The Revolution they had in mind….

Arts and Crafts room England

Entrance Hall Alcove Sitting Room, Wightwick Manor

Have nothing in your houses which you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.  William Morris

I’ve been writing about the Arts and Crafts movement in Sweden, Finland and Great Britain, and I just found a wonderful synopsis of the philosophy by Stephen Calloway in the book, The Arts and Crafts Houses in Britain:

The great protagonists of the Arts and Crafts cause were in a real sense revolutionaries.  The artists, craftsmen, thinkers  and writers, architects and designers who initiated the movement in the second half of the nineteenth century and those who carried it forth into the twentieth shared an ideal of changing the world….That this revolution was to be entirely peaceful one does not mean that it’s aim was any less radical.  But this would be an uprising of makers, not destroyers; of artists and aesthetes, not iconoclasts.  These high-minded revolutionaries had no wish to pull down governments of rdepose kings.  They sought, however, nothing less than the overthrow of what they perceived to be an iniquitous social order, a system founded upon the exploitation and degradation of labour; a system based upon greed that filled the marketplace with shoddy goods and a commercial world that found the inevitable expression of its debased values in the ever-increasing ugliness of modern life. 

The desire of these revolutionaries was to bring about a new artistic and social order not by forcing change and innovation upon an uwilling public but, rather, by showing that there is a better way to live.  This improvement would be achieved, they believed, in large part, by a return to the old ways.  Their goal was to re-create a world in which beauty could again triumph over meanness, ugliness and utilitarian compromise.  By championing the old craft skills against the power of the machine, they aimed at the reversal of the inexorable and overwhelming trend of nineteenth-centruy “progress” towards the production of almost all everyday goods in soulless factory conditions.  The men and women of the Arts and Crafts movement sought, above all, to transform manufacture and thereby to change society, bringing content and delight to the rich man and the poor alike through the making of beautiful things.  In the joys of fine craftsmanship lay the answer to the besetting miseries of the age; all would achieve happiness, either as the reward of honest work or through living well in the possession of Beauty.

The quintessential expression of these lofty, but, as they fervently believed, universally applicable ideas lay in the creation of the “House Beautiful.”  Not surprisingly, this was an ideal most readily achievable by the rich, but it remained a concept that, at its most utopian, aimed at the improvement of not only the mansion of the wealthy p0atron but also the simple dwelling of the working man. 

The idea of a house fashioned, for those who could afford it, from top to bottom according to the vision and design of a single artist or architect waqs, of course, nothing new; in the early eighteenth century William Kent had been celebrated for the care that he bestowed upon devising the entire look of his projects, specifying everything from the the plan of the house and its every architectural flourish down to the shape of the chair or table, the fall of a drapery and the moulding of a picture frame.  Adam, Wyatt, Soane and other architects of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries had revealed a similar genius for dictating the interior decoration, choosing colours and fabrics and designing the furniture for their houses.  But such architects held themselves aloof from their craftsmen and tradesmen, expecting them to follow design drawings and the written specifications of works to the letter…..

William Morris, the founding father of the Arts and Crafts and the tireless powerhouse of the erly days of the movement, was the first to approach the whole question of design and manufacture in a new way….Having fallen under the infulence of the Pre-Raphaelite poet-painter Dante Gabriedl Rossetti, and already in love with the literature and legend of the Middle Ages, Morris made the great intellectual leap of seeing in the art, the buildings and the craftsmanship of that distant era a viable model for reforming the ills of modern industrial society. 

To Morris and to other thinkers, such as John Ruskin, the impoverishment of the visual and material culture of the day appeared as the damning indictment of both the gross social inequalities and the creeping banality and imaginative impoverishment of the modern world.  The great answer, as Morris would argue over a period of forty years of ceaseless activity, lay in reversing the century’s headlong rush towards urbanisation, captialist trade, factory production and the division of labour, in favour of a return to ancient traditions of both work and social orgainisation.  The reform and salvation of the nineteenth century was. he suggested, to be achieved only by a return to the wholesome ideals of an earlier age.  Morris urged in particular the adoption of the ethos of the medieval guildsmen and master craftsmen.  These were men, Morris believed, who had pride in their skills and knew the value of fine materials.  They were, crucially, designer-makers who understood every process of their trade and took delight in the making of beautiful objects, simple in structure and adorned with meaningful ornament.  Working in this way, Morris hoped, workmen would once again be their own masters, employed by enlightened and honourable patrons; how could such men fail to take pride in their work and live fulfilling lives?

Morris and the others of his ilk didn’t manage to revolutionsize the values of their fellowmen, but they did manage to create houses, paintings, furniture, wallpaper, books and other items that were worth preserving and loving.  That is their legacy and I don’t think any artist can hope for more.

When I read this description of the Arts and Crafts inspiration, I identify it as an indictment of the American predilection for immediate profit, rather than even an intelligent evaluation of beauty ( since communities that preserve their better architecture attract more people than those that don’t),  the wisdom that knocks down homes of archtitectural significance in order to put up a fast-food shop or drug store, as has been done in my memory in Verona and Platteville.  Mineral Point remains a sort of oasis and I hope it goes on that way.  In the meantime, my spirit is with those Arts and Craftsmen, who worked at making beautiful things and hoped to inspire their fellowmen to do the same.