British architect and designer Robert Yorke Goodden (1909-2002). From 1948 to 1974, he was a professor of silversmithing and jewellery at the Royal College of Art, where he helped to establish a new metals design tradition. Modern British silver has a variety and confidence not seen in Britain since the 18th century, thanks in large part to Goodden’s benign influence.
He studied architecture at the Architectural Association in London from 1926 to 1931.
He was in private practice since 1932. Wallpapers, domestic machine-pressed glassware for Chance Bros., 1953 coronation hangings for Westminster Abbey, gold and silverwares, ceremonial metalwork, glassware for King’s College, Cambridge, 1961 metal-foil murals for the oceanliner Canberra, engraved and sandblasted glass murals for Pilkington. The design of the Western and oriental sculpture (with R.D. Russell) were among his diverse output.
He made his debut as a silversmith when he won a competition to create a trophy for the Architects’ Golf Society near the end of his schooling at the Architectural Association. He taught jewellery, silversmithing, and industrial glass at the Royal College of Art in London from 1948 to 1971.
Designed Camouflage during WW2
Goodden, like many of his later RCA colleagues, such as Robin Darwin and Hugh Casson, had worked on camouflage during the war. His expertise was in the concealment of Royal Navy ships and vessels at sea. He was convinced that blue was the most proper camouflage for dealing with the Navy’s wide range of lighting situations and urged the Admiralty to designate ships to be painted in the strongest, purest blue available as an experiment. Most of the vessels were small, but he was surprised to be presented with the massive heavy cruiser HMS Berwick, a sister ship of HMS Belfast.
Utility Furniture with Gordon Russell
Goodden was a driving force behind the postwar “people’s homes” movement. He was a member of Gordon Russell’s Utility Furniture Committee for a short time before joining Gordon’s brother, RD Russell, in an architectural practice in London. This would be a long and profitable partnership, characteristic of the intimate, male-dominated British design scene at the time.
Post WW2 Design Exhibitions
Britain Can Make It
Goodden was working on Britain Can Make It, the V & A’s first large-scale postwar design exhibition, in 1946. It was a well-received, if little early, a celebration of British manufacturing power and ingenuity. The Sports Hall was Goodden’s contribution. His strange montage of British sporting instincts is still one of my favourite designs.
1951 Festival of Britain
At the 1951 Festival of Britain, his role was even more essential. The Lion & Unicorn Pavilion, one of the largest and most crowded South Bank exhibitions, was co-designed by Goodden and Dick Russell. (As a kid, I recall being jostled around it.) Goodden inspired the title. The contents, which expressed “national character,” complemented Goodden’s charming personality of enquiry, affection, self-deprecating humour, and mild eccentricity to an extraordinary degree.
The chased silver tea set made for the Royal Pavilion and used by George VI and Queen Elizabeth at the exhibition’s opening in May 1951 was Goodden’s other notable contribution. He was personally responsible for the design of the Shakespeare display’s five model theatres, the hanging cartouches carrying passages from beloved works of English literature, the massive rattan canopy (so emblematic of the festival’s design), and the doves’ “freedom flight.” The rhyming couplets etched on all four pieces were written by the designer himself. This one-of-a-kind masterpiece is now in the V&A’s collection.
One-of-a-kind commissions continued. He designed the coronation hangings for Westminster Abbey in 1953, which provided a spectacular flowery damask backdrop for Elizabeth II’s coronation. Three years later, Prince Philip ordered a silver electric kettle for the Queen, which he presented to her for Christmas. Goodden was a modernist and a mannerist designer with a keen sense of surface embellishment. However, his objectives and energies were now directed towards his students at the Royal College of Art.
Appointment to RCA
In 1948, Goodden was appointed to the RCA by his old friend Robin Darwin. This was a time of dramatic reorganisation to revive the British manufacturing industry by training design students. Goodden was first offered a position in the Wood, Metal, and Plastics department, but he chose Silver and Glass instead.
He was up against an industry that was handicapped by a purchase tax rate that started at 100% and an instinctive aversion to modernity. In his inaugural lecture in 1950, Goodden predicted that the metalworking industries might be revolutionised in five years if just a half-dozen new designers could be taught and infiltrated into the industry.
His speech was titled “A Golden Opportunity.” This appeared to be overly hopeful at the time. However, within a decade, more than a half-dozen jewellery and silversmithing graduates had opened their businesses and worked as consultants in the metalworking industry. How did this happen? Partly due to the period’s support mechanisms: substantial commissions from the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths and zealous proselytising by the Council of Industrial Design. Simultaneously, the successful promotion of “Scandinavian modern” had created unexpected demand for elegant “contemporary” stainless steel in postwar Britain.
Inspiration to British Designers
However, it appears unlikely that this transformation would have occurred without Goodden’s imaginative zeal. An early generation of his students, including Robert Welch, Gerald Benney, and David Mellor, testify for his teaching abilities. Keith Tyssen and Keith Redfern, Michael Rowe and Malcolm Appleby, Michael Lloyd, Robert Marsden, and Alistair McCallum were later silversmiths to emerge from the department. John Donald, Jacqueline Mina, Anne Marie Shillito, and Eric Spiller were among the jewellers. There isn’t a metalworker in the United Kingdom who hasn’t been influenced by Goodden at some point.
Goodden’s nature had an unusual aspect to it. He was proud of his forefathers, who had lived for decades at Barrington Court in Compton, near Yeovil, amid a magnificent collection of oriental porcelain taken from Peking’s Imperial Palace by a 19th-century Robert Goodden.
He spent the last several decades of his life in a lovely Bath townhouse, peacefully surrounded by a lifetime’s collection of artefacts and travelling to France with his second wife Lesley every month or two. They were the parents of two sons and two daughters.
In 1947, he was appointed as the Royal Designer for Industry. Built the Lion and Unicorn Pavilion for the 1946 ‘Britain Can Make It’ exhibition and parts of the 1951 ‘Festival of Britain’ exhibition (with R.D. Russell).
Byars, M., & Riley, T. (2004). The design encyclopedia. Laurence King Publishing.
Woodham, J. M. (2006). A dictionary of modern design. Oxford University Press.
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