The Arts & Crafts Movement

The Arts & Crafts Movement developed in Britain in the mid to late Victorian period and lasted well into the 20th century. The Movement got its name from an English organization called the Arts & Crafts Exhibition Society that began in 1887. Arts & Crafts spread across the Atlantic to the United States in the 1890s, where it persisted at least into the 1920s and 30s. It also had a strong influence on the decorative arts in continental Europe, until it was largely displaced by Modernism in the 1930s – however its influence continued among craft makers, designers, and town planners long afterwards. Arts & Crafts existed in many stylistic variations and influenced groups of artists and reformers across Europe and North America, including Art Nouveau, the Wiener Werkstatte, the Prairie School, and many others.

 

In 19th century Britain industrialisation had created a growing mass-production of cheap goods and, with the mass movement of people to cities, increasingly unhealthy urban environments. 1830s Design Reform and the subsequent Aesthetic Movement sought to improve the quality of manufactured goods but did little to improve the quality of urban life. The Art & Crafts Movement emerged in reaction to this – it was as much about social reform as it was about a specific style of design. Followers of the movement strongly believed that the connection forged between the artist and his work through handcraft was the key to producing both human fulfilment and beautiful items that would be useful on an everyday basis. As a result, Arts & Crafts practitioners are largely associated with the decorative arts and architecture as opposed to the "high" arts of painting and sculpture.

Context for a Return to Handcrafts

 

The Arts & Crafts movement was first and foremost a response to social changes caused by the Industrial Revolution. Critics opposed the dehumanisation and deskilling of labour as industrialisation marched onwards. Machines, they argued, had begun to dictate both the role and the pace of man – not the other way round. Industrialisation moved large numbers of unskilled workers into cities that were ill-prepared to deal with this influx, crowding them into inadequate housing and subjecting them to long hours and poor working conditions. Cities became regularly doused with pollution from the bevy of new factories. Almost gone was rural life and nature itself – and in had come urbanised squalor.

The architect A.W.N. Pugin and the writer John Ruskin were early critics on the problems of industrialisation. In contrast to the increasingly industrialised British towns and cities, both viewed the medieval era as an idyllic period of piety and high moral standards, as well as possessing a healthy green environment. Ruskin had a highly romanticised view of the physical and spiritual satisfaction which a medieval craftsman derived from his work and criticised the lack of these satisfactions afforded to industrialised labour. He presented an image of the medieval craftsman working out with his hands the free impulses of his creative mind. This vision remained a prime source of inspiration for the Arts & Crafts Movement which aimed to promote a return to handcraftsmanship and to assert the creative independence of individual craftspeople.

Arts n Crafts Exhibition Society Poster.
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Augustus Pugin c1840.jpg

Birth of the Arts & Crafts Movement

 

From the 1930s the Trade and Industry Board had increasingly raised concerns about the quality of British manufactured products and their competitiveness against imports, especially those from France and Germany. Design reformers within the Government had embarked on establishing Government Schools of Design within the major industrialised cities – however London’s Great Exhibition of 1851 demonstrated that little had changed. Manufactured products on display were widely criticised for the “rampant and indiscriminate use of ornamentation”. The 1851 Great Exhibition did however act as a stimulus for further efforts in design reform – and consequently, as a catalyst for the Arts & Crafts movement.

 

A young and well-heeled follower of Ruskin's commentary was William Morris, an apprentice to the Gothic-Revival architect George Edmund Street. Morris also moved in the same circles as the painter Edward Burne-Jones and other Pre-Raphaelite artists including Dante Gabriel Rossetti – all of whom were fascinated by medieval art and nature. Morris favoured Ruskin's philosophy of rejecting the industrial manufacture of decorative arts in favour of a return to hand-craftsmanship – creating art that should be hand-made and affordable. In 1861, Morris founded the decorative arts firm Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. (along with Burne-Jones, Rossetti, Philip Webb, Ford Madox Brown, Charles Faulkner, and Peter Paul Marshall) specialising in wallpaper designs featuring natural imagery. Morris' firm grew throughout the 1860s and 1870s as Morris gained important interior design commissions, such as for St. James's Palace (1866) and the Green Dining Room at the South Kensington (now Victoria & Albert) Museum (1866-68). It also expanded in terms of the range of items that it manufactured, including furniture, such as the famous "Morris chair," textiles, and eventually stained glass. In 1875, Morris bought out his partners and renamed the firm Morris & Co.

Artist and designer William Morris
The Green Dining Room designed by Willia

Morris' firm sought to emphasise the use of handcraft as opposed to machine production, creating works of high quality. His hope – that this might inspire cottage industries among the working classes and bring pleasure to their labours. Morris himself became involved in every step of production of the company's items, thus reviving the idea that the designer or artist should guide the entire creative process as opposed to the mechanical division of labour that was increasingly used in most factories. He also revived the use of organic natural dyes. However, the use of handcraft and natural sources was extremely labour-intensive and costly – although Morris himself was not entirely averse to the use of mechanised production methods. The popularity of Morris' work in Britain, Continental Europe, and the United States grew considerably, especially after the opening of a new store at 449 Oxford Street in 1877.

