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For the Love of Beauty: British Arts and Crafts at the Turn of the Century

The seeds of the Arts and Crafts movement in America can be found in the work and ideology of two British writer/artists: John Ruskin and William Morris. Together they championed a return to an earlier handmade aesthetic, based on the medieval prototype found in the guild workshops. Personal friends and lifelong companions in the struggle against industrialization and its inherently stultifying effect on the working classes, the two challenged traditional complacencies and advocated a return to an era in which men worked with their hands and took pleasure in the fineness of their trade. Both men idealized the role of the craftsman, and felt that it was through reproduction and the use of machinery that the joy of work was lost.

Ruskin, a firm believer in the necessity of work but not at a cost to one’s soul, wrote, “It is only through labor that thought can be made healthy, and only by thought that labor can be made happy, and the two cannot be separated with impunity. It would be well if all of us were good handicraftsmen in some kind, and the dishonour of manual labor done away with altogether.” He went on to say famously, “Life without industry is guilt, and industry without art is brutality.”

Of the next generation of artists, C. R. Ashbee was the one to follow most closely in the footsteps of Ruskin and Morris. In 1890 he acquired the lease of Essex House for his Guild of Handicraft and started his company with four men, all of whom were trained to teach as well as produce work to be sold. The guild concentrated on the production of furniture and metalwork, and, in 1898, two years after Morris’s death, Ashbee purchased the Kelmscott Press and established the Essex House Press.

One of the great nineteenth century designers was Christopher Dresser, whose original patterns were influenced by Japanese art as well as Celtic design and art nouveau. Archibald Knox, with similar influences, produced designs for Liberty. The Keswick School of Industrial Art, in the Lake District, was founded by Canon Rawnsley and his wife Eleanor as a training school for local young men, and they produced works in copper and silver with strong Celtic and Norse influences, indigenous to the district. Rawnsley was a good friend of John Ruskin’s and the founder of the National Trust, and it is not surprising that the Arts and Crafts tenets of “truth to nature” and the ideal of the handcrafted were an integral part of his philosophy for the school.

In the latter half of the nineteenth century there was a resurgence of interest in the woodcut as an art form. Accompanying illustrations in books published by the Essex House and Kelmscott Presses were done in this very hands-on method. At the World’s Fair in London in 1898, visiting Japanese printers taught British craftsmen how to make the multicolored woodcuts known as ukiyo-e prints, and these became very popular among arts and craftsmen. For each color, a new block is carved and then printed simultaneously, with careful attention to aligning each one. They are labor-intensive to produce and the completely hand-done production is very much in the tradition of the Arts and Crafts aesthetic. It was often a collaborative process, with designer, block cutter, and printer working on the print together.

Among the artists who became best known for woodcuts was Frank Morley Fletcher, who taught in London and then headed the Edinburgh College of Art for many years before coming to the United States to teach at the Santa Barbara School of Art. In 1916 he published a manual, Wood-block Printing, that guided English art students in the elements of good woodcut design. Other artists, such as his friends Allan Seaby and John Platt and his student Mabel Royds, produced compositionally complex images of great beauty. And, unlike the decorative art products of Morris and Ashbee, these prints would have been more affordable to the working class.

World War I effectively heralded the end of this period of hands-on creativity. Today, at the beginning of a new century, there is a renewed interest in the process of creating by hand, with another generation of artists and craftsmen producing beautiful objects for the sheer pleasure of the process.

Nancy E. Green
Senior Curator of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs