The Arts and Crafts Movement for Our Times

In this post, Ruby explores the Arts and Crafts Movement and its relevance to the situation many of us find ourselves in today, during an interview with Dr Colin Trodd.

I wanted to write a blog about the Arts and Crafts Movement as it seemed very relevant to today’s world, in which we have seen changes never seen in our lifetimes, not dissimilar to the Victorian world these artists inhabited. Also, I, like many others during lockdown, have gotten really into craft activities and I wanted to find out why. Why in times of crisis and change do we as humans, always seem to go back to these activities?

William Morris (1834-1896) and Thomas Wardle, ‘Larkspur’. Furnishing fabric produced for Morris and Co., c.1875. Source: the Whitworth

So I interviewed Dr Colin Trodd from the University of Manchester to find out more. Below is the edited version of our interview, as we had quite a long natter, but if you want to read the full transcript of our conversation follow the link at the bottom of the page. 

Ruby: I’m interested in the political side of things because it does seem quite conflicting in the Arts and Crafts movement.

Dr Colin Trodd: Like all these terms, they’re kind of inventions, aren’t they? We talk about the Pre-Raphaelites as if they were a cohesive movement but they’re not really. You talk about Romanticism as if the people we would now call a Romantic went around saying “you know what, I’m a Romantic”. The term Romanticism, it’s not invented in the 1870’s and 80’s, but becomes kind of codified then, in this country at least

Charles Fairfax Murray, ‘Portrait of William Morris’. C.1870. Source: the Whitworth

And again, the Arts and Crafts Movement was a spectrum; different people having different opinions as to what it is and what they think that the craft should achieve. So, on one part of the spectrum you have people like William Morris, Ford Maddox Brown and C.R Ashbee, all of whom believe in Socialism in one form or another. Then you get other figures who are much more interested in the technical aspects of craft issues- they’re not political, and if they are political, they’re conservative.

John Ruskin (1819-1900), ‘Venetian Well-head’, c.1850-1853. Source: the Whitworth

So, Ruskin, for instance, could be taken up by Socialists or he could be seen as profoundly traditional, in the sense that he looks, not so much to the future, but he looks back to the Medieval age, an ideal moment when the artisan was able to express his or herself freely as a crafts person. Someone like Morris, however, is always imagining a future, which is based on Gothic principals, that’s for sure, but is really rooted in the transformation of the social world through Socialism.

R: Yeah, because with his book, News from Nowhere, it’s almost like his manifesto of what he believes the future could look like.

CT: Yes, that’s right, but all of these people, whether they’re conservative or Socialists, all of them generally respect Ruskin, they realised that he’s the figure that brings into focus the kind of nihilism of capitalism, which reduces everything to a monetary value. So, you can be a Romantic High Tory criticising capitalism, or you can be a Socialist criticising capitalism- the arguments are often very similar.

R: The Whitworth had an exhibition a year or so ago called Joy for Ever which looked at Unto This Last and his sort of history and what he did in life. And I find it quite interesting, with this movement, which seems to not only be about enriching the lives of Middle-Class people, but also Working-Class people and looking at, you know, enriching their lives and making their work (i.e. in mills and factories) better.

CT: Yeah there’s definitely that element to it, that kind of missionary Socialism, or missionary aestheticism it’s called sometimes. A sense that you’ve got to create these institutions such as guilds. But yeah, you’re absolutely right there is that sense in which there was an interest in getting people to realise that they’re creative- these people are not Fine Artists. So, again the wider thing here is a dislike or a distrust of culture of the oil painting, easel painting and therefor a distain for the Royal Academy, which is seen to be an elitist organisation that defines art through oil painting.

R: I read your paper on the Royal Academy, which is very interesting, and it was about the authority of the Royal Academy and as I was reading it, I felt like the Arts and Crafts Movement was almost like a protest against it?

CT: Against the Royal Academy? Definitely yeah, I mean if you look at Walter Crane’s writings in particular, there’s a long tradition of hostility to the Royal Academy that comes from, well really it starts from Blake- Blake’s particularly hostile to Joshua Reynolds. But in the 1820’s and the 1830’s you get various figures, and this is well before the arts and crafts movement, although the arguments mobilised by some of these people are kind of proto arts and crafts.

