the time when I do not think there was such a thing in the whole country as a local annual exhibition of pictures, and much more do I doubt whether there was then such a thing as a permanent gallery belonging to any one of our towns. Even in London, our wants and ideas were very modest as to their scale. I rejoice to say that there were admirable painters in this country in the early part of the century with whom I was familiar, but the scale of the exhibition was extremely small. I dare say - I am sure - you are aware that the annual exhibition in London has developed or split itself into three, that each of these is attended by great and increasing crowds of people, and that, in fact, it seems hardly possible to satiate the appetite which exists throughout the country. It is most satisfactory to find similar dispositions extending into the provinces, and I am not at all surprised to find that Scotland holds a very foremost place in the foundation of these institutions. In speaking of Scotland, gentlemen, and Scotchmen, I may depart for one moment from the straight path before me to mention the name of a Scotchman - Mr Carnegie. Mr Carnegie is not a Forfarshire man, but he is the next thing to it, for he himself has placed upon record in his very remarkable works, his devotion to the town of Dunfermline, where he was born. It is not only his activity, but it is the manner in which he has preached, and, still more in earnest, which he has practiced the munificent devotion of vast funds collected by his energy and intelligence to the foundation of great institutions for the benefit of his fellow-countrymen. Many of these may be known to some of you, but I am in a condition to state it as a matter of fact. He is, as you know, a great ironmaster in Pennsylvania - the greatest ironmaster, I believe, in the world. He has his works not very far from the town of Pittsburg, the centre of the mining industry of that great state. Mr Carnegie has endowed the town of Pittsburg, partly for the purposes of a library, and partly for the purposes of art galleries, with the sum - not to come after his death, but out of his pocket; paid over the counter, so to speak - the sum of £400,000. That is an instance of bounty, and I cannot but believe that there is bounty here. We have many instances of it. You have instances of it. You have instances of it, I believe, in Dundee. There are splendid instances elsewhere, and I cannot but believe that it is contagious. The disposition that produces it is contagious in its character; and if we have wants still unsupplied notwithstanding, we shall see the movement for the supply og those who follow them. I am greatly pleased to find such a collection has been made in Dundee for many more reasons than one. But one of the reasons undoubtedly is, that the industries of the country will derive enormous advantage from the cultivation of art. Beauty is an element of immense pecuniary value. The traditional cultivation of taste and production of beauty in industrial objects, is better known - best of all known, perhaps - in Italy, and very well known in France. We may still be some steps behind in many departments in that respect, but there is not a doubt that in the enormous commerce of France, the beauty of the objects produced counts from year to year for a great many millions sterling, and those millions sterling would fade into their air were the appreciation of beauty and the power of producing beautiful objects to be taken away, which, happily, it hardly can from such a people. It is an element of immense commercial value. Let us look abroad - let us take our lesson from nature, for, after all, we cannot go to a better source, or as good a source, as to the works of God. The almighty has provided this earth with the beautiful, and made it fair and beautiful, and has made the beauty of the land in which we are appointed to be born, and in which we live, an important instrument in stirring up i us, and for confirming in us that devoted attachment to our country, which, I hope, under the name of patriotism or whatever other name - which, I believe, always has been a pointed characteristic of those who will be a marked and pointed characteristic of those who will succeed them in following generations. The Almighty has given us a lesson in this respect in making his works beautiful, showing that he suggests to us to make our works beautiful, humbly, and reverently, but yet believing that if in every department of life we are following that example, He will regard it with favour, and crown it with His blessing. The question arises, Is there incapacity in the people of this country to compete with other nations and races in the production of beautiful objects? I have told you that I think we are behind in certain respects; but I hold that there is no incapacity, and I hold this partly on this account - the enormous progress which I myself have witnessed. I assure you that it is hardly an exaggeration to say that at the time when I was a boy and a youth of ten or fifteen years of age, there was anything that was beautiful produced in this country. And I remember at about that period of my life - I believe I was eighteen - I was taken over to see a silk factory in Macclesfield. I remember Mr Huskisson - whose name ought always to be remembered with respect amongst all sound economists - and the Government of Lord Liverpool had been making the first efforts not to break down - that was reserved for their happier followers - but to lessen, to modify, or perhaps I should say mitigate, a little, if possible, the protective system. Down to the period of Mr Huskisson silk pockethandkerchiefs from France were prohibited. They were largely smuggled, and no gentleman went over to France without, if he could manage it, in his pockets, his purse, his portmanteau, his hat, or his greatcoat, bringing back handkerchiefs and gloves. But Mr Huskisson carried a law in which, in lieu of this prohibition of these French articles, a duty of 30 per cent. was imposed upon them, and I assure you it is in my recollection that there was a keener detestation of Mr Huskisson and a more violent passion aroused against him in consequence of that mild initial measure that ever was associated in the other camp - in the Protectionist camp - with the career of Cobden and Bright. Well, I was taken to this manufactory, and they produced the English handkerchiefs of France, although, even before they were allowed to compete, they had to pay the heavy fine of 30 per cent. on the value. And it was in that first visit to a manufactory in Macclesfield that - I will not say that I became a Free Trader, for it was ten or fifteen years after that before I entered into the full faith of that policy; but from what I then saw there dawned upon my mind the first ray of light; and what I thought when they showed me these handkerchiefs was, how detestable they really are, and what in the world can be the object of the policy of coaxing, nursing, coddling up manufactories to produce goods such as these, which you ought to be ashamed of exhibiting? Well, there is a very different state of things now. One of the consequences, as you are probably aware, of introducing free trade, was that even in the cotton trade - I think it is the cotton trade that I have specially in mind - in the cotton trade, where formerly the practice had been to import, by a one-sided process, the French cotton patterns for printing cotton - even in that trade, after a few years had been given to the opening of the trade, that one-sided process became two-sided, and the French patterns came from Mülhausen to Manchester, and the English patterns went from Manchester to Mülhausen, because there were men then with an open market, who endeavoured to infuse new beauty into a large number of the industrial objects of this country - in our glass, in our porcelain, in our earthenwear, in our tissues without end - and I hope ad believe not the less in the great linen manufactures for which Dundee is so famous, that the introduction of beauty is becoming a regular portion of the industrial art. Well, there is no reason, when we look to our history, why we should despond or suppose that we are not to attain all the purposes - all the good purposes - that beauty and the study of beauty are meant to attain.

