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The Arts and Crafts Companion
By Pamela Todd
Bulfinch PressCopyright © 2004 Pamela Todd
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IntroductionPhilosophy & Background
What business have we with art at all, if we all cannot share it? William Morris
The Arts and Crafts movement, founded in the late nineteenth century by a group of British artists and social reformers inspired by John Ruskin, A.W.N. Pugin, and William Morris, sought to stem the tide of Victorian mass production, which its adherents believed degraded the worker and resulted in "shoddy wares." The movement redefined the role of art and craftsmanship, sought to restore dignity to labor, created opportunities for women, and underpinned many social reforms. At its most romantic and intense it offered a complete, if rigorous, model for living, as mapped out in Morris's Utopian novel News from Nowhere, and put into practice by, among others, Charles Ashbee in the Cotswolds in England and Elbert Hubbard in East Aurora, New York. The movement was attractive to many who were disenchanted by rapid industrialization; its influences-both social and aesthetic-were felt in Europe, where the ideas cross-fertilized and returned to Britain enriched and enlivened, and in the USA, where its ideals were enthusiastically embraced and adapted. Despite faltering after World War I, it has emerged as the major force in the history of design during the lasthundred years and is enduringly popular today.
The movement acquired its name in 1888, when William Morris's tapestries, William De Morgan's tiles, Walter Crane's wallpapers, and Edward Burne-Jones's stained-glass designs went on show on October 4 at the New Gallery in London along with other work by the newly formed Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society. The show was a success and drew enthusiastic reviews. The Builder reported that it was "full of things which seem to have been done because the designer enjoyed doing them ..." even if it found some of the exhibits a little "outr? and eccentric." Walter Crane set out the Society's mission statement-"to turn our artists into craftsmen and craftsmen into artists"-in the catalog to that first exhibition.
However, to trace the roots of the movement it is necessary to go back to the Great Exhibition held at Crystal Palace in London in 1851 and to the dismayed and disgusted reaction of the young William Morris and his friends to the "wonderful ugliness" of the mass-produced exhibits, which seemed to them devoid of any soul, dehumanizing the workers who made them. What began as a return to the styles and manners of the medieval period-its cathedrals, furnishing, costumes, and, crucially, its workers' guilds-developed, under the inspiration and guidance of William Morris, to embrace more day-to-day handmade crafts. Unashamedly "artistic," the homes, gardens, and products of the Arts and Crafts movement celebrated the individuality of the craftsmen and craftswomen who made them. For them it was not merely a style, it was a way of life, based on frankly Utopian models. Humble, plain, honest furniture, like that made by Ford Madox Brown for Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co., sold alongside more ornate "Arthurian" pieces, but all had in common the individuality of craftsmanship and the vision behind it of beauty and harmony that harked back to the rules and methods of the medieval guild system. Arts and Crafts practitioners truly believed that everyone's quality of life would be improved if only integrity could be restored to objects in daily use.
The Arts and Crafts movement elevated and ennobled the artisan, and many followed William Morris's moral crusade along the path of socialism and political activism, aiming to restore dignity and satisfaction to workers who had been robbed of all joy in their work by the Victorian doctrine of progress and industrialization. The movement's inclusivity also created opportunities for women, who found in its revival of traditional techniques-such as embroidery, weaving, and enameling-an outlet for their creativity and a respectable way of earning a living. Gender still determined the division of labor, however, with men dominating fields such as metalwork, furniture, and architecture and women working hard to create a niche for themselves in areas like needlework, bookbinding, and pottery.
In the chapters that follow, each dealing with a different aspect of the movement, William Morris emerges as the towering personality and inspiration: a father-figure whose writings, lectures, and practical example had a tremendous and lasting influence on a younger generation of architects, craftsmen, and decorators. Along with men like W.R. Lethaby, A.H. Mackmurdo, Philip Webb, Walter Crane, Ernest Gimson, and the Barnsley brothers, Morris wanted to revitalize native English traditions, stressing always the importance of honesty to function and local materials. Appalled by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott's recent restoration of Tewkesbury Abbey in Gloucestershire, Morris founded the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, known affectionately as "Anti-Scrape," on March 22, 1877, "for the purposes of watching over and protecting these relics." Webb, Gimson, and the Barnsleys were all active members of the Society, which championed protection rather than restoration. Morris was prepared to prop up a tumbling church but not to tamper with the fabric or ornament of the building as it stood: a principled standpoint that cost him money, for it meant his firm had to stop accepting lucrative stained-glass commissions from churches undergoing restoration.
