Industrious and Imitative Art: Manufacturing Artistic Expertise in Nineteenth-Century Britain

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In the middle of the nineteenth century, a new material from the British Straits Settlements fascinated botanists, industrialists, journalists and consumers with its almost endless possibilities. For its champions, the gutta percha tree was more than a just a rubber plant. Transported from the colonies to London, gutta percha could be shaped into any form and used to imitate a variety of expensive materials. This article argues that those advancing gutta percha's applications for decorative and ornamental objects offered a sanitized version of industrial production to the public by portraying artistic skill as central to the transformation of the material from its origins as a colonial raw material. The material's applications allowed British manufacturers to demonstrate their role in synthetizing scientific knowledge, industrial production and artistic skill. A catalogue of ornamental goods and depictions of the Gutta Percha Factory in London emphasized the skills of workers who crafted artistic objects through industrial processes. Critics decried the influence of industrial manufacturing on workers and industrial production's detrimental effect on the arts, but others argued that these gutta percha objects highlighted the artistry and ingenuity of factory workers. More significant was the idea that these factory workers with modern industrial techniques supplanted old modes of craft and contributed to a necessary updating of artistic production.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)21-36
Number of pages16
JournalJournal of Design History
Issue number1
StatePublished - Mar 19 2021


  • decorative arts reforms
  • Great Britain
  • gutta percha
  • nineteenth century
  • ornament
  • production

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Visual Arts and Performing Arts


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