Peyton Skipwith

Furnishing A Utopia

International Arts and Crafts

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V&A Publications 368pp £40 order from our bookshop

Phillip Webb: Pioneer of the Arts & Crafts Architecture

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Wiley- Academy 336pp £29.99 order from our bookshop

An Anthology of the Arts and Crafts Movement

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Lund Humphries 128pp £45 order from our bookshop

One of the problems that has dogged the Arts and Crafts Movement is the fact that hand craftwork is, inevitably, more time-consuming, and therefore more expensive, than machine-made work. Commercial firms like Liberty’s, witnessing the popularity of the products of such craft workshops as Ashbee’s Guild of Handicraft, quickly worked out inexpensive methods of hand-finishing machine-made goods, thereby giving them a spurious authenticity and undercutting the craft workshops, eventually putting them out of business. This led to prolonged discussion among the various craftsmen concerning the permissibility of machine usage.

“If machine tools are legitimately used they form an excellent servant, but there must be no imitation ‘handwork’ about them. A genuine labour-saving machine is a perfect godsend if it be properly used, and, in fact, kept in its proper place, though I confess more than a sneaking admiration for the craftsman who deliberately undertakes sawing up planks by hand in order to have a rest from the hard thinking needed for other parts of his work.”

Mary Greensted cites this quotation from Robert Weir Schultz’s essay ‘The Influence of Design in Woodwork’ in her Anthology of the Arts & Crafts Movement. Weir Schultz, like many of the founders of the Arts and Crafts Movement, was an architect trained in Norman Shaw’s office; the craftsman deliberately ‘sawing up planks’ to whom he referred was probably Sidney Barnsley, who had been a fellow pupil with him in Shaw’s office, but had renounced architecture for cabinet-making. Barnsley, one of England’s greatest furniture-makers, revelled in the physical side of his adopted profession. The apparent conflict between handwork and machine work dogged the Arts and Crafts in the public mind through most of the last century, with William Morris frequently depicted as a latter-day Luddite; however, Morris was not anti-machine per se – what he was violently opposed to was the dehumanising factory system that made a man or woman into a drudge, a mere machine-operative. Romney Green, a mathematics teacher turned cabinet-maker, is quoted in Greensted’s Anthology as saying:

“People often suppose that it is against the principles of the modern movement in applied art to use power-driven machines, and that the customer pays for this obstinacy in high prices. But the ‘craftsman’s’ prejudice against new inventions has never been formally sanctioned by any exponent of our principles from Morris onwards: and I can safely repudiate it on my own account.”

A reassessment of the Arts and Crafts Movement is very much in the air at present, with concurrent exhibitions at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London (until 24 July 2005), and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (until 3 April 2005), plus a recent parallel exhibition devoted to Siegfried Bing and his Paris shop, L’Art Nouveau (an important Continental showcase for Morris fabrics, Benson metalwork and American art-pottery), organised by the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. All three exhibitions have been accompanied by handsome, informative and well-illustrated books. The coupling of the words ‘arts’ and ‘crafts’ seems as natural to us today as ‘bread and butter’ or ‘horse and cart’, but they were only linked for the first time in 1887 – little more than a decade after the term ‘Industrial Revolution’ entered the English language. Historically, the two are inextricably linked, as without the Industrial Revolution, and the mass exodus of workers from the land to the burgeoning urban slums, neither Ruskin nor Morris would have been spurred to develop those inspirational ideals which form the core philosophy of the Arts and Crafts Movement. For the Arts and Crafts is first and foremost a Utopian philosophy, but one with strong practical aims for the immediate betterment of the lives of ordinary working people rather than one preaching the existence of some distant Nirvana. J D Sedding, who, like Morris, Philip Webb and Shaw, had trained in G E Street’s architectural office, declared at the 1888 Liverpool Arts Congress: ‘Fancy what a year of grace it were for England, if our industries were placed under the guidance of “one vast Morris”. Fancy a Morris installed in every factory – the Joseph of every grinding Pharaoh.’

The Victoria & Albert’s exhibition and book are entitled International Arts and Crafts, whilst the Los Angeles equivalents are called The Arts and Crafts Movement in Europe and America (the latter respectively curated and edited by Wendy Kaplan; Thames & Hudson xxpp £xx). I think the American approach is more transparent and honest. The national differences are clearly defined in the various essays covering America, Germany, the Netherlands, Central Europe, Russia, Finland, Sweden, Norway and Japan. But Linda Parry and Karen Livingstone, the organisers of the Victoria & Albert’s exhibition, get off to a bad start in their introduction to the book, which opens with the statement: ‘The Arts and Crafts was an international movement…’. It wasn’t. It was a uniquely English movement – not even British – formed as a backlash and counterbalance to the seemingly inexorable advance of industrialisation. Aspects of the movement were then taken up in Scotland and Ireland and many parts of Europe and America, and, at a later date, Japan as well. In each country the philosophy, architecture and resultant artefacts were adapted and moulded to the needs of the host nation, which were usually dependent on its degree of industrialisation and its political status. In the less industrialised countries, especially those pitching for independence, the encouragement of local crafts and the adoption of folk costume often became fused with romantic nationalism, and frequently took on a distinctly subversive role. Only in Germany and Austria were the ideals instantly seen as a means of elevating the design of machine-made objects, rather than being applied to traditional crafts.