Morris's defense of medieval craftsmanship was part of his romanticized concept of the rural idyll. "Suppose," he wrote to Edward Burne-Jones's sister-in-law, "people lived in little communities among gardens and green fields, so that you could be in the country in five minutes' walk, and had few wants, almost no furniture for instance, and no servants, and studied the (difficult) arts of enjoying life, and finding out what they really wanted: then I think that one might hope civilisation had really begun." In the face of encroaching urbanization, a vigorous "back to the land" movement, linked to a revival of English folk music and entertainments, had begun to emerge and identify itself strongly with the Arts and Crafts movement. A number of Arts and Crafts guilds were founded in the 1880s, with varying degrees of success. Ruskin's experimental St. George's Guild, designed as a Utopian society-"in essence a kind of enlightened feudalism"-was intended to implement his ideal of a just society, though it was perhaps a little too medieval in scope to offer a serious alternative to the rising tide of capitalism. Other communities were longer-lived if not, ultimately, entirely successful. In his influential book The Stones of Venice (1851-3), Ruskin had called for sweeping social change and an end to the illogicality of a situation in which "we want one man to be always thinking and another to be always working, and we call one a gentleman, and the other an operative; whereas the workman ought often to be thinking, and the thinker often to be working, and both should be gentlemen in the best sense ... In each several profession, no master should be too proud to do its hardest work. The painter should grind his own colours; the architect work in the mason's yard with his men; the master-manufacturer be himself a more skilful operative than any man in his mills." Such progressive notions became the cornerstone and creed by which the new guilds operated.
In 1882 Ruskin's ex-pupil A.H. Mackmurdo collaborated with the artist Selwyn Image to form a loose collective of designers into one of the first of the new craft guilds-the Century Guild. It was set up with the aim of supplying all the furniture and furnishings necessary for a house and, most importantly, involving artists in areas of work previously considered the realm of mere tradesmen. Mackmurdo had trained as an architect in the London office of the Gothic revivalist James Brooks, who had inspired him to try to master several crafts himself, including brasswork, embroidery, and cabinet-making, and instilled in him a reforming passion. Mackmurdo saw the Arts and Crafts movement "not as an aesthetic excursion; but as a mighty upheaval of man's spiritual nature" and differed from Morris in this important respect: Morris had aimed to level the disciplines of painting and sculpture to the rank of democratic handicrafts; Mackmurdo wanted to raise the status of crafts to that of "fine art." Century Guild members, including William De Morgan, W.A.S. Benson, Herbert Horne, Clement Heaton, Benjamin Creswick, and Heywood Sumner, carried out decorative work of various kinds, much of it to Mackmurdo's design but in a cooperative spirit, collaborating on the design of a home and its contents. They also produced the influential journal The Hobby Horse, illustrated with woodcut decorations by Selwyn Image and Herbert Horne. Members socialized and met regularly at Mackmurdo's house at 20 Fitzroy Street, London, to hear early English music performed on the viol, lute, and harpsichord.
Further impetus to the craft revival movement came from the Art Workers' Guild (which is still in existence), founded in 1884 by a group of architects and designers including William Lethaby, a pivotal figure in the Arts and Crafts movement. Once again the stated aim of the Guild was to break down barriers between artists and architects, designers and craftsmen, leading to a goal of decorative unity. At their meetings in Queen Square, London, Guild members sat on traditional rush-seated ladderback chairs made by a sixty-seven-year-old carpenter called Philip Clissett, who never joined the movement but whose influence can be seen in the later work of Ernest Gimson, the Barnsley brothers, and Ambrose Heal, all of whom would have sat on Clissett's chairs as they attended lectures.