Now, shall I shock you if I tell you what, perhaps, is partly only a personal opinion of my own? The study of beauty has several very formidable enemies. One of them, of course, is haste in production, carelessness in production. Sometimes the desire for cheapness makes people think you cannot have cheapness and beauty together. But the particular enemy which is one of the most formidible of all to the true comprehension and true pursuit of beauty is that thing which is known under the name of fashion. That may seem strange to the young gentlemen who want to be smart in their dress. I will not speak of young ladies. To them I have no doubt it will sound as if I was using language certainly rash, and perhaps almost profane. What is fashion? Fashion of dress is perpetual change, if it is to be justifiable or if it is to be useful, there ought to be perpetual progress. But fashion is not perpetual progress; fashion is a zigzag. Fashion is a wheel that whirls round and round, and by-and-by, after a fashion has been left - after it has been discarded - if you have only a little patience to wait long enough, you will find you will get back to it. Ladies and gentlemen, you are young and I am old; I have seen this wheel of fashion going round and round always puzzling you, like a firework wheel, but always landing in a total negation of progress and with a strong tendency to the substitution of mere caprice and mere display for the real pursuit of beauty.

Of course, I believe that the pursuit of the beautiful is a thing founded on permanent principles, and I am glad to say that in Scotland you have had some authors who have written - and written with great ability - to show that the principles of beauty may be more difficult to discern, and to reduce to formulæ, but they are as permanent in themselves, and as certain as the principles of arithmetic and mathematics. Certainly, if we look at variations - fine art is not in the same way governed by fashion - we know that art springs up, advances, and reaches a climax in a perticular country, and then, usually, more or less declines. But art is always aiming at the exhibition more and more of permanent and changeless principles, and depend upon it we ought to look as much as possible, in the production of beautiful things - we ought to look to those elements of beauty which are solid and permanent, and do not change from age to age. Is that a wild fancy? Why is it that we admire the architecture of the Greeks? Why do we admire the sculpture of the Greeks? Because we know that it was given to that race by Providence to attain to a more just, true, and strict, and much more general perception of the permanent principles of beauty than perhaps has ever been given to any race. At least, if they have a rival, they are nearly without a rival, upon the earth, and the wonderful thing is to see among the Greeks this feeling diffused. If you are told that you are a provincial people, take your lesson from provincial Greece. Bœtia was nothing but a little subdivision of Greece - a very small sub-division of a very small country. However, it had the advantage of being next to Attica, and there was a small town of the name of Tanagra, from which, within the last few years, were exposed, in the Athenian market, almost for nothing, little statuettes. They immediately found appreciation, for the Greeks of the present day have, I can assure you, a great many of the qualities that belonged to their illustrious ancestors, and now, in the sunlight of freedom, they are maturing and developing these qualities. But these little statuettes came immediately into appreciation. But it was found that, though they were only taken out of the tombs of an obscure town almost unknown to history, of a town hardly big enough to secure for itself some third-rate railway station, if it now existed, these statuettes were instinct with the spirit of beauty from head to foot, in figure and in costume. Many of them - a good many of them, I think - are now in the Museum in London, and serve to illustrate both the great function that the Greeks fulfilled in former times, and likewise the manner in which that which is truly beautiful never could go out of fashion if we were sound and sagacious, and consistent in our view of acting on those principles.

I do not think Scotland has any reason to despond in this matter. I rejoice to think what a large number of persons have grown up in Scotland during the present century to adorn the history of British art - I cannot recollect them all. You had Wilkin, you had Leslie, you had Dyce, you had Phillip,and a great many more. You have at the present moment a portrait painter practicing in Edinburgh, one or two of whose works I have seen - I mean Mr Reid - which are perfectly entitled to take their place among the historical portraits of the world. Therefore, it is remarkable, gentlemen, and I tell you why. Because the primary reputation of Scotland has always been for solid qualities. A Scotchman is logical, a Scotchman is canny, a Scotchman has many qualities of a beautiful and useful kind indeed. But, observe, the Scotchman, beside all these things, is imaginative, and there are not wanting proofs of that. I will not now dilate upon the name of Burns, I will not now dilate upon the name, in the opinion of some, and in my own opinion, I think, more illustrious - that of Sir Walter Scott. I will simply point to the achievements of Scotchmen in the field of art, and the proportion that prevails between Scotch artists and English artists relatively to the population of the two countries, and say that Scotchmen enter freely into this competition in the study and pursuit of beauty. I am quite confident it is a competition in which they will never be worsted. On an occasion so interesting as this I will release you, ladies and gentlemen, for the purpose of the far more edifying occupation of examining the works on the wall, rather than listening to the superficial and stray remarks which I have been making.