George Wallis

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5.  The 1851 Exhibition and the Birmingham Art School

In 1851 Prince Albert was busily promoting the Great Exhibition and extending it from a national exhibition to an international one.  Wallis was called in.  He was appointed as Deputy Commissioner for the Eastern District of London (he had connections with Spitalfields), for several northern counties and the whole of Ireland.  The function of such Deputy Commissioners was to encourage and co-ordinate displays from their regions.  His son says that Wallis "lectured on the aims and purposes of the exhibition throughout England and Ireland, arousing the interest which was much needed at the time".  “He assisted in laying out the general space of the Exhibition in Hyde Park” and “was Superintendent of the British Textile Division” (he had had connections with Spitalfields and Manchester).  He also acted as Deputy Commissioner for the Textile Group of Juries.  It was the function of these Deputy Commissioners to organise and lead the juries which decided which exhibits should get which medals.  Wallis was opposed to such awards.  It appears, from his "Letter to the Council" that his objection was to giving prizes on the basis of one or two pieces of work, rather than on a whole body of work.  It is certainly true that many makers produced works specially for exhibitions - usually elaborate, over the top demonstrations of skill - and did not show the full range of their day to say products.  But he acted nevertheless, as he did later at other exhibitions, apparently because, the decision having been made to give awards, the job had to be done.

Wallis seems to have had other connections arising from the Crystal Palace.  Valerie Bramwell, of Philadelphia, is the great great great granddaughter of  Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins (1807-1894) the artist and sculptor.  Hawkins is best remembered for the creation of the world's first life sized sculptures of dinosaurs for Crystal Palace in 1853.  Family papers in  Valerie Bramwell's possession make references to George Wallis, apparently a friend of Hawkins.  Wallis was clearly widening his acquaintance with the artistic world of his time. 

In November 1851 Wallis became the Headmaster of the Birmingham School of Design.  He had had to be persuaded to take the post, and he did so when he was assured that his Manchester experience would not be repeated: he would decide the design and contents of the courses.  He stayed there until 1858 when he resigned, partly because of bad health (though he lived vigorously for many more years) and, once again, partly because of interference by others in “the course of instruction forced upon the masters”.    But while he was there he seems to have been successful and well appreciated: he received two public testimonials on his retirement.

It seems to be this period of his life to which his son refers when he says that he resided at Stretton, near Penkridge and that "he painted many oil pictures and was a frequent exhibitor" at the Royal Academy and the Royal Institution.  

He engaged in other activities during this time.  He continued to write and to advocate training for the art industry. This advocacy was to have an impact on his home town.  In 1851, fired with enthusiasm by the Great Exhibition, local industrialists established a small art school in Castle Street.  Interest was such that public subscription was taken up to greatly enlarge the school and, to help raise funds, a letter on the subject by George Wallis was printed and circulated in the town.  By August 1854 a purpose-built School of Art "in the Greek style"  had been opened in Darlington Street.  Wallis attended the opening ceremony.  Patrick Quirk says that “Much interest in the establishment of an Art School in Wolverhampton was in deference to Wallis and his reputation.” 

The original design for "The Government School of Practical Art for Wolverhampton and South Satffordshire".

In 1854 there was published, under the names of Sir Joseph Whitworth and George Wallis, "The Industry of the United States in Machinery, Manufactures and Useful and Applied Arts, complied from the Official Reports of Messrs Whitworth and Wallis".  In a report on the International Exhibition of 1862 Wallis refers to himself as "British Commissioner on Manufactures to the United States of America".  This was a Board of Trade delegation sent out to the United States to see what useful information could be picked up from a country which was rapidly establishing itself as Britain's main industrial rival.  This says much as to his status at the time - and it would have provided him with valuable experiences in many fields.  In the catalogue of the 1911 retrospective of Wallis's art work, there is a painting  of Niagara Falls, so he must have been as busily occupied in sketching in America as he always was at home. [There is a modern edition of the report:  Nathan Rosenberg, The American System of Manufactures: the report of the Committee on the Machinery of the United States, 1855, and the special reports of George Wallis and Joseph Whitworth, 1854; edited with an introduction by Nathan Rosenberg, Edinburgh University Press, 1969]. 

At the Paris Exhibition of 1855 he was in charge of the British and Colonial Section.  On this occasion he declined to be a member of a jury but he did produce a report for the British Board of Trade which was duly published alongside the jury reports. He also produced a report (which may be the same as his official report) for the Art Journal.  This report shows not only Wallis’s design interests but also his practical side.  He writes plainly of the use of such exhibitions, of the need for British manufacturers to exhibit at them, particularly in the then rapidly changing economic world, and even on the design of the manufacturers' stands and their location within the buildings.

But also in 1855, according to his son, in Birmingham in 1855 "he organised the first exhibition of works of industrial art as an experiment in the circulation of works of art" from Marlborough House.  "This exhibition ultimately lead to the formation of a travelling collection and later on Mr. Wallis developed the present complete system of circulation of objects of art".

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