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The Influence of Arts & Crafts in Britain

 

Ruskin’s influential ideas together with Morris’ work inspired collective associations where groups of artists and artisans collaborated on designs in a wide variety of media. In 1882 Arthur Heygate Mackmurdo founded The Century Guild, a group aimed at preserving handcraft and the authenticity of the artist, whose work included furniture, stained glass, metalwork, decorative painting, and architectural design. The guild gained recognition through several exhibitions throughout the 1880s before disbanding in 1892. The Arts & Crafts Exhibition Society, which gave the movement its name, formed in London in 1887 with Walter Crane as its first president. Its aims were to erode "the distinction between Fine and Decorative art" and to allow the "worker to earn the title of artist”. Dominated by the decorative arts and bolstered by a strong selection of works by Morris & Co., the first two exhibitions were financial successes. The Society's exhibitions helped keep the Arts & Crafts movement in the public eye and proved to be critical successes into the new century.

book cover wren_s-city-churches-1883-art
Walter Crane , Illustration from Beauty

Similarly, others were inspired to provide instruction and facilitate cottage handcrafts in rural areas, especially where employment was seasonal. An early Arts & Crafts follower, Eglantyne Louisa Jebb founded the Home Arts and Industries Association in 1884. The Association funded schools and organised marketing opportunities for rural communities. Within five years it had grown to include 450 classes that employed 1,000 teachers instructing over 5,000 students.

The Keswick School of Industrial Art (KSIA) was founded in 1884 by Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley and his wife Edith. They set up free evening classes in the parish rooms to teach metalwork and wood carving under the supervision of a London professional woodcarver and a local jeweller. The school prospered and swiftly developed a reputation for high quality copper and silver decorative metalwork. By 1888 nearly seventy men were attending the classes. By 1890 the school was exhibiting nationally and winning prizes. Its numbers now more than a hundred, it had outgrown its cramped home in the parish rooms, and Rawnsley raised funds for a purpose-built school nearby. The school was mainly financed from sales of its products however, funds from sales became inadequate during the 1980s and the school was forced to closed in 1984.

In the late 19th century the fishing industry in Cornwall was becoming unreliable as a source of income. John Drew Mackenzie, an artist who settled at Newlyn was a key figure in setting up the Newlyn Industrial Class, assisted by the benefactor and local Member of Parliament, Thomas Bedford Bolitho, and artists Reginald Dick, T. C. Gotch, Perry Craft and John Pearson. The class specialised in repoussé copper work and produced a wide range of domestic and decorative items. The school remained active for about thirty years after its establishment in 1890 and influenced a number of other artists who produced work in the Newlyn style.

 

In 1896 the London County Council established the Central School of Arts & Crafts (now Central Saint Martin’s College of Arts & Design). It grew directly from the Arts & Crafts movement inspired by William Morris and John Ruskin. The school’s intent was to encourage the industrial application of decorative design adding that “admission to the school is within certain limits, only extended to those actually engaged in these trades, and the School makes no provision for the amateur student of drawing and painting”. Instruction offered was “adapted to the needs of those engaged in the different departments of Building Work (Architects, Builders, Modellers and Carvers, Decorators, Metal Workers, etc.), Designers in Wall Papers, Textiles, Furniture, Workers in Stained Glass, Bronze, Lead, etc., Enamellers, Jewellers, and Gold and Silver Workers”.

One of the intentions of the Arts & Crafts movement was to enable quality handcrafted items to be accessible to all through local cottage industries. Yet, one of the great contradictions of the movement was that it achieved quite the opposite. The artists took so much pride in the manual craft using quality materials, that it was only the well-heeled customers who could afford the items produced. With the Arts & Industries Schools focusing on those wishing to make a trade from their new skills and rural artisans commonly needing to sell items as an alternative to employment – few items made their way into the average working household.

Characterising the Arts & Crafts Style

 

Because the Arts & Crafts Movement was as much about reform as it was a specific type of design, there is not a unifying set of visual characteristics that identify Arts & Crafts work. The style varied from location to location and also with the medium used – however, one unifying characteristic was the influence from both the imagery of nature and the forms of medieval art, particularly the Gothic style (which enjoyed a revival in Europe and North America during the mid-19th century). Followers also borrowed from other influences which looked back to earlier periods such as Celtic, Japanese, and Islamic art.

The Arts & Crafts movement existed under its specific name in the United Kingdom and the United States. These two strands often differed from each other in their attitude towards mechanisation. In Britain, Arts & Crafts artists and designers tended to be either negative or ambivalent towards the role of the machine in the creative process, while American artists tended to embrace the machine more readily. Regardless as to whether machines were used or not used in the production process, another common feature of the Arts & Crafts style was the outward suggestion of handwork being retained in the final form – often with construction techniques (joints, rivets, etc) left on display.

 

The Arts & Crafts movement has been viewed by some as anti-industrial – both by participating artists as well as by followers of the movement. Arguably however, the movement was not against machines or mechanised production in principle – it did nonetheless hold that mechanisation should serve humans as opposed to humans being controlled by machines. A core belief was that machines should underpin the work of an artist or designer who both understood and mastered the entire production process. Morris for example utilised printing presses to produce his wallpapers and mechanised looms to produce his fabrics.

Keswick School of Industrial Arts Candle
Keswick School of Industrial Art Copper
Arts and Crafts Newlyn School Copper Tea
Newlyn Arts and Crafts Copper Framed Wal
oak altar table from a church in Bolling
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Pierced oak Arts and Crafts side table.j
William Morris acanthus design for wallpaper 1875
Arts n Crafts Tazza by Knox for Liberty

Legacy

 

The Arts & Crafts movement greatly influenced the English-speaking nations across the world – however, its impact across mainland Europe was relatively short-lived. Morris’ work had influenced early Art Nouveau architects and designers in Belgium and France. The Arts & Crafts style as interpreted by Liberty’s of London had inspired designers of the Stile Liberty in Italy. However, the Art Nouveau era soon gave way to Modernism in mainland Europe. In the UK, the Arts & Crafts movement persisted for a few decades more but largely fizzled out and hybridised with Modernism and subsequently Art Deco. Exceptions to this being the Keswick and Newlyn styles which remained popular until the 1970s. The movement lasted longest in the US where arguably its influences are still seen today. The Arts & Crafts style however remained popular with collectors and is currently enjoying a resurgence of interest.

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