George Wallis

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3.  Return to Wolverhampton

All of this seems to have set Wallis’ future direction – the furtherance of art and industrial design, especially through teaching and exhibitions.  And it was at this point, 1837, that he returned to Wolverhampton.  According to the Biograph this was “to execute some commissions offered to him”.  Jones does not even mention Wallis’ time in Manchester but, speaking of some time around 1838 – 1841 (and Jones never was very good with dates), he says “About this time Messrs. Ryton and Walton employed Mr. Wallis to paint the centres of the best tea trays before they passed into the hands of the ordinary japanner to decorate the borders of them.  He designed for them the shape of a tray which was very popular and was called “Victoria” after the name of the young queen”. 

It therefore seems that Wallis had left Manchester and come back to Wolverhampton.  The “commissions” which the Biograph refers to might have been portraits in oils but they are more likely to have been the work at Ryton and Walton.  Clearly Wallis was making a living in Wolverhampton in part, at least, as a practising artist and industrial designer.   Not only that, he also embarked on his career as an art educator and promoter of industrial art. 

The Biograph records that:  “In April 1838 he delivered his first public lecture in the Wolverhampton Athenaeum, selecting for this subject ‘The Cultivation of Popular Taste in the Fine Arts’”.  The local newspapers spoke highly of its ability and usefulness.  In 1839 he delivered another lecture as a sequel, ‘On the Principles of Natural Form’, a subject which those who heard the lecture regretted that he did not follow up”.  One suspects that this was a lecture about natural forms, especially plants, as a source of design inspiration.  If so then Wallis, if not quite the first in this field, was certainly amongst the earliest.  Plant forms were to become the favourite source of Victorian designers, almost to the exclusion of animal forms and the human figure. 

Strangely neither the 1919 Catalogue nor the Biograph mention, but Jones does, extensively, that “About the year 1838, it occurred to Mr. Wallis that an exhibition of art and manufacture would tend to promote healthy competition and stimulate invention. Feeling this, he instantly set to work, and as the result of his exertions a fine collection of pictures, works of art, and manufactures, together with the products of other countries, were brought together and exhibited in the Mechanics' Institute, Queen Street.”

This clearly follows Wallis’ experience in Manchester and it must be one of the earliest of such Mechanics’ Institutes exhibitions to follow the Manchester example. 

Here is Jones' description of the show:

“The artists in the district exhibited some excellent work, and Mr. Wallis exhibited several paintings. One caused quite a sensation, called “The Downfall of Napoleon."  It represented an Italian, with a board full of plaster images on his head, who had tripped on the pavement. The board was upset, and the bust of Napoleon was falling to the ground. In the present day we can hardly understand the distrust and hatred of the French, which was constant and abiding, and so the fall of Napoleon, the great enemy of England, was an exciting and interesting spectacle.

Altogether, one hundred paintings decorated the walls. Among them there was a "Rembrandt," a "Claude," and a “Jordaens."  Good art-work, too, was shown on Japan ware, for which Wolverhampton is still famous. A papier-mâché table, the work of Mr. Stubbs, in the employ of Mr. E. Perry, took the first. prize. The table was remarkable for the originality of its design. The second prize was awarded to Mr. Stockwin, in the employ of Mr. Charles Mander, John's Lane.  In those days the great firm of Thorneycroft was not above competing; they took the first prize for the best specimen of finished iron. Mr. Ford, in their employ, showed the best working model of a steam engine, and Mr. John Bill, of Walsall Street, took the prize for casting in iron.

At the same exhibition many interesting and valuable objects were lent by the neighbouring gentry. Among these were the fruit of the banana, as it grew, called "The Bread Fruit Tree," also specimens of Indian maize in the ear, and tomatoes. All these were new to the townsfolk, and were of great interest to them. Of course, the most important parts of the exhibition were contributed by the manufacturers of the staple trades of the district such as locks, hinges, tin and japanned articles, and brass­foundry.”

This seems to have been a kind of omnium gatherum of anything which might be interesting and which might stimulate the artistic and decorative minds of all ranks in local industry.  As is usual with Jones we may doubt some of the details – is the banana really the same as the bread fruit tree? – but the general impression must be about right.  But then Jones goes on to say:

“This local exhibition was the first of the kind held in England, and originated the idea which Prince Albert developed in the great exhibition at the Crystal Palace, Hyde Park, in 1851, by which London became the centre of the World's Fair.”

That this exhibition “was the first of its kind in England” is clearly wrong and if it had any influence at all on the 1851 Exhibition it was of the slightest.  Wolverhampton’s influence on that Exhibition was mainly through Wallis himself. 

But Jones - who was never good at dates - said this exhibition took place in 1838.  In a Special Report on the South Staffordshire Exhibition held at Wolverhampton, 1869, Wallis himself, in reviewing the history of the exhibition, does not mention 1838 but does refer to one held in 1839: "a small but interesting exhibition ... got up in connection with the then Mechanics' Institute, in a portion of the building".  He does not say he was connected with it.  But he does say that it was so successful that "a more extended exhibition, which occupied the whole building" was held.  This was successful except in the financial sense and it was this loss which, says Wallis, lead to there being no further Wolverhampton exhibitions until 1864.  Again Wallis does not say he was connected with it - but he does mention that no prizes were given at it and Wallis was always strongly against the giving of prizes or medals.

According to Wallis’ obituary in the Journal of the Royal Society of Arts “As early as 1839 he had devoted his attention to the subject which became his life-work and he delivered his first lecture on ‘State Aid for Art’ in that year”.  Where he delivered that lecture the obituary does not say and its content is unknown.

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