CEO letter | The Museum of the Manufactures

When she was small, my daughter’s favourite thing was to be taken to the V&A on Saturday afternoons. Her itinerary never changed: straight to the British galleries to spend the next hour or so in the 18th century, dropping curtsies and fluttering fans in Robert Adam surroundings, hunting for mythical beasts hidden on chimneypieces or for lion paws on chairs and staring in wonder at Wedgwood things in their cases – amphora vases, painted plates, jasperware buttons and buckles, a black tea cup and saucer.

Who knows why those display cases of china were so mesmerising; whether it was the novelty of seeing the familiar transformed into the exceptional, or the narrative pull of what was painted on them, some invisible magic drew her back again and again. It is what three million visitors a year instinctively understand; the V&A’s appeal lies in what its new director, Tristram Hunt, calls the “haptic power” of “the sublime and the beautiful”, accessible to all.

I found myself back at the V&A last Friday evening, a palate cleanser between work and weekend. As I stood in front of Alexander McQueen’s raffia dress I was struck, not for the first time, by how many examples of British luxury design and manufacturing have found their way into the museum – paradigms of exceptional craftsmanship and creativity. Under the same roof as the Wedgwood pieces that captivated my daughter is Boodle’s Raindance ring, Georgian silver salt cellars from Garrard, a loving cup from Caverswall China, commemorative medals and gold sovereigns from the Royal Mint and Asprey’s swan centrepiece, which, according to the V&A ‘perfectly demonstrates the continued skill of London goldsmiths in the late twentieth century’. Many alumni of Walpole’s Crafted programme feature in the furniture collection or in ceramics. Elsewhere, you can find Cole & Son’s wallpapers, even Jo Malone’s distinctive packaging, and posters advertising the charms of member brands from Selfridges to The Savoy. In textiles, there are no fewer than 50 separate items from Burberry, distinctive pieces from Mulberry, Jimmy Choo, Church’s and DAKS – including Noël Coward’s own dinner jacket – dashing military tailoring from Gieves & Hawkes, and dazzling Alexander McQueen, whose Savage Beauty exhibition sold nearly half a million tickets, the most successful in the V&A’s history. Of the manufacturing brands in the Walpole membership, nearly half are represented somewhere in the museum’s collection.

That so many examples of British luxury are on display is a timely reminder that the true value of what’s produced by British luxury is infinitely more than its £32.2 billion. Any wander through the V&A’s galleries shows that, far from being the preserve of the privileged few, what’s produced by the sector creates a conversation for the many about the very nature of British creativity and craftsmanship.

These museum-quality objects have earned their place on public display by living up to the founding principles of The Museum of Manufactures, as the Victoria and Albert Museum was first known when it opened in 1852: to educate and inspire manufacturers, designers and consumers alike by displaying exceptional examples not just of art and craft but of industrial design too and by doing so, foster demand for “improvements in the character of our national manufactures”, as founding director, Henry Cole, had it.

The first few months of Tristram Hunt’s tenure as the current V&A Director suggest he treads very much in Henry Cole’s footsteps: as Jonathan Jones wrote in The Guardian at the time of his appointment, what Hunt brings to the job is “a passion, informed by his academic researches [Hunt has a PhD from Cambridge on civic thought in Britain 1820-1860], for the Victorian ideal of bringing the best of aesthetic civilisation to the widest possible public”. He wants to “take the ideals and purposefulness of that century and recreate them. After Brexit, everyone feels rather forlorn and Britain could slide backwards. We need to be more like the Victorians. We absolutely have to make sure we go forward, not as another empire, but as a success to be admired around the world” [Times Saturday Magazine, 24th June 2017]

How can British luxury ‘be more like the Victorians’? What lessons can we take from the visionaries, the thinkers and leaders of that extraordinary age to help guide us as we create a vision for the future? The lesson of the V&A is that the craft and creativity that thrives and flourishes in our sector produces examples of extraordinary beauty, available to all, and which fulfil Prince Albert’s dream of a British industry that competes in an international marketplace. Yet, whilst the products of the luxury industry have earned their place in the Museum of Manufactures, we must not let our manufacturing prowess become merely a museum attraction: making, craftsmanship and manufacturing excellence must continue to be central to our view of ourselves as we remember that we – like Tristram Hunt says of the V&A – are “curators of the future”.

All of this brings me neatly onto announce – with enormous pleasure – that Tristram Hunt is Walpole’s guest speaker at our Culture, Craftsmanship & Curiosity dinner at Design Centre, Chelsea Harbour on 3rd October. Design Centre, Chelsea Harbour, like the V&A, is home to some of Walpole’s most creative and design-led brands – including Mulberry, Savoir Beds and Cole & Son – and we look forward to a thought provoking and agenda setting conversation around creativity craftsmanship and manufacturing in an environment where many renowned design businesses thrive.

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