The Arts & Crafts Movement:
Steve Bisco looks at the ethos that inspired the Arts & Crafts style
The Arts & Crafts movement, which started in Britain in the 1880s and spread its influence to Europe, the US and even Japan through to the 1920s, was more of an ethos than a style. At its heart was a belief that the rapid industrialisation of the Victorian era had undermined the skills of craftsmanship and broken the link between a product and its maker. A factory worker on a production line, repetitively carrying out a single operation, had little connection with the finished product. This was in contrast to the somewhat idealised folk-memory of the Medieval craftsmen and women working in their village workshops and cottages creating ‘honest’ products entirely with their own hands. The Arts & Crafts movement became almost evangelical in its opposition to the factory system and proponents devoted their lives and artistic endeavours to standing up for traditional values in design and craftsmanship and restoring the dignity of manual labour.
The movement was inspired by the medievalism promoted by the Victorian Gothic architect and designer AWN Pugin (1812-1852) and the radical social and artistic reform promoted by writer and art critic John Ruskin (1819-1900), but its leader and greatest influence was the artist, designer and social activist William Morris (1834-1896). Morris is best known to us today for his beautiful wallpaper designs, originally produced in his own socially-responsible printing works, but his design influence was far-reaching and it would not be an exaggeration to call him the father of Arts & Crafts.
Morris’s advice to ‘have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful’ became a mantra for the Arts & Crafts movement.
Morris was also closely associated with the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood of painters – Millais, Burne-Jones, Rossetti and others. When Morris married and built what can be called the first Arts & Crafts house, the Red House in Bexleyheath, Kent, the Pre-Raphaelites were frequent visitors and were closely involved in its decoration.
It would take a whole book to relate Morris’s influence and achievements so we must move on. We must also skim over the influence of Arts & Crafts on architecture, which was profound. Philip Webb (1831-1915) was the architect of Morris’s Red House and Standen, West Sussex (now both preserved by the National Trust) and several other houses that typify the simple, solid, vernacular style that we recognise as the Arts & Crafts house style. Others, such as Edwin Lutyens (1869-1944), Mackay Hugh Ballie-Scott (1865-1945), and Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1868-1928), produced many more such houses that dominated architecture in the Edwardian period. Morris, Webb and others founded the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) in 1877, which is still today one of the most influential organisations in building conservation.
Although the ethos of the Arts & Crafts movement is easily identified, the Arts & Crafts ‘style’ is harder to pin down. It varies according to the craft and the medium. We have touched on the building style based on solid, simple and plainly-decorated exteriors in the local vernacular styles. The interiors are typified by fairly plain and simple woodwork (nearly always in oak), repoussé (punched out) metalwork in copper and pewter, and William Morris’s wallpapers with their bold and stylised floral designs. Woodcarving is not always present, but is abundant in some places, such as Blackwell and Holker Hall, both in Cumbria.
The style of woodcarving, metalwork, wallpaper and fabric design is closely related to its contemporary cousin, Art Nouveau. It is predominately based on the fauna and flora of the British countryside in natural or stylised form, frequently with the sinewy stems and sharp elbow bends so typical of Art Nouveau. The carving and repoussé metalwork are usually in low relief, and oak and copper are frequently used together. But whereas Arts & Crafts was driven by anti-industrial idealism, Art Nouveau embraced the mass market and churned out its products in volume for the ever-expanding Victorian and Edwardian population.
The Arts & Crafts ethos was translated into practical form by several idealistic guilds, including the Guild & School of Handicraft, founded by architect and designer CR Ashbee (1863-1942). Originally set up in the slums of Whitechapel in the east end of London in 1888, it later moved to the idyllic Cotswold small town of Chipping Campden where it was thought the clean country air would improve the lives of the craftspeople and their families. The venture ultimately failed partly because, as many later craftspeople have found, handmade goods are expensive to produce. The irony of the socialist idealism of the Arts & Crafts reformers was that only the well-off could afford to buy their hand-crafted products. But although the ideology may have succumbed to commercial pressures, the Arts & Crafts style is still much admired in the modern world.