1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Arts and Crafts

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ARTS AND CRAFTS, a comprehensive title for the arts of decorative design and handicraft—all those which, in association with the mother-craft of building (or architecture), go to the making of the house beautiful. Accounts of these will be found under separate headings. “Arts and crafts” are also associated with the movement generally understood as the English revival of decorative art, which began about 1875. The title itself only came into general use when the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society was founded, and held its first exhibition at the New Gallery, London, in the autumn of 1888, since which time arts and crafts exhibitions have been common all over Great Britain. The idea of forming a society for the purpose of showing contemporary work in design and handicraft really arose out of a movement of revolt or protest against the exclusive view of art encouraged by the Royal Academy exhibitions, in which oil paintings in gilt frames claimed almost exclusive attention—sculpture, architecture and the arts of decorative design being relegated to quite subordinate positions. In 1886, out of a feeling of discontent among artists as to the inadequacy of the Royal Academy exhibitions, considered as representing the art of Great Britain, a demand arose for a national exhibition to include all the arts of design. One of the points of this demand was for the annual election of the hanging committee by the whole body of artists. After many meetings the group representing the arts and crafts (who belonged to a larger body of artists and craftsmen called the Art-workers’ Guild, founded in 1884),[1] perceiving that the painters, especially the leading group of a school not hitherto well represented in the Academy exhibitions, only cherished the hope of forcing certain reforms on the Academy, and were by no means prepared to lose their chances of admission to its privileges, still less to run any risk in the establishment of a really comprehensive national exhibition of art, decided to organize an exhibition themselves in which artists and craftsmen might show their productions, so that contemporary work in decorative art should be displayed to the public on the same footing, and with the same advantages as had hitherto been monopolized by pictorial art. For many years previously there had been great activity in the study and revival in the practice of many of the neglected decorative handicrafts. Amateur societies and classes were in existence, like the Home Arts and Industries Association, which had established village classes in wood-carving, metal work, spinning and weaving, needlework, pottery and basket-work, and the public interest in handicraft was steadily growing. The machine production of an industrial century had laid its iron hands upon what had formerly been the exclusive province of the handicraftsman, who only lingered on in a few obscure trades and in forgotten corners of England for the most part. The ideal of mechanical perfection dominated British workmen, and the factory system, first by extreme division of labour, and then by the further specialization of the workman under machine production, left no room for individual artistic feeling among craftsmen trained and working under such conditions. The demand of the world-market ruled the character and quality of production, and to the few who would seek some humanity, simplicity of construction or artistic feeling in their domestic decorations and furniture, the only choice was that of the tradesman or salesman, or a plunge into costly and doubtful experiments in original design. From the ’forties onward there had been much research and study of medieval art in England; there had been many able designers, architects and antiquaries, such as the Pugins and Henry Shaw (1800-1873) and later William Burges (1827-1881), William Butterfield (1814-1900) and G. E. Street and others. The school of pre-Raphaelite painters, by their careful and thorough methods, and their sympathy with medieval design, were among the first to turn attention to beauty of design, colour and significance in the accessories of daily life, and artists like D. G. Rossetti, Ford Madox Brown, and W. Holman Hunt themselves designed and painted furniture. The most successful and most practical effort indeed towards the revival of sounder ideas of construction and workmanship may be said to have arisen out of the work of this group of artists, and may be traced to the workshop of William Morris and his associates in Queen Square, London. William Morris, whose name covers so large a field of artistic as well as literary and social work, came well equipped to his task of raising the arts of design and handicraft, of changing the taste of his countrymen from the corrupt and vulgar ostentation of the Second Empire, and its cheap imitations, which prevailed in the ’fifties and ’sixties, and of winning them back, for a time at least, to the massive simplicity of plain oak furniture, or the delicate beauty of inlays of choice woods, or the charm of painted work, the richness and frank colour of formal floral and heraldic pattern in silk textiles and wall-hangings and carpets, the gaiety and freshness of printed cotton, or the romantic splendour of arras tapestry. Both William Morris and his artistic comrade and lifelong friend, Edward Burne-Jones, were no doubt much influenced at the outset by the imaginative insight, the passionate artistic feeling, and the love of medieval romance and colour of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who remains so remarkable a figure in the great artistic and poetic revival of the latter half of the 19th century. To William Morris himself, in his artistic career, it was no small advantage to gain the ear of the English public first by his poetry. His verse-craft helped his handicraft, but both lived side by side. The secret of Morris’s great influence in the revival was no doubt to be attributed to his way of personally mastering the working details and handling of each craft he took up in turn, as well as to his power of inspiring his helpers and followers. He was painter, designer, scribe, illuminator, wood-engraver, dyer, weaver and finally printer and papermaker, and having mastered these crafts he could effectively direct and criticize the work of others. His own work and that of Burne-Jones were well known to the public, and in high favour long before the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society was formed, and though largely helped and inspired by the work of these two artists, the aims and objects of the society rather represented those of a younger generation, and were in some measure a fresh development both of the social and the artistic ideas which were represented by Ruskin, Rossetti and Morris, though the society includes men of different schools. Other sources of influence might be named, such as the work of Norman Shaw and Philip Webb in architecture and decoration, of Lewis Day in surface pattern, and William de Morgan in pottery. The demand for the acknowledgment of the personality of each responsible craftsman in a co-operative work was new, and it had direct bearing upon the social and economic conditions of artistic production. The principle, too, of regarding the material, object, method and purpose of a work as essential conditions of its artistic expression, the form and character of which must always be controlled by such conditions, had never before been so emphatically stated, though it practically endorsed the somewhat vague aspirations current for the unity of beauty with utility. Again, a very notable return to extreme simplicity of design in furniture and surface decoration may be remarked; and a certain reserve in the use of colour and ornament, and a love of abstract forms in decoration generally, which are characteristic of later taste. Not less remarkable has been the new development in the design and workmanship of jewelry, gold- and silversmiths’ work, and enamels, with which the names of Alexander Fisher, Henry Wilson, Nelson Dawson and C. R. Ashbee are associated. Among the arts and crafts of design which have blossomed into new life in recent years—and there is hardly one which has not been touched by the new spirit—book-binding must be named as having attained a fresh and tasteful development through the work of Mr Cobden-Sanderson and his pupils. The art and craft of the needle also must not be forgotten, and its progress is a good criterion of taste in design, choice of colour and treatment. The work of Mrs Morris, of Miss Burden (sometime instructress at the Royal School of Art Needlework, which has carried on its work from 1875), of Miss May Morris, of Miss Una Taylor, of Miss Buckle, of Mrs Walter Crane, of Mrs Newbery, besides many other skilled needlewomen, has been frequently exhibited. Good work is often seen in the national competition works of the students of the English art schools, shown at South Kensington in July. The increase of late years in these exhibitions of designs worked out in the actual material for which they were intended is very remarkable, and is an evidence of the spread of the arts and crafts movement (fostered no doubt by the increase of technical schools, especially of the type of the Central School of Arts and Crafts under the Technical Education Board of the London County Council), of which it may be said that if it has not turned all British craftsmen into artists or all British artists into craftsmen, it had done not a little to expand and socialize the idea of art, and (perhaps it is not too much to say) has made the tasteful English house with its furniture and decorations a model for the civilized world.  (W. Cr.) 

  1. Whose members, comprehending as they do the principal living designers, architects, painters and craftsmen of all kinds, have played no inconsiderable part in the English revival.

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