International Journal of Art & Design Education

The Political Economic Necessity of the Art School 1835–52

Volume 30.1   2011



This article examines the political economic theories that informed the development of the first publicly funded art school in Britain, by the Select Committee on Arts and Manufactures of 1835/6. It begins by assessing these origins in the context of some recent experiments in art school pedagogy. It then responds to the challenge offered by Mervyn Romans in iJADE, Vol. 23, No. 3 (2004) to the argument that economic necessity was the motive for the establishment of publicly funded art education in Britain. I argue that in this instance, economic necessity should be defined according to the terms of political economic theories that offered ‘scientific’ reasons for the economic benefits of political change. I analyse this political economic discourse with reference to the examination of Martin Archer Shee, then President of the Royal Academy of Arts, at the Select Committee on Arts and Manufactures in 1836. I conclude by suggesting that the establishment of the first publicly funded art school in Britain in 1837, as it was distinguished from the Royal Academy of Arts, can be understood as part of a political economic experiment that was realised only when Henry Cole took charge of the School of Design as ‘The Department of Practical Art’ in 1852. This experiment depended on risking the models of professionalism in art that existed at that time, in order to advance new combinations of politics, economics and public pedagogy under capital, in ways that are no longer readily recognisable.