Horses on the Wall? A Delightful Dickensian Discovery at the V & A

Last summer my husband and I traveled to the UK for a family wedding and combined it with a brief vacation. Having just binge-watched the mini-series Victoria before we left, the Victoria and Albert Museum (the V & A) was a must-see.

Mosaic on the facade of one of the buildings of the Victoria and Albert Museum. The silhouette behind the figures is the profile of the Crystal Palace. Photo by Teresa Rupp.

We were thrilled to discover a small special exhibit in celebration of the bicentennial of both Victoria’s and Albert’s 1819 births entitled “Building the Museum.”1 The exhibit chronicled the role of the Queen and the Prince Consort in the planning of the Great Exhibition of 1851 (also known as the Crystal Palace) and how the V & A grew out of it. We’d just seen the Victoria episode on the Exhibition, so this was perfect. We must have looked interested, because a docent stationed in the gallery came over to us and gave us an impromptu tour.

One of the things we learned was that Henry Cole, who organized the Great Exhibition, was also the first director of what became the V & A. Cole saw the mission of the new museum as educational, and part of that mission was to elevate the taste of the public. To that end, he put on an exhibit in 1852 called the “Gallery of False Principles” that provided both good and bad examples of design (the press referred to it as the “Chamber of Horrors”). The “False Principles” included decorating a home with representations of objects rather than the objects themselves. For example, one of the items in Cole’s original exhibit also included in the”Building the Museum” exhibit was a sample of wallpaper printed with a pattern of Gothic architectural ornamentation. This is a “false principle” because the papered wall doesn’t really have Gothic ornamentation on it but only a printed representation of it.

”False Principle #31: Imitation of Architecture.” Wallpaper sample exhibited in Henry Cole’s 1852 exhibit, ”Gallery of False Principles.” Photo by Teresa Rupp.

Another example, our docent explained, would be a flowered carpet. At that point I interrupted her, saying, “It’s just like that scene in Dickens’ Hard Times where the government official tells the students that they shouldn’t have flowered carpets or wallpaper with horses on it!” The docent responded excitedly, “Wallpaper with horses was one of the examples!”

I teach Hard Times every fall in my modern European history class. The novel, first published in 1854, is set in Coketown, a fictional northern English industrial city. Hard Times opens with a scene in a school founded by Mr Thomas Gradgrind, a wealthy industrialist who believes in teaching only Facts.2 Gradgrind, along with an unnamed visiting government official (referred to only as “the gentleman”), is visiting a class taught by Mr M’Choakumchild.3 The gentleman asks the students,

“Would you paper a room with representations of horses?”

Some say yes, some no, whereupon the gentleman explains,

“Do you ever see horses walking up and down the sides of rooms in reality—in fact? Do you? . . . Why then, you are not to see anywhere, what you don’t see in fact; you are not to have anywhere, what you don’t have in fact. What is called Taste, is only another name for Fact.”

In case the children didn’t get the point, he poses another question:

“Would you use a carpet having a representation of flowers upon it?”

One of the students, Sissy Jupe, daughter of a circus clown, says she would. When the gentleman asks her why, she says,

“If you please, Sir, I am very fond of flowers.”

“And that is why you would put tables and chairs upon them, and have people walking over them with heavy boots?”

“It wouldn’t hurt them, Sir. They wouldn’t crush and wither, if you please, Sir. They would be the pictures of what was very pretty and pleasant, and I would fancy—”

“Ay, ay, ay! But you mustn’t fancy,” cried the gentleman, quite elated by coming so happily to his point. “That’s it! You are never to fancy.”

This opening scene sets up the conflict between Fact (represented by Gradgrind and his school) and Fancy (represented by Sissy and the circus) that drives the rest of the novel. (Spoiler alert: Fancy wins.)

I was very pleased to be able to show my students this fall the photo I took of the objectionable Gothic wallpaper. I couldn’t take a photo of the equestrian wallpaper, as it wasn’t included in the “Building the Museum” exhibit, but I have since found it in their collection.

”False Principles 35.” Wallpaper sample exhibited as part of Henry Cole’s ”Gallery of False Principles” and satirized by Charles Dickens in Hard Times. Photograph © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

I had always assumed that the nameless government inspector who intimidates poor Sissy Jupe was exaggerated to the point of absurdity in order for Dickens to make his point about the weaknesses of an education based solely on Fact. I was stunned, but delighted, to learn that the character was not an exaggeration but was, if you’ll pardon the expression, based on fact—a thinly disguised version of Henry Cole. The inspector’s closing remarks could easily have been spoken by Cole:

“You are not to have, in any object of use or ornament, what would be a contradiction in fact. You don’t walk upon flowers in fact; you cannot be allowed to walk upon flowers in carpets. You don’t find that foreign birds and butterflies come and perch upon your crockery; you cannot be permitted to paint foreign birds and butterflies upon your crockery. You never meet with quadrupeds going up and down walls; you must not have quadrupeds represented upon walls. You must use,” said the gentleman, “for all these purposes, combinations and modifications (in primary colors) of mathematical figures which are susceptible of proof and demonstration. This is the new discovery. This is fact. This is taste.”

Having served his philosophical and narrative purpose, the gentleman from the government with the limited taste in wallpaper does not appear again in the novel. Maybe Dickens didn’t give a name to the character because he knew that 1850s readers would recognize him as Henry Cole–and now you can, too.

Renaissance Gettysburg

One gorgeous summer afternoon a few years ago, while in Gettysburg, PA for a chamber music camp, I used our afternoon break from playing string quartets to visit the Gettysburg National Military Park and take some photos. I stopped the car at the most prominent monument I could see, which turned out to be the Pennsylvania Monument.

As I was walking around it looking for good photographic angles, I noticed how the summer sky was framed by the monument’s arch. “That’s beautiful,” I thought. “It looks just like a painting.” Then I realized, “Hold on—it looks like THE painting.” A quick search on my phone confirmed my suspicion. The Pennsylvania Monument is indeed very similar to the architectural setting of Raphael’s 1509 fresco The School of Athens, right down to the sky framed by the arch. (The other tourists visiting the Battlefield that day probably wondered why I was jumping up and down in excitement).

So, was The School of Athens the inspiration for the design of the Pennsylvania Monument? The monument was commissioned in 1907 by the Pennsylvania state legislature; architect W. Liance Cottrell was awarded the job. (Sculptor Samuel Murray, who studied with Thomas Eakins, got the sculpture commission.) The monument was still incomplete when dedicated in 1910; more money was appropriated and the finished memorial was rededicated on July 1, 1913, as part of the 50th anniversary commemoration of the Battle of Gettysburg.

I have so far been unable to find any evidence that Cottrell had Raphael’s fresco specifically in mind when he designed the memorial to Pennsylvanians who fought at Gettysburg. Cottrell was trained in the Beaux-Arts school of architecture, which made extensive use of classical style. Raphael and Cottrell may simply have chosen the same classical elements for their creations. But I like to imagine that Cottrell tried to bring Raphael’s imaginary building to life on the field of Gettysburg.