History explorer: the arts and crafts movement

Rosalind Ormiston and Spencer Mizen visit Standen House in West Sussex to explore a movement that championed the virtues of traditional craftsmanship

Bridge Cottage, Wirral. (Photo by Corbis Documentary/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the December 2016 issue of BBC History Magazine

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If you’re looking for evidence of the terrible damage wrought on working-class people by the relentless rise of industrialisation in the 19th century then, on the face of it, Standen House isn’t a good starting point. This beautiful country pile, nestled in a leafy corner of rural West Sussex, can seem a million miles from the dark, satanic mills of Victorian Manchester or the sprawling, poverty-ridden slums of east London. But appearances can be deceptive.

Today, on a gorgeous autumnal afternoon, Standen is a picture of moneyed tranquility. Some 120 years ago, however, it was one of the jewels in the crown of the Arts and Crafts Movement, a crusade that sought to improve the lot of people for whom life was neither moneyed nor tranquil. Like-minded thinkers When the architect Philip Webb put his final touches to Standen House in 1894, Britain was at the peak of its industrial powers. It had assembled the greatest empire the world had ever seen and, from Glasgow to Cornwall, hundreds of factories churned out the products that fuelled the country’s global pre-eminence. Yet for Webb and a coterie of like-minded thinkers, there was a price to pay for Britain’s industrial might, and that was in the lives of the huge numbers of people who worked in these factories. Having flocked to the cities from the countryside, many lived in squalid conditions, earning little. Almost as concerning for Webb and co, workers felt a total disconnect with the objects they were mass-producing. It was this alienation that led to the gorgeous wallpapers, carpets and gables that grace Standen House. But the Arts and Craft Movement wasn’t just a crusade against the rise of the factory. It was also a backlash against bad design. And, says Rosalind Ormiston, an expert in architecture and design history, in the 1850s a small but significant minority of Britain’s artistic community was seeing bad design everywhere.

“These people – among them Philip Webb, the art critic John Ruskin and a young designer named William Morris – believed that industrialisation had had a catastrophic impact on aesthetic values,” says Rosalind. “Because designers now had the means to mass-produce anything, that’s exactly what they did – without any reference to taste or functionality. So suddenly you had chairs being made out of antler’s horns, and threshing machines adorned with Egyptian hieroglyphs. To the likes of Ruskin, Webb and Morris, these were ugly and unusable.” If there’s a defining moment in the early history of the Arts and Crafts Movement, then it may be the Great Exhibition of 1851. Organised by Prince Albert and the renowned inventor Henry Cole, this massive exposition of cutting-edge designs in Hyde Park was one of the most anticipated events of the 1850s. But in the eyes of some, it was a great cathedral of vulgarity and pretentiousness. For William Morris especially, it proved a call to arms.

Joy in labour

“William Morris enjoyed a wonderful upbringing in the countryside,” says Rosalind. “He developed a youthful obsession with the Middle Ages – he read Walter Scott’s Waverley novels, and his parents bought him a suit of armour – and that was to have a huge impact on the Arts and Crafts Movement.”

The adult Morris harked back to the guilds of the Middle Ages, when craftsmen designed and manufactured products for their own communities, using local materials. In this production method, Morris saw a quality of craftsmanship, a joy in labour, and a connection with materials utterly removed from the sterile, deadline-dominated factory lines of his own day. Yet Morris wasn’t content to merely rail against the pernicious effects of industrialisation. Instead, he did something about it. That something became a reality in 1858 when he decided he needed a commune for all his artistic friends to gather. To that end he asked his good friend Philip Webb to design a house for him in Bexleyheath, London. The result, the Red House, was to become the first Arts and Crafts Movement home, and would kickstart an artistic revolution that would take Britain – and much of the industrialised world – by storm.

“What made the Arts and Crafts Movement so powerful was that it encompassed all aspects of design,” says Rosalind. “So when Morris decided to hold a design party at the Red House – but realised he didn’t have any furniture for his guests to sit on – he made them himself. Soon his company – Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co – were producing everything from chairs to silverware and tapestries to carpets.” And soon some of Britain’s wealthiest families were beating a path to the company’s door. One of the most famous was George Howard, 9th Earl of Carlisle, who in the 1860s commissioned Philip Webb to design 1 Palace Green in Kensington (to the chagrin of the local council planners, who disliked its red-brick design). A few years later Webb received another lucrative commission – this one from a successful solicitor named James Beale – to design him and his family a summer retreat in the countryside south of London. The result was Standen House.

“Standen is one of the finest examples of an Arts and Crafts Movement property in Britain,” says Rosalind, as we enter its impressive drawing room. “It’s steeped in the movement’s principles. It’s built from materials sourced from the local area – echoing designs in nearby East Grinstead. It’s intimate and functional – this is a house that’s designed to be lived in. And, true to the Arts and Crafts Movement’s egalitarian ethos, the servants’ quarters are above ground and were fitted with electricity – quite an innovation at the time.”

