The Arts and Crafts movement: basic tenets

THE ARTS AND CRAFTS MOVEMENT (ACM) aimed to promote a return to hand-craftsmanship and to assert (affirmer) the creative independence of individual craftspeople. It was a reaction against the industrialised society that had boomed (qui s’était développée) in Britain in the Victorian period, and aimed for (visait) social as well as artistic reform. Its example was followed in other countries, particularly the U.S.A. After the 1914-18 war, other artistic trends overtook the ACM, and it declined.

Industrial production of consumer goods (des biens de consummation) developed in Britain in the eighteenth century, increased massively in the nineteenth, and inevitably aroused some opposition. The Gothic Revival, the principle artistic trend in nineteenth-century architecture and art, can itself be seen as a reaction against industrialisation. Its early exponent (l’un de ses premiers détracteurs), A.W.N. Pugin (b.1812), contrasted the iniquities of modern industrial society with a highly romanticised view of the Middle Ages. Pugin died in 1852, but an even more eloquent critic emerged in John Ruskin (1819-1900). After establishing himself as a writer on painting, he turned to architecture, publishing The Stones of Venice in 1851-3. In its second volume (1853) appeared a chapter entitled “On the Nature of Gothic”, which 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 ACM.

William Morris (1834-96) provided yet greater inspiration. Simultaneously a romantic poet and dreamer, a businessman, and a political campaigner, he had an impressively forceful, practical character. He had great manual skill, and, because he himself could design and execute work of outstanding beauty in wallpapers, in printed, woven and embroidered textiles, and in book production, he offered a living example to others of what they might achieve. He founded a firm to retail (vendre au detail) furnishings produced in his own workshops (ateliers), where craftsmen were given free rein. The firm’s products, however, while intended to brighten the lives of ordinary people, were too expensive to sell to any but the rich. Nonetheless, Morris’s immense charisma provided the driving force behind the ACM.

Morris had set out to train as an architect, in the office of the eminent Gothic Revivalist, G. E. Street (1824-81). Also working for Street was Philip Webb (1831-1951), who, a lifelong friend of Morris, designed for him the Red House, Bexley (1859-60), which is regarded as the first fully integrated Arts and Crafts domestic environment. Webb continued to work primarily as an architect. He and his contemporaries developed styles inspired by vernacular architecture and extended patronage (mécénat) to Arts and Crafts artists as well as influencing many younger architects with the Arts and Crafts ethos. Some artists who began with architectural training moved on, like Morris, to specialise in the decorative arts, but architecture remained a decisive influence in the ACM.

Both Ruskin and Morris felt that modern art was bad largely because of the conditions of life of working people in an industrialised society, and therefore campaigned for a better quality of life. Ruskin was a paternalistic conservative, but Morris eventually embraced socialism. In this he was followed to a greater or lesser degree by most adherents of the ACM, who, while promoting beauty and the status of the individual craftsperson, usually saw their work in a wider context of social reform.

The ACM chiefly made progress through special-interest associations. In imitation of medieval craft guilds, Ruskin started the St George’s Guild. Though this was more concerned with communal living than with art practice, it surely inspired adherents of the ACM to band together in guilds (se regrouper en guildes). Sometimes these were small co-operative production units, sometimes broader (plus larges) confederations dedicated to publicising the cause (se consacrant à faire connaître leurs causes). The ACM was always as much about ideology as about decorative art objects themselves, and this aspect was grounded (ancré) in the National Association for the Advancement of Art and its Application to Industry (1888-91).

As the ACM’s views became known in the 1890s, they secured a foothold (s’implantèrent) in art education. Most of the existing British art schools were influenced by the ACM, and an important newcomer was the London County Council’s Central School of Arts and Crafts, founded in 1896 with architect W R Lethaby as principal. This college was regarded as the most progressive art school in Europe before the Bauhaus. The ACM also encouraged amateurs to take up the decorative arts.

Arts and Crafts objects were produced in all media: metalwork, ceramics, glass, textiles and furniture. Architecture often provided a setting for a unified achievement in interior design. William Morris’s Kelmscott Press inspired several adherents of the ACM to experiment with typography, with varied results. Painters contributed decoration to decorative art objects, though there was no identifiable school of Arts and Crafts painting. While, say, Morris’s textiles, Gimson’s furniture, or Ashbee’s jewellery manifested exquisite finish and superb technical skill, a good deal of ACM production had a home-made air. This was a deliberate endeavour (effort) to proclaim that these objects were not made by machine. It was a point of honour with ACM artists to respect the materials they worked with. Machines, they thought, had destroyed the intimate relationship between a craftsman and his material, and this they aimed to restore, using natural materials and relishing (recherchant, appréciant) rough textures. Nature was for them the chief source of applied ornament.

By the beginning of the 20th century, the ACM had established itself as the principal art movement in Britain, and was well known abroad, through illustration in European magazines. In Europe, Germany responded most enthusiastically to Arts and Crafts influence.

After the First World War the ACM declined. Although some adherents of the ACM accommodated themselves to the machine, and were involved in the foundation of the Design and Industries Association in 1915, its anti-machine stance (position anti-mécaniste) no longer carried weight. Indeed, when the “Modern Movement” (which glorified the machine-made) had become established, the art historian Nikolaus Pevsner, in his book Pioneers of the Modern Movement (1936), argued that the ACM had foreshadowed it. This view was widely accepted for many years, but now the idea that there was a line of progressive advance from the ACM to Modernism does not command assent (n’est plus unanimement acceptée). There were, indeed, common elements of ideology and theory in the two movements, but the art and architecture they created are unmistakably different.

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