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A story of politics and class in a new biography of Henry Cole

An exhaustive treatment of the man behind the Great Exhibition, the Victoria and Albert Museum, Prince Albert and much, much more

To employ the cliché “long-awaited” about a book is to invite the riposte “by whom?”. In the case of this biography the reply would be “by me, anyway”, but there is ample evidence that plenty more people are eager to know more about the man who is often cited as Prince Albert’s main confederate in achieving the 1851 Great Exhibition in London—the first truly international exhibition and progenitor of many more throughout the world, most of which up to his retirement Cole was involved with—and as effective founder of the South Kensington Museum (renamed the Victoria & Albert Museum in 1899 by Queen Victoria).

Henry Cole is no Paxton or Brunel, he lacks the cutting edge of creativity which made them heroes of their age, but he was supremely a doer. He was forever trying to bring improvement and reform to the inert institutions of his age, and much of the time he succeeded.

His curriculum vitae includes reform of the Public Record Office and the postal system, the invention of the Christmas card, revision of patent law, revitalisation of the Society of Arts and the reform of art and design education. He was a colourful “monster”, but with quite formidable achievements to his name.

Cole comes from that possibly extinct breed of larger-than-life Victorians who never stopped striving to achieve their ends from their first waking moments until late at night. The evidence for their tireless efforts is there in the great number of them who suffered the ill-effects of overwork—often fatal—from which Cole also was sometimes to drag himself back from the brink of breakdown.

A taste of his energetic life and character in the form of a slim paperback volume, King Cole, by one of the present authors, Elizabeth Bonython, appeared in 1982, and a vivid character sketch of this “exceptionally dynamic civil servant” is included in Vision & accident: the story of the Victoria & Albert Museum, by the other, Anthony Burton, published in 1999. From these it is certainly possible to glean some idea of his dedicated life and multiplicity of interests, but nothing short of a full biography prepares one for the full flavour of the man, for the avalanche of day-to-day tasks tackled and difficulties overcome.

For those who expect Cole’s life to consist principally of the story of the Great Exhibition and the successful establishment of the first decorative arts museum, the years before 1850 will be a revelation.

He was born in 1808 in modest circumstances and acquired his formal education by winning a scholarship to Christ’s Hospital. He left at the age of 14, having, he claimed “learnt worse than nothing” there; his true education was to come through his own efforts from the circle of politically-aware contemporaries whom who he encountered because of the happy circumstance of his parents having rented lodgings in the house of Thomas Love Peacock. The historical background to Cole’s development is drawn with the authority and assurance of authors who know the Victorian scene intimately. His eagerness in soaking up the ideas of John Stuart Mill, Sir William Molesworth and Charles Buller is one of the most touching phases in Cole’s life, which is not always a sympathetic story, owing to Cole’s impatient and sometimes abrasive manner. However, even at this very early period, he was beginning to recruit the circle of friends who would assist at his steady rise through the arcane hierarchies of the civil service, with their many stumbling blocks for entrants from outside the establishment.

There must have been a core of genuine likeability in Cole, and he was able to receive, without apparent resentment, the criticisms of friends. Herbert Minton, the famous potter and a long-time crony of Cole’s, wrote to him; “You may be very useful if you will only be more mild & gentle than you usually are—not so obstinate & dictatorial—and believe that you may sometimes be wrong & others right. I hope this plain speaking may not prove unpalatable.” Cole might have retorted by pointing out some of his achievements. Queen Victoria herself remarked on Cole’s “rough, offhand manner” but seems not to have taken exception to it.

This is Cole’s own story, extracted from 57 volumes of diaries (laconic to a fault) and from the mass of reports that record his official activities. The arrival of Cole was like a sponge on a slate; all traces of the many colleagues, and even superiors, whom he joined or succeeded have all but vanished from the story, as it is now commonly presented, of first the Great Exhibition and then the Schools of Design and the South Kensington Museum. It is fascinating to watch these authors disinter the true situation in regard, for example, to the 1851 exhibition. The unremitting attempts on the part of the Commissioners to put Cole back in his box, and his Houdini-like escapes, to become the man who is remembered best after Prince Albert as its progenitor, make for unsettling reading. Cole’s story is one of politics and class, overwhelmingly class. He had won and kept the confidence of Lord Granville, but only a thick skin and strength of purpose acquired in the early days of struggle at the Record Office sustained him against such opposition. He was prone to underrate his colleagues and his assessment of both Sir Lyon Playfair (whose responsibilities were seen as sitting rather lightly on him) and Francis Fowke (whom Cole recorded with bafflement as “much fatigued”) should not be taken at face-value. Cole was a great one for tendering his resignation, always a high-risk strategy, but managed to keep his place largely through the intervention of these same people, who saw through the rough exterior.

An attractive thread running through the whole narrative shows Cole as the loving family man; one’s sympathies are truly engaged with this short, bespectacled, untidy figure. It is another great bonus that this biography is so well written, but the reader should be warned, the small print and densely-packed pages make this a 500-page book masquerading as a 300-page one.

o Elizabeth Bonython and Anthony Burton, The great exhibitor: the life and work of Henry Cole (V&A Publications, London, 2003), 336 pp, 48 b/w ills, £35 (hb) ISBN 1851773266