- Arts and Crafts Objects
This is an intriguing, imaginative, and well-illustrated volume in the Studies in Design series published by Manchester University Press. It is an excellent idea to concentrate on the objects themselves, although the reader is not provided with quite as much detailed analysis of particular works as would seem to be promised by the title. Rather, what would appear to be more important here is to come to some sort of resolution of what the term “Arts and Crafts” itself might mean in England: where it might fit into the history of design and, from the point of view of this journal, its relation to the history of nineteenth-century Britain. Hovering over the text is the protean figure of William Morris himself: that burly, hyperactive, unbelievably multi-talented genius (even though he rejected that concept) so important for Victorian Britain and beyond.
What is both extremely stimulating about this study and also to a degree irritating is its praiseworthy intention to question rather relentlessly various received opinions about its subject, yet with a certain reluctance to come to firm conclusions. At first it would appear that we are to view the founding in 1861 of the first Morris firm, Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co., as less of a departure than it may have seemed previously, as less of a revulsion against the Great Exhibition of 1851. Breaks are rarely clean and Morris and his colleagues were Victorians. But the first firm and its successor, Morris & Co., were on the road to a new aesthetic that did not triumph, if then, until the end of the century. There is a fine chapter here on the houses in which Morris lived. Hart pays some attention, but less than one might expect, to Red House, built for him by Philip Webb but only inhabited for five years. There are excellent, thorough discussions of the interiors of Kelmscott Manor, Morris’s country house, and Kelmscott House, his London house in Hammersmith, also on the Thames. The contrast between those interiors and the beautifully preserved rooms of the striking but cluttered Linley Sambourne House in London is dramatic and suggests that Morris and Arts and Crafts represented more of a break than this study seems to argue.
At the other end of the time spectrum Hart takes issue—as many have done before—with the famous, perhaps notorious, thesis that Morris and the English Arts and Crafts movement led to modernism. It is to be found first in Nikolaus Pevsner’s exhilarating Pioneers of the Modern Movement (1936) and later in a revised version in his [End Page 157] Pioneers of Modern Design: From William Morris to Walter Gropius (1960). Particularly with the comparative downgrading of the International Style as the condition that all modern architecture should aspire to, Pevsner’s overly schematic analysis has been somewhat discredited. In her concluding discussion of essays by A. R. Orage, Eric Gill, and C. R. Ashbee, Hart almost appears to conclude that the Arts and Crafts movement, if it was a movement, had failed. But did it? Isn’t Pevsner to some degree right that in spite of postmodernism the modern design that we see all about us may well owe quite a bit to the design values of the Arts and Crafts?
What Hart discusses perceptively is what Arts and Crafts itself might mean. The now-standard term came upon the scene comparatively late, coined by T. J. Cobden-Sanderson as the name of an exhibition organization, the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society, founded in 1887. It was applied retrospectively to the work of Morris and his successors. Morris himself had mixed feelings about the outburst of this design activity, despairing that anything could change without a political revolution and the overthrow of capitalism. So many of his ideas as a designer, as a poet, and as a political thinker were based on rhythm and counter rhythm, indeed almost potential contradictions. Hart has a very good sense of this...