In a letter to William Morris, Ruskin commented on ‘How much good might be done by the establishment of an exhibition anywhere, in which the Right doing, instead of the Clever doing, of all that men know how to do, should be the test of acceptance.’ It was this insistence on ‘Right doing’, coupled with a detestation of the thoughtless destruction of ancient buildings and time-honoured customs, which drove both Ruskin and Morris. Their writings and preachings provided the inspiration for the movement, but it was left to the second generation of architects, artists and craftsmen who founded the Art Workers Guild (1884) and its offshoot, the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society (1887), to spread the message internationally. Most prominent among these were Walter Crane, Baillie Scott and C R Ashbee, whose names appear again and again in the various essays covering the movement in Scandinavia, Germany, Hungary, and America.

On entering the V&A exhibition the visitor is faced with Baillie Scott’s great leaded stained-glass window depicting pendulous flowers and birds in flight, originally designed for the house of a German client and lent by the museum at Darmstadt. The impact of this establishes immediately both the English roots of the movement and its international importance. Passing further inside one encounters ecclesiastical glass by Selwyn Image and Christopher Whall shown in the context of rich copes by Ninian Comper, chalices by Henry Wilson and Phoebe Traquair, and Philip Webb’s altar table and superfrontal, originally created for the Rochester Diocesan Deaconesses Institution. Webb, a man of self-effacing modesty, is one of the great unsung heroes of the Arts and Crafts, though his wilfully ‘styleless’ style of architecture pervaded the whole movement from the moment he designed Red House for William Morris in 1859 right up to the outbreak of the Second War, through the influence exerted on the design of public housing and local authority building by admirers such as W R Lethaby and Charles Canning Winmill.

In discussing the house as a total work of art – a Gesamtkunstwerk – Livingstone and Parry refer to the American architects Frank Lloyd Wright and Greene and Greene (both firms well represented in the exhibition) and lament that a similarly holistic approach was not so successful in Britain owing to the fact that clients were not happy to ‘have their interior furnishings dictated by their architect’. This was not so with Webb’s clients, as is made quite clear in Sheila Kirk’s comprehensive new study Philip Webb: Pioneer of Arts & Crafts Architecture. Webb, a democratic socialist, designed every detail of his houses and required his clients to sign a ‘statement of business arrangements’. If any of them objected to commodious kitchens and offices, as Kirk states, he would offer ‘to cut down the size of the drawing room’. Indeed, after the disastrous fire at Clouds the Wyndham family found themselves living almost as comfortably in the servants’ quarters as they had previously in the main part of the house.

One of the many spurs behind the Arts and Crafts was a growing yearning for the countryside amongst middle-class city-dwellers, which was heightened by the reading of such works as Morris’s News from Nowhere, in which this feeling of alienation amounted almost to a sense of lost innocence, thus placing William Blake amongst the precursors of the movement. Many craftsmen left the city for the country – Gimson and the Barnsleys for Sapperton; C R Ashbee for Chipping Campden; Gesellius, Lindgren and Saarinen for Kirkkonummi; Stickley for Syracuse and Hamada for Mashiko, to name but a few. David Cathers, referring to an article in Stickley’s Craftsman magazine recommending the use of Native American imagery as suitable decoration, describes the lure of the vast open spaces of America as ‘a potent Edenic myth’. In England, however, strong as this pull was, the irony is that, as Alan Crawford states, ‘most Arts and Crafts work was done in cities’ – especially London, where many of the leading designers lived. Another effect of the lure of the countryside was a growing demand from the middle classes for weekend or holiday homes in the country. Philip Webb was at the forefront of the move to design what Kirk refers to as ‘Parsonage Houses’, and she does a thorough analysis of these as well as of Webb’s other buildings, several of which, though previously unrecorded, she has been able to identify from references in Webb’s own papers.

Viewing the exhibition in skeletal form ten days before it opened, one could already get a sense of the spaciousness and generosity of the displays – the bays devoted to Voysey and Sidney Barnsley, the turn-of-the-century interior based on drawings from Stickley’s Craftsman Workshop, and the re-creation of two rooms created by Yanagi, Hamada and Kawai for the Exhibition for the Promotion of Domestic Products in Commemoration of the Enthronement of the Emperor in Tokyo in 1928. The inclusion of inter-war Japanese crafts may seem perverse considering that by that time the movement was in virtual eclipse in the rest of the world, but it forms a fitting close to the exhibition, and Edmund de Waal’s essay ‘The Cultures of Collecting and Display’ is thought-provoking and interesting. The linking of Hamada through Leach to Eric Gill and Ethel Mairet at Ditchling reveals the sort of chain of contacts that made the Arts and Crafts Movement so pervasive. A further link from Ethel Mairet and her husband, Ananda Coomaraswamy, connects directly to C R Ashbee, who restored the Norman Chapel for them at Broad Campden. Ashbee, like Baillie Scott, carried out important work for the Grand Duke of Hesse at Darmstadt and later became a close friend of Frank Lloyd Wright. It was thus, as well as through the pages of The Studio, that the embedded values of the Arts and Crafts Movement were disseminated throughout Europe, America, and Japan. However, I still regret the curators’ failure to trumpet the Arts and Crafts Movement as English rather than British, though, as Sedding, architect of Chelsea’s Holy Trinity, Sloane Street, declared: ‘We should have had no Morris, no Burges, no Shaw, no Webb, no Bodley, no Rossetti, no Burne-Jones, no Crane, but for Pugin.’

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