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Josephine Tierney

Global Design Networks:

The Export of British Printed Textiles to West Africa, 1850-1914

Research Overview

My thesis explores the design of British printed textiles for export to West Africa and how manufacturers catered for African consumers during the British Empire. This research asks how British manufacturers of printed textiles catered for global consumers and how they were informed of their consumers’ tastes and needs. It aims to unpack the relationship between the British manufacturer and the African consumer, examining the extent to which African consumers could exercise agency through consumption, problematising traditional colonial power structures. While for many during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Africa represented a land of ‘savages’ devoid of culture, for manufacturers it presented new markets and opportunities. My research explores if manufacturers were aware of the difference between public perceptions of Africa and the ‘reality’ and how they attempted to gather more accurate information on the diverse tastes of their African consumers.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, export accounted for three quarters of the total production of printed textiles in Britain, with a number of manufacturers producing specifically for African markets.[1] However little is understood of how manufacturers catered for their overseas consumers. It remains unclear the extent to which British manufacturers adapted existing or created new designs for foreign markets, or if the growth in printed textile exports from Britain is representative of the hegemony of Western design, a general convergence of taste or a sign of Europe’s political power globally. Set within the context of a period of international exhibitions, human zoos and numerous travelogues of Africa, case studies of firms, such as Charles Beving & Co., indicate a divergence in how the cultural elites (and the public) and manufacturers perceived ‘Africa’, suggesting a need to re-evaluate historical understandings of agency and power structures during Empire. Through the lens of design communication, it is possible to discover more of the official and unofficial points of contact between British manufacturers and African consumers, and how these may potentially challenge traditional structures of power during the British Empire of the nineteenth century. This thesis moves away from predominantly Eurocentric readings of design in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, attempting to uncover new narratives and give agency to the colonised.

Using frameworks and methodologies from the discipline of Design History, this research is led primarily by the objects themselves, in this case the textile designs. The Board of Trade copyright registers at the National Archives and sample books from textile printing firms in the North West of England, who specialised in goods for West Africa, will be the focus of this object-led study. A close analysis of these textile designs indicates the extent to which a divergence in taste was taking place during this period and the extent to which manufacturers adapted existing designs or produced new designs for export. Designs manufactured for export will be compared with British textiles intended for domestic consumption and textiles produced and consumed in Africa, including imports from Indonesia. Other primary sources such as business records will complement this evidence. While drawing largely on methodologies developed in the field of design history this research maintains a strong interdisciplinary aspect, engaging with anthropology, ethnography, textile history and global history.

[1] Hurst, John G., Edmund Potter and Dinting Vale, (Manchester: Edmund Potter & Co. Ltd., 1948), p.24.

Pattern Samples for export to West Africa, manufactured by Logan Muckelt, c.1905

Academic CV
PhD History, Univeristy of Warwick, 2015-expected summer 2019

Global Design Networks: The Export of British Printed Textiles to West Africa 1850-1914

Supervised by Giorgio Riello and David Anderson

Funded by a departmental scholarship

MA History of Design, Royal College of Art & Victoria and Albert Museum, 2012-2014

Dissertation Title: Designing Taste: A re-examination of British Printed Textiles 1830-1899

Supervised by Spike Sweeting and Livia Rezende

Awarded Distinction and Best History of Design Dissertation, 2014

BA History & French, University of Warwick, 2008-2012

Dissertation Title: A Matter of Taste: Challenging the North-South Divide. A Re-evaluation of the Issue of Design Quality in Relation to Textile Printing in the North-West of England during the Late Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Centuries

Supervised by Maxine Berg

Awarded a 2:1 and the Felix Dennis History Dissertation Prize - Second Place, 2012

Scholarships and Awards

The University of Warwick, Departmental Doctoral Scholarship, 2015-2018

The Royal College of Art/V&A Museum, Best Dissertation in History of Design, 2014

The Univeristy of Warwick, Felix Dennis History Dissertation Prize - Second Place, 2012

Conference Papers

Panel Chair (with Holly Winter), 'Responsability', Curating History, EUI, Florence, 11th October 2017.

'Design Specialisation and the British Textile Trade with West Africa 1850-1914', Core, Periphery, and the Forging of an International Economy, 1880-1939, London School of Economics, 2nd June 2017.

“Manchester Goods”: African Consumers and the British Textile Trade with West Africa 1850-1914', Economic History Society Annual Conference, Royal Holloway, University of London, 31st March 2017.

Panel Chair, 'The Colonial and Pre-Colonial', Researching East Africa, University of Warwick, 13th May 2016.

'Finding the ‘hidden consumer’ through photography: a study of printed textiles in nineteenth-century photography.', Textual Fashion Conference, Univeristy of Brighton, 9th July 2015.

Peer-Reviewed Publications

'Design Quality, Mechanization and Taste in the British Textile Printing Industry, 1839-1899', Journal of Design History 30/3 (2017), pp.249-264


Seminar Tutor, on core history undergraduate module 'Making of the Modern World', October 2016-June 2018.

Seminar Tutor, on optional history undergraduate module 'Empire and Aftermath', October 2018-June 2019.

Josephine Tierney

PhD Candidate

j dot tierney at warwick dot ac dot uk