Step inside Standen House and it soon becomes obvious that Webb had an almost fanatical attention to detail. The house’s so called dog-leg corridor – resplendent in a signature William Morris trellis wallpaper – was designed to prevent unsavoury smells wafting from the kitchen to the dining room. Outside that same dining room a slate-top fitting offered servants somewhere to rest food-filled trays while they waited for the diners to finish the previous course inside. The slate fitting even has a radiator underneath it to help keep the food warm.

“Webb designed everything from the house’s huge medieval-style fireplaces to the coat hooks,” says Rosalind. “And he knew which member of the family was going to occupy which particular bedroom before he designed it, and he made it a priority to cater for their individual needs. So when one of the Beale daughters requested fitted wardrobes, that’s what she got.”

Strength and weakness

In many ways, this painstaking attention to detail, this obsession with functionality, is one of the Arts and Crafts Movement’s greatest strengths. But, in other ways, it was its primary weakness. For only the very wealthiest could afford the products of this slow, highly skilled, handmade process.

“At the outset, Webb and Morris would certainly have wanted working-class people to own their designs but the sheer man-hours required to create these products militated against that,” says Rosalind. “But that’s not to say the movement didn’t gain any traction with the working classes. In the late 19th century, thanks to Morris’s crusading zeal, scores of craftsmen’s guilds sprang up across the country.”

These included the Art Workers’ Guild, which still survives today, and the Guild of Handicraft which, shortly after its establishment in 1888, boasted numerous workshops. And, when the lease ran out on the latter’s East End base in 1902, an entire commune of 150 families moved to Chipping Camden in the Cotswolds. By the end of the 19th century, Morris was an international celebrity, and the ideas that he had done so much to champion in Britain were proving enormously popular in Japan, Germany, the United States and beyond. But the Arts and Crafts Movement’s days were numbered. The outbreak of the First World War took many craftsmen to the front. Many didn’t return, and those who did found that the tastes of the rich – on whose business their livelihood depended – had moved on to styles such as Art Deco. Yet, says Rosalind, the movement’s legacy lives on.

“That can be seen in the enduring popularity of organic foods, of handcrafted designs – which, more than a century after the Beales commissioned Standen House, still offer a vehicle for the super-rich to define themselves against the rest of us.” Few styles define Englishness better than Morris’s tapestries, wallpapers and curtains, and Webb’s inimitable gables and fireplaces. And, as the 120,000 or so visitors who descend on Standen House ever year will attest, in an age when industrialisation’s victory is seemingly complete, design flair, joy in labour and traditional handcrafted goods still have their place.

Arts and crafts: 5 more places  to explore

1

The Red House

Bexleyheath, London

Where William Morris resided The Red House was designed by Philip Webb for William Morris and his new wife, Jane Burden, after their marriage in 1859. Morris described it as “medieval in spirit”. It imbues all the qualities that the emerging Arts and Crafts Movement would aspire to.

Visit nationaltrust.org.uk

2

Blackwell

Bowness-on-Windermere, Cumbria

Where a Manchester brewer lived Built on a hill overlooking Lake Windermere, Blackwell was designed by Mackay Hugh Baillie Scott, as a relaxed, tranquil summer home for Edward Holt, a Manchester brewer. The house is a total work of art, a stunning example of Arts and Crafts ideology.

Visit blackwell.org.uk

3

Hill House

Helensburgh, Argyll and Bute

Where you’ll find a blend of styles Hill House was designed by architect-designer Charles Rennie Mackintosh as a residential home for Glasgow publisher Walter Blackie and his family. Mackintosh conceived the house and nearly everything in it, blending Arts and Crafts, Scottish baronial and Art Nouveau aesthetics.

Visit nts.org.uk

4

Coleton Fishacre

Near Dartmouth, Devon

Where the new ‘Jazz Age’ is evident This country home was designed by Oswald Milne in the Arts and Crafts style, for Sir Rupert and Lady Dorothy D’Oyly Carte. The interior is a mix of Arts and Crafts and Art Deco styles, reflecting the 1920s’ new ‘Jazz Age’.

Visit nationaltrust.org.uk

5

St Martin’s Church

Brampton, Cumbria

Where stained glass stuns visitors Philip Webb’s only church design exemplifies the Arts and Crafts style. Its windows are filled with stunning stained glass designed by Edward Burne-Jones. In Brampton, Webb also designed Green Lane House for the church vicar, and Four Gables for George Howard, 9th Earl of Carlisle.

Go to visitcumbria.com

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Rosalind Ormiston is co-author of William Morris: Artist, Craftsman, Pioneer (Flame Tree Publishing, 2010). Words: Spencer Mizen.