The Arts and Crafts Movement was the most important and the most influential art movement to emerge from England in it's entire history.
Within the industrial revolution a new beginning arose and a new wealth began to spread across the country and it was in the 1850's that a new class was being formed the 'middle classes', before this time there was a massive divide between the very rich and the hungry poor but as the machines of industry and steam power began to gain momentum so did the distribution of wealth and from this incredible inventive period young architects began to emerge to feed the middle classes who were building properties at an astonishing rate it was one of the biggest building movements of our history and why much of Great Britain is covered with Victorian architecture. The style of this period was an uncontrolled mix of styles overly decorated not only in architecture but also in furniture and furnishings which was extremely fussy, a style which was swimming in excesses with no foundation of principle in design and here the beginnings of The Arts and Crafts Movement began to evolve, firstly with the great architect Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin a fanatical tireless designer and a monumental workaholic who changed Architecture and furniture design and influenced style throughout the whole of the Victorian period. His principles of honest design were used and re-interpretated in the hands of many of the most important architects and designers of the 19th and 20th Century and they carried those principles of honest craftsmanship in design into the 20th Century. He was invited by the architect Charles Barry to work with him on the designs of the interiors for the Houses of Parliament or The New Palace of Westminster it's given name when it was built after the great fire raised to the ground the original buildings in 1834. This was to be Pugin's most important commission ever, he was responsible for the interiors, the external detailing and even the decoration of Big Ben. From Pugins work and teachings arose the Gothic Revival Period in the late 1850's and soon to follow was the Anglo-Japanese and Aesthetic Movements which arrived with the opening up of Japan in July 1853 bringing with it a fashion of all things Japanese which swept across Great Britain and Europe a movement pioneered by Edward William Godwin 'the master of the modern movement'. Godwin's most important designs in furniture were in the Anglo-Japanese styles his principles were to make pieces as thin as possible but retaining the strength a piece needed to be stable to be lifted from the ground so pieces could be moved easily for cleaning so important in an age when disease was not understood completely. He used the positioning of space and void with no carving or elaborate detail in essence these were architectural pieces which had such presence in a thoroughly modern way and his designs even today are still modern.
These movements were the backbone of what was to become the Arts and Crafts Movement and it is here in 1884 that a group of five young architects from Norman Shaw's office: W R Lethaby, Edward Prior, Ernest Newton, Mervyn Macartney, Gerald Horsley founded the Art Workers’ Guild, inspired by the ideas of John Ruskin and William Morris to break down barriers between architects, artists, designers and makers. The first masters were George Blackwell Simonds and John Dando Sedding and in 1892 William Morris.
The term ‘Arts and Crafts’ was first used by the bookbinder T J Cobden-Sanderson for the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society, set up in 1888 an offshoot of the Art Workers Guild. It involved designers and makers but also manufacturers. Arts and Crafts designers didn’t believe in making a complete break with tradition. They looked to the past for inspiration for the future from medieval styles, to the Italian Renaissance, of India and Japan and the Islamic world made famous by Liberty and Co in the late 1880's and 1890's. The Arts and Crafts Movement was an art movement based on clean lines and functional forms, truth to materials and the use of nature as the source for all pattern. It was a reaction against the Victorian fashion of over-elaborate design. In the beginning it tried to discourage the machine and to bring back skills in all forms of art which man had dominated before the industrial revolution arrived.
William Morris was the father figure of the Arts and Crafts Movement he wrote 'We should have nothing in our houses, which we did not either know to be useful or believe to be beautiful' he developed its three guiding principles: honest and functional design, the use of natural forms in pattern, and the importance of creative, manual work and these three principles are brought perfectly together when he wrote: 'Art, is the expression of man's delight in his labour, a joy to the maker and user'; but art could only be this on the condition of social equality: it must be for all; a necessary part of the great human birthright, or it will die'. He also wrote that a beautiful house was, ‘the most important production of art and the thing most to be longed for’. He passionately believed that creative manual work, whether as a professional or an amateur, or as a designer or maker, could improve peoples quality of life and that everyday objects deserved the same concern as a painting or a sculpture. Morris encouraged people from all walks of life including aristocratic women and professionals to take up a craft. Education was an important element of the Movement. Setting up craft workshops and providing training in craft skills were seen as complementary. The idea was in learning by doing as practised and instigated in colleges across the land. New art schools were opened based on this hands-on Arts and Crafts philosophy, such as the Central School of Arts and Crafts in London. Art schools and technical colleges in London, Glasgow, and Birmingham played an important role in developing the movement. In return the Arts and Crafts ideas influenced the teaching of art, craft and design in Britain through to the present day.
