A Rebellion Of Substance And Style: The Arts And Crafts Trail

By Ylva French | 01 November 2004
Shows a staircase inside Red House.

Wooden staircase at the Red House, home of Arts and Crafts guru William Morris. Now owned by the National Trust, the house, decorated in medieval style, is open to visitors. Photo © Barry Waddam.

Introduction to the Arts and Crafts Movement

The Arts and Crafts Movement developed in 19th century Britain as a rebellion against the fashion for over-elaborate design and as an attempt to reverse the growing dehumanisation of work in society.

It was based on simple forms, truth to materials and the use of nature as the source of pattern. Young London-based architects were inspired by the ideas of the founders, John Ruskin and William Morris. They founded the Art Workers' Guild in 1884 to break down barriers between architects, artists, designers and makers.

The work of Arts and Crafts-men and women has endured, multiplied and can be found today in museums, galleries, historic houses and homes across the UK. It remains an inspiration for artists and craftspeople working today.

Shows a photograph of a flowered wallpaper design.

Chrysanthemum Wallpaper, 1876. Intricately designed William Morris wallpaper such as this was hand-printed with wood blocks. Courtesy of the Private Collection, Bridgeman Art Library.

In 2005 the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, itself a celebration of the work of William Morris and his contemporaries, will be staging an International Arts and Crafts Movement exhibition from March 17 to July 10 2005.

This major exhibition will be the first to explore the Arts and Crafts movement from a truly international perspective. It traces the development of the movement from its flourishing in Britain in the 1880s, through the widespread espousal of Arts & Crafts ideals and their interpretation and development in America and Europe, to its final manifestation as the Mingei (folk craft) movement in Japan from 1926 to 1945.

Shows a black and white photograph of William Morris.

William Morris, synonymous with Arts and Crafts, intricate designs and beautiful wallpaper and tapestry. Private Collection, Bridgeman Art Library/Ken Walsh.

What is Arts and Crafts?

The Arts and Crafts Movement was a rebellion of substance as well as style. Its power came from the conviction that art and craft could change people's lives. Its strong social and moral purpose has ensured its continuing relevance. Many guilds and workshops were set up which had a long lasting impact on communities.

The work could be highly decorated but was often extremely plain. The roughness and simplicity of some work was shocking, one reviewer in 1899 referred to an Arts and Crafts piece as looking 'like the work of a savage'. However most pieces show a concern for and understanding of craftsmanship. The bright colours, rich patterns and textures of many pieces are visually stunning

For the first time women took a leading role in a major art movement as designers, makers and consumers. Both the home and women's role in it were elevated bringing a subversive freshness to architecture and interior decoration. The Arts & Crafts Movement encouraged the involvement of amateurs and students as well as professionals through organisations such as the Home Arts and Industries Association.

photo of a living room decorated with arts and crafts style furniture

The interiors of Wightwick Manor boast Arts and Crafts furniture and fabrics and some important examples of pre-Raphaelite artworks. © National Trust

CR Ashbee, architect, leading member of the Arts and Crafts Movement and founder the Guild and School of Handicraft in the East End of London, wrote that 'the proper place for the Arts and Crafts is in the country'. An element of the movement included both the romanticising of rural life and an attempt to preserve its surviving heritage. There were significant Arts and Crafts communities in the Cotswolds, in Cornwall around Newlyn, and at Ditchling in Sussex.

Art schools and technical colleges particularly in London, Glasgow, and Birmingham played an important role in developing the movement. In return the Arts and Crafts ideas influenced the teaching of art, craft and design in Britain through to the 1950s and later.

This trail is in three parts. Click on the links below to find out about:

The Victoria and Albert Museum, Greater London and the South East / Cheltenham, the Cotswolds, Midlands and Lake District / Glasgow and the Scottish Legacy

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