Merry old soul of Victorian cultural reform

16th May 2003 at 01:00
The Great Exhibitor: the life and work of Henry Cole. By Elizabeth Bonython and Anthony Burton. Vamp;A Publications. pound;35.

Henry Cole, who died in 1882 after, as the title of his autobiography asserts, Fifty Years of Public Service, was one of those extraordinary 19th-century colossi who took carefree, crime-ridden, roaring Regency England by the scruff of its recalcitrant neck and forced it through the wringer of self-examining, self-improving, do-gooding Victorian values.

Chief architect of the Great Exhibition of 1851, Cole parlayed his authority from that huge success to bring into being the great museums in Kensington, Imperial College, the Albert Hall, the Royal College of Music and the Albert Memorial as well as involving himself in a national school of cookery, army reform, London cabs, music teaching and publishing. For 20 years he ran the Department of Science and Art. Yet he left school early, with few skills.

How did he do it? As this fascinating, incident-packed biography reveals, his success was a mixture of vision and will - with a dash of luck. He had, said one friend, "the heart of a boy with the mind of a man in the vigour of life".

Tellingly, Cole remembered crying for the moon at the age of two. His parents promised it to him, but he was not pacified.

His vision lives on in the institutions he created, all of which aimed to enhance society. For Cole was a radical. His stroke of luck was to meet John Stuart Mill and the "philosophic radicals" in his first job at the Public Records Office. This fired him with the conviction that public life could and should be made better. He was the man to do it: so he did.

Victoria Neumark

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