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Ruling the line: learning to draw in the first age of mechanical reproduction

Ruling the line: learning to draw in the first age of mechanical reproduction

Robertson, Frances

Submitted in part-fulfillment of the degree of Doctor of Philosophy at Glasgow School of Art

Manuscript. English.
Published Glasgow: Glasgow School of Art, 2011

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Statement of responsibility: Frances Robertson
Note: This dissertation presents a critical study of the development of technical drawing in Britain 1790-1850 in relation to wider visual culture. Technical drawing is often perceived as being an inexpressive, de-natured style and has been largely neglected within art history. Indeed, the images that make up the distinct genre of technical drawing and illustration were produced within distinctive organizational structures such as factory drawing offices and illustrated mass-market publications outside the framework of recognized fine art practices. Nevertheless, I argue that the development of technical drawing and illustration in this period has direct relevance to the discipline of art history, not least because of the rapid growth and spread of this style within wider visual culture. Using an interdisciplinary approach, I ask how the conditions of production of this style affected its later reception. Particular emphasis will be given to the materiality of production in relation to discursive practices in order to address these questions: -Why is technical drawing now seen as inexpressive and inartistic? -How was technical drawing made to seem authoritative with its viewers? The dissertation moves through three areas, subdivided into pairs of chapters. The first area covers questions that relate to current disciplinary boundaries, and their connections to the cultural politics of the period around 1800. The middle section is concerned with the symbolic and expressive aspects of technical drawing and its characteristic linear markings, and proposes that meaning and expression are read by the viewer as much through an awareness of the embodied practices and the materiality of surfaces and production methods used as much as in the depicted content of the image. The final most substantial section of the dissertation is concerned with the ways in which different groups within engineering hierarchies sought to use drawing skills both as a means of self-presentation and for professional formation in the period to 1850. The first section, consisting of Chapters 2 and 3, is concerned with art, industry and cultural politics up to and around 1800 in order to question the various narratives and assumptions that formed my starting point. Chapter 2, ‘Civil engineers and Royal Academicians’ examines how accounts of drawing in art and industry in this period have become separated. Chapter 3, ‘Provincials, pupils and print’, expands this framework. While Chapter 2 will question accounts of drawing practice for art and industry in relation to familiar and specific locations of cultural production this chapter by contrast addresses accounts of both production and reception of drawing practices within wider visual culture in the decades around 1800. It poses the question of where else, beyond the Royal Academy or in engineering practices, might one have learnt to draw in Great Britain, and to what end? Chapters 4 and 5, ‘Fabricating the line’ will ask what aesthetic and symbolic meanings can be taken from styles of mechanical drawing adopted in the first half of the nineteenth century. The argument uses, but also criticises, art historical methods of interpretation based on techniques of visual descriptive analysis and stylistic comparison. Chapter 4, ‘Purity, progress and labour’ examines the meanings that can be attributed to the use of fine uniform ruled lines, and compositional formats of technical drawings on the page, while Chapter 5, ‘Multiplying marks’, examines technical illustrations in print, in order to argue that in the period 1800-c.1830 technical drawing and technical illustration developed in tandem to create a visual style that displayed the industrial system to viewers outside the factory. In my two final chapters 6 and 7 I build on contextual supporting arguments in order to investigate in more detail the social relationships around technical drawing, in the workplace and in professional formation in competition with other occupational groups. I examine questions of professional formation and occupational fragmentation both in relation to elite engineers in Chapter 7 (‘Professional engineers in the world of industrial readers’) and in relation to technical draughtsmen in Chapter 6 (‘Social networks: Artisans, draughtsmen and working relationships’). Draughtsmen comprise a social group that is poorly documented and barely researched in the Britain of this period, in contrast to the scholarship and evidence that relates to the situation in our near industrial neighbour, France. Chapter 6 considers draughtsmen as industrial workers. My findings allow me to argue that the relative invisibility of draughtsmen was not so much the result of their non-elite status, but rather because their status was disputed and problematic. In the first half of the nineteenth century, draughtsmen were squeezed in conflicts about control and autonomy in the workplace, in public anxieties about worker education, and in cultural conflicts about the alleged deficiencies of taste in design for the products of British manufacture. Chapter 7 complements the discussion of professional fragmentation in engineering in Chapter 6 by discussing the visual practices of elite engineers in the first half of the nineteenth century in relation to professional formation, self-presentation, and authorship, and explores aspects of the tensions involved in engineers’ attempts to gain status by making a claim to special expertise and at the same time of popularising their knowledge and achievements in a milieu of competition with other elite professional groups within a culture of display. My research demonstrates that in the period to 1850 in Britain, engineers and technical draughtsmen absorbed, selected, and appropriated expressive practices and discourses from fine art in their work and in their self-fashioning as technical artists, and on that basis they developed new and distinctive conventions of composition, mark making and presentation. In training themselves, technical draughtsmen and engineers developed their visual styles through copying from a wide range of examples and conventions. Draughtsmen could thus reflect on their own selections, and create pictures that reflected their own making. I show that the methods of art history are necessary and relevant in informing the analysis of a topic that is usually confined to histories of technology or science, but these must be integrated with methods and ideas from the history and science and technology. Moving inside the artworld of technical drawing gives a textured account of the ways in which groups of practitioners sought to gain authority by visual means, either with their immediate peers and rivals, or with more general viewers, thus breaking down topic of ‘technical drawing’ into a much more differentiated field of human activity where visual descriptive analysis begins to have a purchase on issues of the social history of ‘arts and manufactures’ in Britain in the period to 1850. Approaches from the history of technology and science inform my examination of the social and technical negotiations for status in visual production; in addition, two particular topics from the history of science have developed this dissertation towards future research questions I will follow as an art historian interested in visual communications: first, questions about how truth claims have been established and contested through demonstration, and second, in relation to ‘print culture’ how areas of specialist expertise are constructed and presented to general readers.
Dissertation note: PhD Glasgow School of Art 2011
Physical Description: 1 v.
Cited: EThOS, 637693