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Guest book review by LH Member Laurence Scales.

Arts and Minds, How the Royal Society of Arts Changed a Nation
by Anton Howes


coverHistories of institutions are usually either exercises in public relations ‘puffery’, or of interest only to their own coterie. Happily, here, we have a distinguished exception from Anton Howes, a young economic historian, formerly lecturing at King’s College London, with a particular interest in innovation – economic, institutional, social and technical. He has been attached to the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (known today as the RSA) for a couple of years as their Historian in Residence and has neither had the time to be institutionalised himself, nor the long term self interest to whitewash its history. He therefore charts both the ups and downs, the successes and failures, the bright ideas and foibles, and the occasional venality and intrigues of this grand old organisation off Strand.

I must declare an interest, but also a qualification for writing this review. When some manuscripts needed cataloguing Anton invited me to help (unpaid) as we have professional interests in common, and so I was inducted into the RSA’s archive and began weekly visits. (See my previous LH article on the subject.) This has helped me to understand the territory as the RSA is a very difficult institution to characterize compared with, say, the different and more famous scientific Royal Society, or the Worshipful Company of Wax Chandlers, which had a very specific purpose. Anyway, my views here are my own, and not those of the RSA!

If, after reading this, you are still confused by London’s abundance of Royal Societies you can read my Londonist guide here!

Behind our industry and even our landscape, and our social and economic systems the RSA has been something of a benign eminence grise for over 250 years. It was established in 1754, a product of coffee house and enlightenment culture, a mainland echo of the Dublin Society for Improving Husbandry, Manufactures and other Useful Arts. But, based in London, the crossroads of the world, it grew to be better known, more ambitious, and more significant. By 1801 even Napoleon felt that France needed something similar, a Société d’Encouragement pour l’Industrie Nationale. The Society of Arts, as it was then abbreviated, later returned the compliment by staging a great international exhibition in 1851 to surpass the French national expositions. It is high time that the RSA’s part in history, not just its own history, becomes known to a wider public. The RSA is almost invisible but it has long been a catalyst in the sense of promoting a reaction (social, economic, technological, institutional and artistic) without ever taking a permanent role in what it is changing. It remains to ferment enlightened change in other areas, both tangible and intangible, another day.

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The first medal awarded by the RSA.

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A meeting of the Society in 1804.

So, the first thing to say about the book is that it gives a hidden history behind Britain’s public history, whether it be planting great swathes of forest, founding the Royal Academy, curbing the exploitation of children to sweep chimneys, organizing the Great Exhibition of 1851, establishing school examinations, fostering modern environmentalism, or filling the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square. It answers some of those how and why questions about events where, previously, we may have just taken them for granted. It is therefore a book for everybody interested in British social and economic history including the Age of Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, and the storms and stresses of the twentieth century.

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The Great Exhibition, 1851.

But there is something very British about such an odd organisation, one that lacks both narrow membership criteria and a grand plan other than to suggest plans to others and maybe find some them initial support. It has periodically slumbered and then been roused to new efforts and a new direction by a newcomer. From its early days of awarding monetary prizes or medals for worthy inventions and initiatives such as tools for the one-handed or for slicing turnips, it is (among other things) the inspiration behind a group of academy schools in the midlands at the present day.

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Turnip Cutter

Of its unlikely movers and shakers the best known is probably the Victorian, Sir Henry Cole, railway journalist, but a force behind the Great Exhibition, South Kensington Museum, penny post and much else besides. We learn something of Cole’s motivation, and the special fanaticism he had for making the world more beautiful, which was an aspect of his story that certainly I had not heard before.

In this extraordinary organisation we discover a strange alternative to politics. If politics is about ordering the way we all live, we find here a parallel world in which strong personalities strive through research evidence, consensus and a certain amount of skillful intrigue to make a better life for us all – but without the conceit, unthinking reflexes, tribalism, and hunger for power of parliamentary politics. The RSA would claim not to be political. And yet it undoubtedly has had, and continues to have, an effect on the way we live.

The last and most important thing to say about the book is that it is simply a very good read. Anton avoids the trap of writing as if for a dissertation and laying on the jargon, and simply tells a rattling good story, full of eccentric characters and colourful detail.


Arts and Minds, How the Royal Society of Arts Changed a Nation Anton Howes is published by Princeton, available in Hardback and Kindle eds.

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