The Arts and Crafts Movement

A discussion of the most influential movement in the history of British design.

In the 19th century, Britain was transformed by the Industrial Revolution. New machines and industrial processes were invented, and Britain became the world’s first industrial power. Towns and cities expanded as people flooded in looking for work. This created problems like pollution, slum housing and child labour.

The Arts and Crafts movement was a reaction against the Industrial Revolution. The leader of the movement was William Morris (1834-1896), a radical writer, designer and social reformer. Politically, Morris can be defined as a Utopian socialist. Morris was appalled by the effects of industrialisation. To him, industry was both aesthetically and socially damaging: machine-made goods were inferior to handcrafted products and machine production reduced the worker to a slave. Morris famously wrote, ‘Apart from my love of beautiful things the leading passion of my life is my hatred of modern civilisation.’

Victorian architecture was dominated by the revival of historical styles like Gothic and Classicism. By the 1880s many designers began to feel that this obsession with style was counterproductive. Architecture had become a mechanical exercise in which architects followed the rules of specific styles; this prevented any real form of personal expression. William Morris wanted to base design on something more fundamental than style: namely materials and craftsmanship.

Red House (1859-60)

These ideas were worked out in a house Morris built for himself at Bexleyheath in Kent. It was designed by his friend Phillip Webb and was known as the Red House (1859-60). This was a simple, honest house built of unpretentious red brick. Dissatisfied with the standard of contemporary furniture, Morris designed the furniture himself and founded the firm of Morris, Marshall, Faulkner and Co. As a designer, he found that his talents lay in pattern design. A signature of his work was the ‘vertical meander’, a wavering vertical line that was based on Elizabethan design.

In his writing Morris tried to correct the dehumanizing effects of the Industrial Revolution. He wanted to create a society that valued the worker and simple, honest craftsmanship. Very soon Morris gathered a following among young designers. This was the basis of the Arts and Crafts movement. In 1880 Charles Ashbee set up a workshop called the Guild of Handicraft in the East End of London, and employed members of the urban poor. In 1902 he moved the entire workshop to the Cotswolds (Chipping Camden in Gloucestershire) so that the workers could be in the countryside and learn from rural traditions.

Silver mounted decanter, C.R. Ashbee (1904)

Arts and Crafts designers pioneered the idea of truth-to-materials: they tried to use materials in a way that was appropriate to their properties. For example, wood has to be sawn and carved; metal has to be beaten into shape. Arts and Crafts metalwork still shows the indentations of the hammer that shaped it; woods were left with the natural grain, instead of being polished to perfection.

Morris’s followers included the graphic designer Walter Crane (1845-1915). One of his most famous designs was ‘Swan, Rush and Iris,’ a design for a wallpaper dado, which exhibits a flat and heavily formalised representation of nature. Although Arts and Crafts was not as retrograde as the Gothic Revival, there was a fascination with medieval culture. The ceramicist William de Morgan used mythical beasts and elements drawn from heraldry. De Morgan helped to revive the technique of lustre. His ceramics have a translucent glaze.

Numerous architecture styles were practiced in the Victorian era. Arts and Crafts designers felt that this skin-deep stylisation had corrupted architecture. Instead, they felt that architecture should be based on something more fundamental, so they turned to materials and craft processes.

One of the best Arts and Crafts buildings in the country is St. Andrew’s Church at Roker in Sunderland. This is known as the ‘Cathedral of the Arts and Crafts Movement.’ It was designed by Edward Prior, a very radical architect who thought in terms of materials not styles. The church is executed in local magnesian limestone, which is very coarse and therefore unsuitable for decorative treatment. By respecting these properties, the forms of the church seem to have grown organically from the materials. St. Andrew’s houses work by many of the leading members of the Arts and Crafts Movement, including Morris himself.

Reading

Cumming, E. & Kaplan, W. 1991: The Arts and Crafts Movement (London).

Davey, P. 1980: Arts and Crafts Architecture: The Search for Earthly Paradise (London).

Dunlop, B. (ed.), Arts and Crafts Masterpieces (London).

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