In February 1908 Clausen presented prizes at the School of Art in Sheffield. In his speech, he referred to a worldwide degradation of taste.
Clausen said that, in the eighteenth century, when the most beautiful things were being made in Europe, there was not one School of Art in this country, but there was in the workshops a great tradition amongst the men, of beauty and appropriateness, a thing which largely died away on the introduction of machinery. Cheapness took its place and a period ensued when decoration and art became very poor in England. It was recognition of this which brought about the schools of art, and the last fifty years had been of great benefit to students and those who controlled their work.
In the Sheffield School, any student could do everything he wished to do in any direction, and the schools had stepped into the places of the old trade guilds. At all times, work done by hand was more beautiful than that done by machinery, though it was not easy to say why. He had one caution to offer, that was to go back to the finest and earliest examples when learning, and keep their fingers from the danger of over ornamentation.
“Art,” he added, “is older than science”, and archaeology proved that every nation at its zenith had a noble art, just as it also proved that in the season of its decadence the art of the nation was feeble.
Thus the Orient was losing its charm in art; India, once the home of beautiful textiles, was adopting European vulgarity in colour and shape; Japan, not long ago the most artistic country in the whole world since the days of Greece, was losing her art. The character of nations was being levelled down by the absence of discrimination between what was good and what false. Since England occupied Cairo the art of Cairo was disappearing, and was vulgarized – the art of a country which had been declared the most highly civilized in the world. England remained the emporium of lovely things, but had got out of the way of making them, and an abortion of taste had arisen.
“Not one school of art in the country.” That was true: the first was the school of the Royal Academy. The remark about Cairo (where I started this blog) seems rather unhistorical.
All this came at the end of an unattributed account, quoted on an obscure web page (nla), of the history of the School of Art (Arundel Street), and of the separate, though related, Technical School of Art (in St. George’s Square), one of the centres of applied art in the industrial north. Clausen’s remarks sound as if they were intended for both, though the passage says merely School of Art.
The account mentions “Sir” George Clausen in the opening lines, not quoted here, and must be based on a much earlier newspaper report. Apart from that I have pasted it in verbatim except for leaving out a subheading, The Charm of the Orient, before the last paragraph.
William Rothenstein published A Plea for a Wider Use of Artists & Craftsmen, A Lecture Delivered at the Invitation of the Chairman & Managers of the Technical School of Art at Sheffield, on the 8th November, 1916, Constable, presumably 1916 or ’17. Rothenstein, not mentioned in the passage which I have quoted, was then Professor of Civic Art at Sheffield University.