The forthcoming exhibition at The National Portrait Gallery put me in mind this week of Morris and the Arts and Crafts Movement. I’m looking forward to having a look round this show. In east London, we are also very lucky to have the William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow, (William Morris was born in Walthamstow). We took the family there last year and the whole gallery is superbly done out, with very clear signage, things to do for the kids and items you will probably never see anywhere else, such as original wooden printing blocks that Morris used to build up his complex wallpaper designs.
Well, They say it always comes in threes, so as I ducked into a local charity shop last week to escape the London rain, I saw this book on sale for a princely £2.50 and snapped it up.
If you can find a copy of ‘Arts & Crafts in Britain and America‘ and are interested in the Arts & Crafts era I thoroughly recommend you buy it. The book explains how the movement was born, with industrialisation, religion, socialist ideals and many other factors all coming together to forge a new way of thinking about craft. Morris’s idea of promoting ‘fitness for purpose’ would be well suited to today’s modern age I think. And it is very evident that people are once again finding pleasure in craft that feeds the soul and reflects the honest labour of the sole maker and not wholly the industrial process.
(All captions and pictures are taken from the book and remain copyright of the publisher).
The book cover many firms of the time, Gillow, James Lamb of Manchester, Holland & Son to name but a few, but also gives excellent accounts of the individual makers who pushed the movement forward. Mostly associated with Morris, they developed styles of decoration or ‘free styles’, as they were known. Often with references to nature, items were usually designed with the material in mind to show it to best effect. The movement transformed glass making, furniture, silverware and later progressed via stores like Liberty of London or Heals, to be widely available to the public.
As makers got busier and the ideals of socialism as strong as ever, we saw a rise in the establishment of ‘guilds’, co-operatives designed to support and the maker and to provide a natural symbiosis with makers who could provide, say, iron work for a wooden furniture maker. People like Ernest Gimson therefore found themselves making the metalwork for the furniture designs of Sidney Barnsley, for example.
By 1852 those same ideals based on ‘regularity is beauty’ and ‘beauty rests on utility’ were thriving in the US through the Shaker community, although towards 1860 the US started to follow the style of the English Arts and Crafts. Makers such as the German, Daniel Pabst in Philadelphia rose up through the ranks, as indeed did Gustav Stickley of Syracuse, New York. He later become the foremost proponent of the movement in the US and his furniture is now widely collected.
What was most interesting to me was that a lot of these makers, particularly Gimson, ended up purely designing pieces and not having a hand in the actual making of them. It seemed to me that things went full circle and as short-run production pieces came into being for the likes of Liberty, it perhaps wasn’t too far away from the industrialisation the makers had fought so hard to get away from.
Something today’s artisan’s and makers still struggle with, the need to make enough money to enable you to carry on doing what you want to do.