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While there is little direct information regarding the specific designers used by the Vale of Leven firms, it is possible to understand how the practice of textile designing developed in Scotland, where these designers trained and where their design inspiration might have come from.

Designers for the British textile industry in all its different areas, including printing, weaving and sewing, were of two distinct types. There were those who worked independently, had artistic credentials and status, and designed for a range of industries as well as being engaged more broadly in the fine arts. This ‘freelance’ group, which included many foreigners, particularly French, was relatively small, whereas the second type of designer comprised the much larger group of mainly locally born, full-time employees and apprentices who worked exclusively for one firm. Almost no direct information survives for the names of the designers who worked for the three Vale of Leven companies whose pattern books form the National Museums Scotland collection. Where information does exist, it is simply the fleeting inclusion of a name – such as that of ‘James Lindsay’ who signed one design in an undated pattern book now owned by West Dunbartonshire Council. 

Textile design in Scotland

Some Turkey red pattern designers worked in Glasgow from drawing offices alongside the salesrooms and warehouses, but pattern designers and trainees were also based in the Vale of Leven at the print works. Progress from the Vale to Glasgow probably represented a career advance for talented individuals and Turkey red manufacturers who advertised for designers, sometimes seeking staff from as far afield as Manchester, often specified the attractions of a Glasgow-based job. But many designs for this and other cotton printing sectors were purchased from specialist textile design studios in Paris and at least one of the Dunbartonshire-born and trained pattern designers, who later became a noted landscape artist, James Docharty (1829-1878), worked in Paris as a pattern designer in the early 1860s before returning to Glasgow to set up as a freelance designer.

Design training was mostly through apprenticeships, though a small design school had been founded in Edinburgh with financial support from the Board of Trustees for Manufacturers and Fisheries in the mid-eighteenth century to supply designers for industry, particularly linen, and the mid-nineteenth century saw the founding of several new design schools in major industrial centres such as Glasgow and Paisley as part of a national movement for improvements in British design.

The Glasgow School of Design was established in 1845 with premises in Ingram Street. The start-up costs came from the government, but there was also an expectation that local manufacturers would contribute donations and pay for their apprentices to attend. According to a Glasgow Herald report in 1853, there were 785 male students, mostly undertaking early morning or evening classes in conjunction with employment, with most of them aged fifteen to twenty years old. Young women mainly attended the more expensive day classes full-time. The textile industry was well represented, with six calico printing engravers, twenty-four pattern designers, fifty-three pattern designer apprentices and thirteen pattern makers among the part-time male students.

John Buchanan (1819-1898) pattern designer, botanist and botanical artist was probably one of the early design school students. Buchanan was a native of Levenside in Dunbartonshire where his father was a tenant farmer. He was educated at the local parish school and mechanics institute, and apprenticed as a pattern designer in the Vale of Leven in his early teens before moving to Glasgow to become foreman of the drawing shop of Turkey red manufacturer Henry Monteith and Co. at Barrowfield, which was particularly well-known for its floral designs. He developed his interest in botany, which he first studied in Dunbartonshire where there was a flourishing natural history society and later developed with botanical drawing classes in Glasgow. After he emigrated to New Zealand in the early 1850s, a route taken by many ambitious young men, he made a living and reputation as a botanist and botanical artist. 

Despite design training, however, which was supplemented for many young men like John Buchanan by private study in local public libraries and museums, evidence of the design process contained within the National Museums Scotland Turkey Red Collection suggests an industry that largely relied on in-house copying and adaptation of traditional designs from the foreign markets on which the industry largely relied, along with a high level of design theft from rivals at home and abroad. Contemporary observers were critical of British textile design and by the late 1860s, as was highlighted at the Paris International Exhibition of 1867 where British printed cottons made a poor show when compared with French and Swiss production, the failure to progress British design was largely blamed on textile entrepreneurs who were mostly unwilling to give financial support to design education at home.

Yet the National Museums Scotland Turkey red pattern books do include a few beautifully detailed designs drawn on paper that can only have come from highly skilled artists, though whether these were British (in-house employees or freelancers) or French is unknown. And some of the commemorative handkerchief designs were original and well designed, though others relied on copying from popular magazine images. One Vale of Leven company, that owned by John Orr Ewing, was particularly noted for good design in the 1850s and ‘60s, and its fabrics appeared more frequently than those of any other firm in the pages of William Stirling and Sons ‘Bombay Pattern Book’, with instructions from the Bombay agents to make copies for sale in India.

  • Parrots and peacocks

    Parrots and peacocks
  • Tracing and painting of parrots and peacocks

    Tracing and painting of parrots and peacocks
  • Collage of women and fairies

    Collage of women and fairies
  • Man riding elephant, horsemen

    Man riding elephant, horsemen
  • Painted design of Chinese man having tea

    Painted design of Chinese man having tea
  • Woman with sheath of corn

    Woman with sheath of corn


Next: Copyright and copying >

Text © Stana Nenadic and Sally Tuckett, ‘Colouring the Nation: Design, copyright and exhibition.’

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