Indian and Persian textile design work has proved popular in Britain from the seventeenth century onwards. They were consistently used to such an extent that they could honestly be considered as an integral part of British decorative arts history. They were consumed as both costume and furnishing fabrics and were produced in prodigious amounts as printed and woven fabrics.
Although large amounts of textiles were imported directly from source in what is now Pakistan, India and Bangladesh, attempts were made in Britain by a number of companies to produce styled, though not necessarily copies, of textiles from the source nations and regions. Many of these if worked successfully, sometimes proved even as popular as the imported versions.
The example illustrating this article was produced by the English company Inglis & Wakefield in 1849. It is a block print supposedly based on an original Persian design, though could well have been constructed in England as a composite of various Indian and Persian examples. Interestingly it seems to be firmly based on a woven construct, even though it is most definitely printed. There were a number of critics of the period who were concerned that crossovers between woven and printed textiles did not always work as both disciplines arrived at textiles from very different start points. Henry Cole in his Journal of Design and Manufactures drew attention to the issue of printed and woven textiles. In an 1849 issue, the magazine openly questioned a group of Indian and Persian styled fabrics of which this particular Inglis & Wakefield design was a part.
'It is curious that these printed imitations of Persian or Indian patterns continue to have given to them the same regular treatment of lines necessary to the woven fabrics, for which they were first designed, where the form altars thread by thread, and it is worth while to consider whether this peculiarity conduces to their beauty or merely to their imitative association.'
Having said that, the magazine was also at pains to state that good design work could always be produced if certain elements were set in place. These design elements could give,
'...the same distributive treatment of the same rich full colours, added to the more flowing forms attainable by printing, would give much novelty, while the beauty resulting from the Indian principle of design would remain.'
The 'Indian principle of design' is an important point to be made when considering this particular design, but also that of the larger British textile design industry as a whole. Traditional Indian textile design work, whether printed, woven or embroidered, was considered to be consistently successful by many British design and decoration critics, particularly during this period of the mid-nineteenth century. It was often held up as a supreme example of the working virtues of the Design Reform movement. Many true examples of Indian work, rather than copies or re-imaginings, were praised in Britain as being probably the best contemporary examples of textile design then available. Compositional balance, harmony of colour, honesty to materials all were seen as essential to good design work. These were also seen to be core values of both the Design Reformers and later that of the English Arts & Crafts movement.
The issue of good design versus immediate novelty through fashion is a long argued one that derives directly from the mid-nineteenth century. This is an issue that still plagues us today over a century and a half later. If anything it is perhaps even more acute in our own contemporary world considering the accumulation of problems that we are having to at least address, if not solve. Many of these derive directly from the industrialization of craft in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, and the resulting industrialization of the retail market. More importantly, it also saw the industrialisation of the needs of the individual, creating an artificially constant consumer market that could never be satiated.
However, the fact that Indian textile pattern work was used directly, along with other more diverse and far ranging examples, both contemporary and traditional, is an important reminder of how intrinsically entwined Indian crafts, both decorative and ornamental, were in the more general world of the British decorative arts. It is also a reminder of the influence India had on the much more specific and pioneering worlds of the Design Reform and Arts & Crafts movements. Movements that were to fundamentally change many aspects of British design, decoration and craft, throughout much of the latter nineteenth century and well into the twentieth.