Visitors to The Great Exhibition in 1851
The Arts & Crafts movement was a grouping of exponents such as William Morris and the other designers who shared an abhorrence for what their hero, John Ruskin, had described as ‘soulless, repetitive industrialism’ (The Stones of Venice, 1851–3) and believed that inspiration should be sought from direct observation of what Ruskin called ‘the beauty of the natural world’. (in Letter I of Elements of Drawing)
John Ruskin the writer and critic who inspired the Arts & Crafts movement
The movement began through the efforts of a number of individuals to develop alternatives to the ‘vast output of poor substitutes for good craftsmanship [which] was poured broadcast over the land’. (Ricardo H. in The Modern Home ed. Walter Shaw Sparrow, 1906 ) By 1881 the critic, Robert Eddis insisted that consumers should be more critical of the ‘ "products of common industry’: Ordinary English homes (of twenty years ago) were fitted out either in the dreariest monotony of common places or made gaudy with paper-hangings and floor coverings of vulgar colouring and design. The most formidable obstacle which lies in the way of any attempt to reform the arts of design in this country is, perhaps, the indifference with which people of even reputed taste are accustomed to regard the products of common industry.' (Decoration & Furniture of town houses, 1881)
The ‘products of common industry’ were cheap wallpapers, textiles and reproduction furniture. Morris himself explained that the Arts & Crafts movement had been necessary ‘because the applied arts had been “sick unto death”, and that this ‘forced us into taking up dropped line of tradition and once more producing genuine organic art’. (Essays by members of Arts & Crafts Exhibition Society, 1893)
This ‘organic’ art would be created, it was believed, if the traditionally rigid distinction between Fine and Applied Arts, between designer and craftsman, was abolished. This approach encouraged architects to, as far as possible, to design the details of their interiors themselves rather than delegating the task; so architects like Phillip Webb designed many of the interior features of their houses. For example, at Standen, he designed all the fireplaces. ‘Organic’ art meant hand made artefacts should be used wherever possible, even bricks. In fact, this restricted the craftsman to handiwork.
The dining room at Standen, with fireplace and firescreen designed by Phillip Webb
In 1893 Walter Crane, the president of the Arts & Crafts Exhibition Society, stated that ‘life is growing “uglier every day,” as Mr Morris puts it’. (ibid) He also expressed his fear that artists would be seduced by commercial considerations if they catered for the new middle-class market which had opened up through shops because ‘if artists cease to be found among the crafts there is great danger that they will vanish from the arts also, become manufacturers and salesmen instead.’(ibid) This statement reveals another aspect of the Arts & Crafts movement: that it preferred to produce for an exclusive market which could afford hand-made goods. In 1876, Morris had admitted to Sir Lowthian Bell,one of his clients, that he found himself ‘ministering to the swinish luxury of the rich’.
A silver jamdish made by C. R. Ashbee’s Guild of Handicraft
The Arts & Crafts movement set up a number of enterprises to produce the hand-crafted designs it advocated. Not only did its adherents ignore the emerging middle-class market, but Crane even disdained the new retail outlets which made the applied arts accessible to this wider market, rejecting larger-scale production of goods for sale through shops such as Liberty’s as impersonal; it seemed absurd to him that an artist or craftsman should be expected to produce things of beauty for an impersonal and unknown public. The result was that the Arts & Crafts movement depended on one off commissions from rich patrons.
None of the other Arts & Crafts enterprises were as successful as Morris’ own company, Morris & Co. This survived through the support provided by Morris’ contacts such as G.F. Bodley and Philip Webb who brought it commissions to provide stained glass and, later, to furnish entire interiors such as Standen or Wightwick manor.
The drawing -room at Standen: a house in the country which is a showcase for the Arts & Crafts movement. It was designed by Phillip Webb and furnished by Morris & Co.
Various attempts were made to set up workshops to employ craftsmen, such as C. R. Ashbee’s Guild of Handicraft. The Arts and Crafts Exhibitions Society was formed to hold exhibitions, in 1888 and 1889, to boost these flagging enterprises. The Guild of Handicraft actually came into direct competition with Liberty’s because some of its artefacts were similar to Liberty’s Cymric range. Liberty’s was an outstandingly successful retail enterprise which catered for the emerging middle-class market. By 1880 it was importing ‘Eastern Art Manufactures’ such as Chinese and Japanese bronzes, enamels, jade, ceramics, embroideries and rugs. Its founder, Arthur Lasenby Liberty went on to commission fabrics, furniture, silver and pewter from designers such as Archibald Knox, Christopher Dresser and Silver Studio.