Then, in 1888, a splinter group from the Art Workers' Guild, including Walter Crane, W.A.S. Benson, Lewis F. Day, and T.J. Cobden-Sanderson, came together to arrange a large exhibition initially to be called "The Combined Arts," a title dropped in favor of "Arts and Crafts." And so the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society, with Walter Crane as its first chairman, and a committee including William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones, came into being. The Society organized annual exhibitions in the New Gallery in Regent Street, London, providing a useful shop window for the products of the Arts and Craft movement. These included not just the designs of its own members but contributions from Morris & Co., the Century Guild, and C.R. Ashbee's newly formed Guild and School of Handicraft. All exhibitors had to satisfy strict criteria, the most important of which was that their work was entirely handmade. The Society also presented practical demonstrations and accompanying lectures from luminaries like William Morris (on tapestry weaving), T.J. Cobden-Sanderson (on bookbinding), Halsey Ricardo (on furniture), Selwyn Image (on designing for the art of embroidery), and Walter Crane (on design).
It is soon apparent that the figures who did most to shape the fortunes of the Arts and Crafts movement, after Ruskin and Morris, had their roots in architecture: designers such as Mackmurdo, Horne, Philip Webb, Charles Voysey, Norman Shaw, J.D. Sedding, M.H. Baillie Scott, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Reginald Blomfield, and Lethaby. One architect, however, who felt that the Arts and Crafts movement had taken a wrong turn and was in danger of becoming "a nursery for luxuries, a hothouse for the production of mere trivialities and useless things for the rich," was C.R. Ashbee.
Ashbee had begun with the highest ideals, setting up his Guild of Handicraft in the underprivileged East End of London in 1888 with a starting capital of only £50. By 1902 business was flourishing, and he decided to implement his ambitious plans to relocate to rural Chipping Campden in the Cotswolds, not far from the small but thriving Arts and Crafts group composed of the families of Ernest Gimson and the Barnsley brothers. The town, formerly a center for the wool and silk trade, had fallen on hard times, and the impact of such a large enterprise was tremendous. Ashbee accommodated his Guild members in the local cottages, many of which lay empty, though, controversially, many that did not were emptied of their occupants to make way for the incomers, who could be charged a higher rent. The old silk mill was pressed into service to provide the Guild with silver and jewelry studios, and workshops for woodcarving and cabinet-making. In 1904 Ashbee opened the Campden School of Arts and Crafts at Elm Tree House, where practical lessons in gardening, cookery, and laundry work were given as well as crafts, literature, music, and history. Walter Crane and the poets John Masefield and Edward Carpenter were among the invited lecturers. In keeping with William Morris's Utopian ideals, Ashbee ran the Guild on democratic principles and aimed to promote "a higher standard of craftsmanship, but at the same time ... protect the status of the craftsman." He had explained in a pamphlet published in 1902: "The Guild endeavours to steer a mean between the independence of the artist which is individualistic and often parasitical and the trade shop where the workman is bound to purely commercial and antiquated traditions, and has as a rule neither stake in the business nor any interest beyond his weekly wage."
Devoted to social reform, Ashbee provided his craftsmen with not just homes, but gardens, a swimming pool, and communal activities including amateur theatricals and musical evenings. The impact of a hundred and fifty Londoners arriving en masse in a small rural community caused some tensions but gradually, especially after the school was established, the two sides accepted one another and co-existed harmoniously until Ashbee's democratic notions were sabotaged by the market forces that forced him into voluntary liquidation in 1907.
In an article in House Beautiful Ashbee defined Arts and Crafts as "occupations or pursuits in the practice of which the individual comes into direct contact with his material, and is enabled to give expression to his own fancy, invention, imagination." That he failed to translate this to a wider public was a source of great sadness to him. Writing to his old friend, the illustrator and etcher F.L. Griggs, he admitted, "We both wanted a better world and were both quite out of touch with the one provided us, while the beauty of life-expressed in that Gloucestershire village-was lost all in all to us."
By 1907, however, the aesthetic ideas behind the movement had taken hold.
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