The move to Manchester
According to the Biograph, Wallis left Wolverhamton and went to Manchester as there was then no School of Art in Wolverhampton. Whitworth Wallis says that he left in 1832 and "settled for a short period in Liverpool" but "not finding sufficient facilities there" he went to Manchester where he attended "certain classes" and "commenced studying designs for calico printing". But it is not clear how much better off he was in Manchester in terms of receiving any real art teaching. According to the Biograph he attended the Royal Manchester Institution where “a few students were permitted to study from the collection of casts” but “there was no one to direct their studies”. It is not known whether Wallis financed this study himself, or whether his uncle and aunt were in fact still supporting him. Perhaps he undertook some teaching and he was certainly commissioned to paint some portraits.
What were to become Wallis’ lifelong interests in art education and industrial art seem to have been greatly influenced by his experiences in Wolverhampton and Manchester at this time.
Firstly he had a leave Wolverhampton because of the lack of an art school in the town and he did not find anything much better in Liverpool and Manchester - three great industrial centres had no facilities for training artists, industrial or otherwise.
Secondly he became connected with the local Manchester fabric industry. He noticed that machinery had reached an advanced state and that an enormous range of dyes was becoming available. The scope for producing fabric designs was practically limitless. But nearly all the designs Manchester used came from the Continent and “Manchester paid £30,000 per annum to Paris for such designs”. And worse, these designs were then spoiled by “the ignorance in elementary art ... in the technical adaptation of the pattern”. It might also be noted that the Manchester cotton kings imported Indian cottons and, at first, simply copied the designs, only later creating their own designs.
Thirdly, in 1836 he went to London “to see the Exhibitions of the year” which “had a marked effect on his productions for the annual exhibitions at Manchester, as it also helped to confirm him in his views of the national importance of artistic training”. This seems to have been Wallis’ first visit to London and to the great art collections there. The exhibitions must have been “fine art” exhibitions, such as that at the Royal Academy; exhibitions concerned with industrial art had hardly arrived at that time.
Fourthly, in 1837 a commission to paint a portrait took him to the Potteries and whilst there he visited the local factories. His view (quoted by the Biograph and repeated in his address "Decorative Art in Britain, of 1877)) was that “a greater wilderness of ugliness it was impossible to conceive and that, with the exception of some good flower painting at Daniels (afterwards Minton), there was nothing to show that Josiah Wedgwood ever lived and laboured in that locality”. "All art seemed, in 1837, to have vanished .... The wonder to myself, as a young artists, was how the potters managed to get so much ugliness out of such beautiful materials and the means at their disposal".
These experiences would have lead Wallis to believe that there was a dire and immediate need for more and better training in the arts as applied to industry and that this was needed for commercial as well as aesthetic reasons. In this he would not have been alone. At this time the whole country was abuzz with discussion about the dreadful state of industrial art and design. In 1836 the House of Commons Committee on Art and Manufactures got in on the debate. Wallis got a copy of their report.
A number of remedies were on offer from many sources. “Haydon preached the study of pictorial art as a remedy” (The Biograph). That meant not only more art schools of the traditional "fine art" type but also more exhibitions in which all sorts and conditions of people could see fine art and learn from it. But many also started to recognise that the study of fine art was not by itself enough. Art and good artistic taste had to be applied to industrial design and people need to be trained in this specifically. The Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce had been set up way back in 1754 for the express purpose of making this sort of connection. (It later became the Society of Arts and, in 1847, the Royal Society of Arts). They held occasional exhibitions, mainly of items which they considered to be examples of good practice. And, from about 1837, the Mechanics’ Institutes, which were now widespread throughout the country, took up this idea. But the Mechanics’ Institutes were also building on another precedent. In Germany and, especially, in France, the idea had developed of having occasional large exhibitions of the products of that country, shown to the public not only as a sales exercise but also as lessons in good taste and industrial art. These exhibitions all, of course, preceded the Great Exhibition of 1851. (What was original about the 1851 exhibition was that it was international, not simply national, with all countries being invited to exhibit).
In 1837 therefore there was the first of the very large displays by a Mechanics’ Institute and it is significant in our context that it was held in Manchester. The Manchester Guardian described its contents as “Models of Machinery, Philosophical Instruments, Works in Fine and Useful Arts, Objects in Natural History and Specimens of Natural History”. It may, therefore, to our eyes lack focus and direction but it is clear what the purpose was – not to sell specific goods but to sell ideas and to educate not the just middle classes but chiefly the mechanics. The show was a great success and was soon imitated by other Mechanics’ Institutes up and down the country.