Born in Bath in 1808 Henry Cole was a designer, writer, noted inventor and civil servant who was responsible for a number of innovations in commerce and art design education. He was educated at Christ’s Hospital, London and at the age of 15 years worked at the Public Records Department as an assistant keeper and was responsible for a number of reforms improving the preservation arrangements for what at the time were ill-preserved materials housed in the British National Archives. He was also an assistant to Rowland Hill between 1837 and 1840 and played an important part in the introduction of the penny black postage service. He also wrote a number of children’s books as well as on some famous buildings in London under the pseudonym of Felix Summerly. Throughout his life he was very interested in design and established an art manufacturing company and was responsible for designing a number of artifacts including a tea service manufactured by Minton. He was also responsible in 1843 for producing the first commercial Christmas card designed by John Callcott Horsley.
His involvement in education arose from his membership of the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce [R]SA. Under the auspices of the [R]SA and the support of the Prince Consort he organised in 1847 an Exhibition of Art Manufactures which was subsequently staged and enhanced in the following two years. Following a visit to the 11th Quinquennial Paris Exhibition he highlighted the absence of international exhibitors. The Society was planning to stage exhibitions in 1850 and 1851 and he argued strongly for these to have an international dimension. As a result the Royal Commission for the 1851 Exhibition was established that led to the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations held in 1851. As the History of Technical Education identifies, a number of positive outcomes for the development of art, science and technical education in Britain arose from the 1851 Exhibition. Henry Cole played a significant part in its success and with the support of the Prince Consort and Lyon Playfair (see biography) used the surpluses from the Exhibition to purchase land in South Kensington that led to the development of a number of educational and cultural centres. Cole also developed a national system for art and design education. He was appointed the first General Superintendent of the Department of Practical Art established by the government to improve the development of industrial art and design. Many perceived Cole as an authoritarian person and argued that his appointments were often based on political and royal patronage. He was reputably a difficult man to get on with and had his favourites and surprisingly showed little interested in science. He did not particularly get on with Lyon Playfair when working together on the organisation of the Great Exhibition and on other occasions when they were required to work together (1). He was involved in the creation of the Victoria and Albert Museum which was formally called the Museum of Ornamental Art based in Marlborough House. Eventually the new museum was re located to South Kensington and called the South Kensington Museum which finally became the Victoria and Albert museum. Cole was also involved in the creation of the Royal College of Art which was a postgraduate design institution. the Royal College of Music and Imperial College.
He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS) and knighted in 1875. During his working life he received great encouragement and patronage from the Prince Consort.
(1) Foden. F. ‘The Examiner. James Booth and the origins on common examinations’. Leeds Studies in Adult and Continuing Education. 1989.
Cole Henry. Cole. ‘Fifty Years of public Work’. Bell. 1884.
Bonython. E. and Burton. A. ‘The Great Exhibitor: The Life and Work of Henry Cole’. V and A. London. 2003.
Obituary of Henry Cole. Times. 1882.