Coffee set from Liberty’s Cymric range (left); A display of Liberty fabrics (right)
Not even Roger Fry’s Omega Workshops lasted more than a few years despite the fact that, like Morris, Fry was well connected. Although the Arts & Crafts movement as a whole disdained shops and the middle-class market, Morris & Co. had a shop on Regent Street and another outlet in Manchester. Morris’ wallpapers and a few other products such as their Sussex chair were truly popular. The German cultural attache, Herman Muthesius recorded that Morris’ early wallpaper designs, Daisy and Pomegranate, ‘are as popular today as they were forty-five years ago when they first appeared.’ (The English House, 1904) Morris reverted to the traditional craft-based technique of block printing and developed patterns suited to this. His greatest achievements were in pattern design: wallpapers from 1864, printed textiles from 1873 and carpets from 1875.
Morris & Co's Sussex chair; apart from Morris' wallpapers it was one of their few popular products
Daisy, a William Morris wallpaper design (1864), 'as popular today as they were forty-five years ago when they first appeared.’
A lamp standard made by Roger Fry’s Omega Workshops
By 1900 the Arts & Crafts aversion to machine production had become a fashionable orthodoxy. But its proponents were being left behind by developments like the first Ideal Home Exhibition which was held in 1908. The Exhibition was sponsored by the Daily Mail. The paper and the Exhibition were designed to attract the middle classes, particularly clerks and women with a certain amount of disposable income. Moreover, innovations such as the telephone and electricity meant that change was inevitable. The introduction of electricity alone made a considerable difference to Edwardian interiors.
The designer, J.D. Sedding (1838-91), who exhibited at the first Arts & Crafts Exhibition Society show, had already conceded that it was unrealistic to imagine that the movement’s standards could be universally applied: ‘Let us not suppose that machinery will be discontinued. Manufacture cannot be organised on any other basis. We had better make life square with the facts, rather than rebel against the inevitable, in striving for the ideal’. Not even Arts & Crafts proponents objected to machine-made goods such as ceramic WCs or mechanical processes such as printing.
After 1910 attitudes began to change even more rapidly, as demonstrated by the career of W.A.S. Benson. Benson was Morris’s successor as chairman of Morris & Co. yet he also became a founding member of the Design & Industries Association (DIA). The DIA was founded in 1914–15 by designers, businessmen and industrialists. It slogan ‘Nothing Need be Ugly’ reflected a change in the way that products were designed and perceived by the public. Benson’s change of allegiance from Arts & Crafts to DIA reflected the gradual acceptance that machine production was an irreversible change that designers should work with rather than against.
Not all designers had been opposed to machinery. Christopher Dresser was an exact contemporary of Morris but he chose to work within the industrial system rather than against it. Dresser, and others such as Owen Jones, led the way towards professionalism in design. Dresser attended the London School of Design where he studied design and botany. The essence of design reform was based on the study of nature rather than copying earlier artworks. Unlike other designers, Dresser never became involved with architecture but worked in a commercial design studio. He produced designs for over fifty companies including the new retail outlets such as Liberty’s, for which he designed Clutha glass and Cordofan candlesticks. In 1899 he was described by The Studio magazine as ‘the greatest of commercial designers’. Liberty’s did not credit individual designers but they commissioned Archibald Knox and Rex Silver’s Silver Studio. Liberty’s Art Fabrics earned them the compliment that, in parts of Europe, Art Nouveau was known as ‘Stile Liberty’.
Clutha glass designed by Christopher Dresser
Cordofan candlestick designed by Christopher Dresser
By the Edwardian period, the new department stores were catering for the growing wealthy middle class; Selfridges, Harrods, Debenhams in London; Lewis’s and Paulden’s in Manchester. The introduction of hire-purchase extended the market further. Specialist shops such as Heals, Maples, and Waring & Gillow also became patrons of the applied arts. They did so by ordering whole ranges of goods which were designed to be sold through stores rather than the limited numbers of private commissions. Their goods were displayed in showrooms and illustrated in catalogues.
A drawing room from a Waring & Gillow’s catalogue (1910)