The wider political and social framework....
As well as being involved in design and art, the Arts and Crafts Movement was a social movement attempting to reverse the effects of the Industrial Revolution and the debasement of the role of work in society. Its power and influence came from the conviction that arts and crafts could change people’s lives.
Early Victorians had believed that economic progress was unstoppable and would create happiness. But by the 1880s this idea was under threat. Religious beliefs were challenged by the writings of Charles Darwin Thomas Paine and Robert Owen. In the countryside agricultural production was in decline. And in the cities, industrialisation was leading to deep divisions between classes and the degradation of a large body of the workforce. The term ‘unemployment’ entered the vocabulary and a series of articles by journalists of the time brought the terrible living conditions in London’s East End into the public eye. In London in 1887 a demonstration that became known as ‘Bloody Sunday’ brought the possibility of political revolution a step closer.
Morris and the Arts and Crafts Movement emphasised the importance of pride in the value of work to the labourer, the maker and to the consumer. It was the theme of Morris’ utopian romance, A Dream of John Ball, published in 1886 and many of his lectures.
The printed word was important to Arts and Crafts designers because they were involved in an ideas movement as well as an art movement. The Kelmscott Press set up by Morris in 1891 was named after his cherished home, Kelmscott Manor, near Lechlade on the southern edge of the Cotswolds. It was the beginning of the private press revival which spread to continental Europe and north America. As well as producing some high quality hand-printed books, it also led to a major reform of lettering, graphic design and printing. The best known end products of this revival are the lettering and underground map for London Transport pioneered by Frank Pick from 1916 and Allen Lane’s Penguin Books first produced in 1935.
The Arts and Crafts Movement began in London and rapidly spread to other cities. It also had a rural element as many of those involved in the movement came to believe that they could only develop different ways of working in new craft communities in the countryside. Gimson and the Barnsleys were among the first to follow such a course when they moved to the Cotswolds in 1893. They wanted to get to know an area, its building materials and local craft traditions and also C R Ashbee and the Guild Of Handicraft when he moved to Chipping Camden in 1902 and wrote that 'the proper place for the Arts and Crafts is in the country'..
The Movement also spurred other organisations which still survive today, such as the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, the National Trust and the Council for the Preservation of Rural England which were set up alongside the movement and motivated by the same philosophy. At the beginning of the 20th century new concept towns, that looked deeply into urban life in small communities surrounded by green spaces to enhance daily life, were planned by Arts and Crafts architects. Letchworth, laid out in 1903 by the architects, Barry Parker and Raymond Unwin, was the beginning of the Garden City Movement.
The strong social and moral belief of the Arts and Crafts Movement has ensured its continuing survival through the 19th, 20th and into the 21st century. Unlike other periods, art movements and social reforms it had an important message that not just impressed on artistic circles and the professional and wealthy middle classes but also on the ordinary working man and woman. The Arts and Crafts Movement was not a singular movement it was a way of life, a way forward to unite the architect with the builder, the designer with the maker, something so simple in concept to collaborate and to join together in a common goal of beauty, function, nature and the satisfaction and well-being of what an honest days labour can bring and that art is for everyone not for the elite. But the reality of today's world is a consumer throw away world where craftsman's pieces are only afforded by the wealthy something that sadly has not really changed since the humble beginnings of The Arts and Crafts Movement almost a century and a half on.
Researched and written by Tony Geering.