In this essay I will describe the Arts and Crafts movement and how it evolved. It began during a period of unrest within Britain in the post-industrial revolution times. The movement served to bring basic crafts, which we take to be artist skills today, to a level of the fine arts of painting. We accept that crafts such as textiles, ceramics, metalwork, jewellery making and woodwork are large areas of art on the same level as painting and sculpture. This did not occur however until the late nineteenth century when the Arts and Crafts movement began.
The major influences on this movement were the writings of William Morris and John Ruskin. Not only did this movement do this wonderful thing for the art world it also introduced new themes such as the study of the ancient art of different civilisations such as Japanese, Islamic, and Celtic. The Arts and Crafts movement began around the 1870’s and 80’s mainly in England. It later filtered into Ireland, the United States and continental Europe.
It is not a movement of artists but of architects, jewellery makers, ceramicists and as a whole craftsmen. It was an attempt to reunite the artist and the craftsman.
At the time industrialisation was in full swing and many household objects were being made in factories by machines. Art had gotten to the stage where it was experiencing the decorative excesses of the nineteenth century and works became a mismatch of styles resulting in them being overly flamboyant and vulgar1.
The Arts and Crafts movement cannot be isolated to one specific style as it can be ‘exotic and precious’ or ‘homely and plain’, however, there must be evidence of hand craftsmanship2. The movement served to raise the status of furniture, textiles, metalwork and ceramics from household items to works of art.
The period was one of great prosperity and even complacency3. Artists and writers were increasingly dissatisfied with the aims and methods of the art that pleased the public4. There was a search for return to simplicity, quiet beauty and honesty of construction5. Critics of the time were unhappy with the ugliness and inequalities of industrialisation6. Proportion, simplicity of form, fitness for purpose, honesty to materials, the revival of ‘lost’ craft techniques and the enhancement of natural textures are all elements which, added to hand-craftsmanship, combined to create the Arts and Crafts style7.
The period had begun to see things like chairs being mass-produced and all looking the same because a machine had manufactured them with precision and to a given setting. There was no evidence of individuality compared to a carpenter’s craftsmanship. The character achieved by hand making an object is lost with no evidence of mistakes or flaws in the object. The new movement latched onto the ideal of a society regenerated by the values and skills of craftsmanship8. The workshop was seen as a more harmonious humanitarian place than the factories.
With the movement came a desire for novelty or the exotic. This saw craftsmen looking to new areas for inspiration. These areas included the cultures of the west, countries such as Japan. The writings of John Ruskin and William Morris greatly influenced the movement. Ruskin and Morris had hoped that the regeneration of art could be brought about by a return to medieval conditions9. William Morris (1834 – 96) was an English craftsman, painter, poet, and socialist. He was educated at oxford10.
He was an apprentice to an architect and in his spare time he wrote, modelled clay, sculpted wood and stone, illuminated manuscripts, and embroidered11. In 1861 he set up a company called Morris and Co. and they produced wallpaper, textiles, stained glass, tapestries, and furniture12. He also studied under John Ruskin; an art historian who believed that true art was expression of man’s pleasure in his work and upheld the medieval period as an ideal13. He also believed that the essence of a human is to produce and be creative in their work and to remove one serves to weaken the other.
It was from Ruskin that Morris built up most of his views. Morris captured the basis of Ruskin’s views when he said that “the art of any epoch must of necessity be the expression of it’s social life, and that the social life of the middle ages allowed the workman freedom of individual expression, which on the other hand our social life forbids him. “14 That is, the rise in industrialisation had prevented the expression of the worker to be part of the piece being created. This occurred because all human interaction with the object had been excluded from the process.