What do the Penny Post, the Great Exhibition of 1851, the Albert & Victoria Museum, GCSEs, the iMac and the art works on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square all have in common? Their origins are all in someway connected to the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce. The Royal Society for what, I hear you ask, or at least that was my reaction when I first read the name.
Few people have heard of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce. Even fewer know what it does. Many assume, as its name is usually abbreviated to the Royal Society of Arts, that it is all about art. It has certainly done a lot to promote art, but it has also done much more than that. In fact, the Society is by its very nature difficult to define. There is no other organisation quite like it, and nor has there ever been. It is in a category of its own.
The quoted paragraph is the opening paragraph to the introduction to Anton Howes’ Arts and Minds: How the Royal Society of Arts Changed a Nation, which is the fourth official history of the Society and the first written by an independent, professional historian. The first three were written by society secretaries. Howes’ book will answer any and all question that you might have about the Royal Society of Arts. In little more than three hundred pages he takes his readers on a whirl wind tour of three centuries of British political, social, cultural and economic history and the at times complex and influential role that the Society played in it. To describe Howes’ work as a tour de force barely does this superb piece of interdisciplinary history justice.
One would be forgiven for assuming that the Royal Society of Arts (RSA) had nothing to do with the Royal Society that more usually features on this blog, but you would be mistaken. The RSA owes its existence very directly to its Royal cousin and not just in the sense of a society for the arts modelled on the one for science. The Royal Society of London was modelled on the natural philosophical concepts of Francis Bacon. A very central element of Bacon’s utopian vision of natural philosophy was that advances in the discipline would and should serve the improvement of human society, i.e. science in the service of humanity. This ideal got lost, pushed aside, forgotten fairly rapidly as the Royal Society evolved and in the eighteenth century various people discussed revitalising this Baconian utopian aim and after much discussion the result was the founding of the RSA, whose aims were to support efforts to improve human society. As a side note the Royal Society became royal on the day it was founded, whereas the RSA only acquired its royalty in the nineteenth century and didn’t actually call itself Royal until the early twentieth century.
The Society was founded as a subscription and premium society. Membership was open to all and members paid a yearly subscription. This money and other donations were then used to pay premiums to help people to develop ideas that were seen as improvements. From the beginning the whole concept of improvement and what could or should be improved was left very vague, so over the three centuries of its existence the Society has launched a bewildering assortment of projects over a very wide range of disciplines. A standard procedure was to select an area where improvement was thought necessary and then to write out a call for suggestions. The suggestions were then examined and those thought to be the best were awarded a premium. The areas chosen for improvement varied wildly and were mostly determined by powerful individuals or pressure groups, who managed to persuade the membership to follow their suggestions. Often those pressure groups, brought together by common aims within the RSA, moved on to found their own separate societies; one of the earliest was the Royal Society of Chemistry. Over the three centuries many other societies were born within the RSA.
Howes guides he readers skilfully through the meandering course that the Society took over the decades and centuries. Presenting the dominant figures, who succeeded in controlling the course of the Society for a period of time and the various schemes both successful and unsuccessful that they launched. One area that played a central role throughout the history of the RSA was art, but predominantly in the form of art applied to industrial design. However, the Society also encouraged the development of art as art putting on popular exhibitions of the art submitted for premiums.
We follow the society through its highs and lows, through its periods of stagnation and its periods of rejuvenation. As the well-known cliché goes, times change and the society had to change with them. Howes in an excellent guide to those changes taking his readers into the depth of the societies’ problems and their solutions. Here one of his strengths is his analysis of the various attempts by the society to define a new role for itself since World War II and up to the present.
Having grown up in the second half of the twentieth century, I was pleasantly surprised to be reminded of two important socio-cultural developments from my youth, where I was not aware of the strong involvement of the RSA. The first was the beginning of the movement to conserve and preserve historical building and protect them from the rapacious post-war property developers. The Society was active in arranging the purchase of such buildings to place them out of harm’s way, even at one point buying an entire village. The second was the birth and establishment of environmentalism and the environmental protection movement in the UK, which was led by Peter Scott, of the Wildfowl Trust, and Prince Philip, who was President of the Society. It was for me a timely reminder that Phil the Greek, who these days has a well-earned bad reputation amongst left wing social warriors, actually spent many decades fighting for the preservation of wildlife and the environment. I was aware of this activity at the time but had largely forgotten it. I was, however, not aware that he had used his position as President of the RSA, and the Society itself, to launch his environmental campaigns.
To go into great detail in this review would produce something longer than the book itself, so I’ll just add some notes to the list in my opening question. The Penny Post was a scheme launched by the society to make affordable and reliable written communication available to the general public. The Great Exhibition of 1851, the first ever world fair, was set in motion by the Society in imitation of and to overtrump the industrial fairs already fairly common in various cities on the continent. Howes takes us through the genesis of the original idea, the initial failure to make this idea a reality and then the creation of the Great Exhibition itself. This probably counts as the Societies greatest success. Two things I didn’t know is one that the Societies’ committee played a significant role in setting up and promoting later world fairs other countries in the nineteenth century and was responsible for the British contributions to those fairs. Secondly the desire to preserve much of the content of the Great Exhibition led to the setting up of the museums in South Kensington, including the V&A.
To help working people acquire qualifications in a wide range of subjects and disciplines that they could then use to improve their positions, the Society set up public examinations, in the nineteenth century. As they became popular and widespread Oxford and Cambridge universities took over responsibility for those in academic disciplines and these are the distant ancestors of todays GCSEs. Jonathan Ive was Apple’s chief designer and the man behind the iMac, as a polytechnic student he won the RSA Student Design Award, which afforded him a small stipend and a travel expense account to use on a trip to the United States, which took him to Palo Alto and his first contact with the people, who would design for Apple. I was surprised to discover that the, at time controversial, scheme to present art works on the empty fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square also originated at the RSA.
This is just a small selection of the projects and schemes launched by the RSA and I found it fascinating whilst reading to discover more and more things that are attributable to the RSA’s efforts. Howes’ book is a historical and intellectual adventure story with many surprising discoveries waiting to be made by the reader. Despite being densely packed with details the book is highly readable and I found it a pleasure to read. It has extensive endnotes, which are both references to the very extensive bibliography, as well containing extra details to passages in the text. The whole is rounded out by a good index. As one would expect of a book about the greatest active supporter of design in UK history the book is stylishly presented. A pleasant and easy to read type face, a good selection of grey in grey illustrations and a good collection of colour plates.
If you like good, stimulating and highly informative history books or just good books in general, then do yourself a favour and acquire Aton Howes’ excellent tome. No matter how much you think you might know about the last three centuries of British political, social, cultural and economic history, I guarantee that you will discover lots that you didn’t know.
 Anton Howes, Arts and Minds: How the Royal Society of Arts Changed a Nation, Princeton University Press, Princeton & Oxford, 2020.