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Arts and Minds: How the Royal Society of Arts Changed a Nation

Author(s):Howes, Anton
Reviewer(s):Bud, Robert

Published by EH.Net (July 2022).

Anton Howes. Arts and Minds: How the Royal Society of Arts Changed a Nation. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2021. 387 pp. £28.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-691-18264-3.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Robert Bud, Emeritus Keeper, Science Museum in London.


This ambitious volume is both an institutional history and an account of how three industrial revolutions over two centuries have looked from the position of an idiosyncratic but long-lived and occasionally influential London body. The Royal Society of Arts (RSA) was founded as the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce in London in 1754. The subtitle of this book is “How the Royal Society of Arts Changed a Nation.” It might more appropriately, if less poetically, have been “How the Royal Society of Arts Grappled with Expectations That It Would Change a Nation.” For Arts and Minds is distinctive in its treatment of unsuccessful as well as successful endeavours, and the tensions between the industrial environment and the ambitions of members, entrepreneurs, and enthusiasts — among them the Society’s leadership. Dedicated to extracting the benefits of “progress” for the nation, the RSA has found modernity to be both a constant aspiration and a worrying threat.

The RSA was founded in 1754, on the verge of the first “industrial revolution,” famously centred in the North of England and led by former tradesmen, many of them untutored. Meanwhile, the Society established far away in London was dominated by aristocrats. The first half of Arts and Minds is devoted to their unfamiliar and uneasy view of this turbulent era. The Society’s grandees supported diverse institutional innovations motivated by mercantilist or cameralist visions of the roots of prosperity including the Board of Agriculture and the Royal Institution. Whereas war with France on the one and industrial success in the mass production of cheap textiles and iron typically dominate the histories of late eighteenth-century Britain, this book focuses on the mercantilist competition with the old rival and the search for innovations in luxury items that would minimise the need for imports. For the RSA, the challenge was France’s superiority in the production of fine consumer goods such as lace. Through a focus on institutional history, this book thus develops the historiography of a side of British history all too rarely explored and much needed.

The Society is well known for its encouragement of innovation through prizes and premia at a time when the patent system was living through its dysfunctional infancy. By the 1840s, this policy was seen as a failure and instead the integration of invention (whether patented or not) with art, design and science is increasingly favoured by the society’s leadership. Competition with France is the background too to the treatment of social change and societal renewal in the 1840s and 1850s across three chapters. Howes’ treatment of the rebuilding of the society around a new membership and elite leading to a focus on exhibitions and the role of the society as a vehicle for a completely new group of institutional entrepreneurs such as Henry Cole is at the centre of the book. The careful integration of its treatment of competition with the French, the development of the Society’s own exhibitions, the Great Exhibition and a new leadership is perhaps the highlight of the volume. The chapter on examinations focuses on the important innovations of the 1850s.

The book deals with the era of the industrial revolution of the later nineteenth century and early twentieth century with much less detail than the earlier period. A long-standing but oft-challenged “declinist” tradition suggests that Britain “fell behind” such other countries as Germany, France, and the United States at this time. Britain, her educational system, and much of industry were, however, transformed in an era of newly introduced technologies. Arts and Minds treats the introduction of “technological” examinations in the 1870s in just a few lines and gives little emphasis to the fact that the man encouraging the Society, John Donnelly, was himself responsible for the government’s Department of Science and Art examinations. Like Cole, Donnelly was using the Society to do things that his civil service role would not permit and lay outside the role of the Victorian public sector. The poster-boys of the Second Industrial Revolution, shaping our world for a century from 1870, “electricity”, “telephones”, and “chemicals” have not merited entries in the index. However, the author does point out that the Society was an early British venue for the demonstration of Bell’s telephone, the first British venue for the exhibition of an Edison light bulb, and after the First World War a public message was sent by teleprinter from Paris to the Society’s Great Hall. It is perhaps a shame the meaning of such demonstrations to an elite public has been left for others to explore. The lecture series the RSA sponsored such as the Cantor Lectures (only mentioned by name in a footnote) provided a serious context for the discussion of contemporary industrial issues. The dimension of the late nineteenth and early twentieth-century national change the book does explore in depth is engagement with design and the past. The chapter entitled “A Society against Ugliness” covers a vast territory and sets the RSA’s contribution within the context not just of such prophets as Morris and Ruskin but also within the context of a swiftly thickening network of heritage organisations such as the National Trust.

Above all the treatment of the early twentieth century is taken as an opportunity to deal with the RSA’s own development, whose treatment suggests the neologism “snobbification.” As the “England” brand moved from association with brash materialism, obsession with commerce, and vulgarity to imagery replete with tradition, horse-guards, and etiquette, so the Society revelled in its new-found “Royal” moniker awarded in 1908. Members came to be known as “Fellows” as if this was a learned society.

This emphasis on status is a very nice counterpoint to the treatment of the subsequent rise of a managerial membership. Attention to the shift towards a base in the civil service and large corporations provides a way of moving the narrative to the post-World War II era characterised by talk of a yet further “industrial revolution.” This brings in the role too of a new modernising Prince Consort, Prince Philip. The tensions between elite leadership and the wider society with little interest in being led are explored through the detailed tracking of the failure to initiate a national “Industry Year” in 1986. Although the context of the rapid decline in employment in manufacturing industry over the last decades of the twentieth century is neglected, the book’s highlighting of such moves and, indeed, of Prince Philip’s and the Society’s encouragement of environmental protection is worthwhile.

The last section of the book deals with the rise of the role of the Society’s own Secretary, whose title evolved into that of Director in the late twentieth century. Arts and Minds shows how this was associated with a new radicalism. It takes the example of the “Education for Capability” movement. Certainly, this had its institutional roots in the RSA, but it was rather wider and because this book looks principally at the RSA dimension, much else is missed. The important role of Sir Toby Weaver (1911-2001) is overlooked. (See Burgess 2001). So, typically for this volume, fascinating stories and important developments are brought to the reader’s attention but require further exploration.

Writing a history of the Royal Society of Arts is akin to clearing a weed-ridden garden. The archives themselves are rich, and the history was certainly overrun by more than two and a half centuries of diverse growths. Great efforts are required to see the greatly significant patterns which undoubtedly lurk amidst the diverse undergrowth, and many will be missed. If some progress can be made and the garden is left more beautiful and meaningful than it was found, then good will have been done. Arts and Minds builds on the efforts of previous historian-gardeners to bring order. The earlier official histories of 1913, 1954, and 1998; several doctoral studies; and the work of the William Shipley Group have done much detailed work on the Society’s history, particularly in its early years. (See, for example, Bryden 2019). This book points the way to further integrating the RSA’s experience within the broader economic and social history of several successive eras up to the twenty-first century.


Bryden, David. “Innovation in the Design of Scientific Instruments in the Georgian Era: The Role of the Society of Arts.” WSG Research Paper No. 3. 2019. Internet:

Burgess, Tyrrell. “Sir Toby Weaver” The Guardian. 13 June 2001.


Dr Robert Bud is an Emeritus Keeper at the Science Museum in London and holds honorary positions at the Department of HPS at Cambridge and STS at University College London. He has worked extensively on the history of applied science, including the book Being Modern: The Cultural Impact of Science in the Early Twentieth Century, ed. with Paul Greenhalgh, Frank James, and Morag Shiach (London: UCL Press, 2018).

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Subject(s):Business History
History of Technology, including Technological Change
Industry: Manufacturing and Construction
Markets and Institutions
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):18th Century
19th Century
20th Century: Pre WWII
20th Century: WWII and post-WWII