So that fusion of the worker and the artist, a key theory in the movement, predates the Arts and Crafts Movement, and that explains why Blake gets so much space in the Arts and Crafts Movement. But it’s not just because he’s seen to be a radical, politically, it’s because he’s seen to be a person, who in essence, creates his own guild- he became a sort of one-man workshop, so there’s no division of labour with Blake- he does everything! He thinks of the artwork, he creates it and he sells it as well, that’s the plan, and he also mixes his own colours, so he does absolutely everything. There’s no division of labour in ‘Blake Land’ so they love him for that reason.

R: Yeah that’s interesting that someone who wasn’t a part of the movement, because this was after his time, was so instructive and inspirational to those artists.

CT: Yeah well, Blake didn’t like oil painting- he doesn’t do any of that kind of stuff. He regards it as an invention, bizarrely, of the 17th Century, which is…’Blake logic’ is charming but it’s not really logic, but he’s convinced that it’s some kind of set of machinations put together by academies to destroy the vision of true creatives. He’s someone who, essentially, creates his own relief etchings and these extraordinary things called his ‘Continental Prophecies’ or his ‘Prophetic Books’ and they tend to be the things that people remember him for, rather than his exercises in watercolour painting which he does.

R: Yeah, we’ve got a few of his watercolours at the gallery.

CT: That’s right, there’s the Milton set but the most famous work is the Ancient of Days, and people think that’s a gigantic painting but it isn’t, it’s just a relief etching that comes out of his Prophetic Books which he writes from the 1790’s. But if you look at writings from just about any member of the so-called Arts and Crafts Movement, but particularly Ashbee, Blake and Water Crane, he’s presented as this universal figure that represents the crafts ethos.

William Blake (1757-1827), ‘Europe’ Plate I: Frontispiece, ‘The Ancient of Days’, c.1827? Source: the Whitworth

R: Something that I find interesting with Walter Crane, in comparison to William Morris, is that Crane did a lot of propaganda work with the various Socialist leagues and Labour groups he was part of. And William Morris seemed to have a real disconnect between his art and his politics. It seems very removed.

CT: Yes, he is slightly more disconnected early on, I think, but he does try to produce images that generate a sort of sense of what his politics are later on in his life that’s for sure. But Crane sees himself as someone who is furthering the cause, I mean Crane ends up in Manchester. He’s an important figure in the regional history of the art world, that’s for sure. But I think Ashbee’s is also hugely important and is often overlooked.

Walter Crane (1845-1915), ‘The Triumph of Labour’. Source: the Whitworth

R: I actually don’t know a whole lot about Ashbee so if you could tell me a little bit, a sort of soundbite, of how you’d describe his work?

CT: Ashbee is another sort of complex figure- he’s not exactly like Morris or Crane, he’s university educated and he’s someone that sets up a Guild of the Handicrafts which is initially based in London but he moves it from the East End all the way down to Chipping Camden in the Cotswolds. And he’s relatively well off, in fact, he’s an architect and designer, as well as a writer, and he’s very much someone who comes out of this Ruskinian tradition of the nobility of craft labour and this sense in which the craftsman has this mission to improve the lives of the working people that surround him. So, he recruits lots of working-class people to work in his workshop.

And another figure who’s interesting, and who is overlooked, is Mackmurdo. Mackmurdo is on the other side of the Arts and Crafts Movement (politically), he’s a liberal, and always kind of marginalised in traditional accounts of the Arts and Crafts Movement, partly because he kind of disappears from that world and in effect kind of stops seeing himself as a designer and an architect by about 1900 or so, but again he’s well worth looking at because he’s another one of those figures who’s fascinated by Blake. But, Mackmurdo, who’s clearly someone who’s on some level some kind of fantasist because again at the end of his life with the Arts and Crafts revival by German writers, he decides that he actually invented it! And that Morris and the others were kind of secondary figures. Part of his own kind of megalomania, I guess.

R: Wow that’s…wow.

CT: But look out for C.R Ashbee’s writings on the internet archives, they’re fairly short and they give a really good vision of what he imagined the craft world can achieve and what workshop culture should set out to achieve as well. But he does believe in the notion of co-operation that’s another important aspect of the arts and crafts movement isn’t it? This notion that people co-operate together to work on a common project.

R: It’s quite interesting, as I’ve read different writings on the Arts and Crafts Movement and a lot of it talks about how there was fairly little collaboration for a movement that was so much about community. Artistically speaking, rather than socially, there seemed to be very little overlap.

CT: I think a lot of groupings come out of Ruskin’s writings because you know there are Ruskin societies set up in Manchester, and then there were various Arts and Crafts communities that spring up in places like Hazelmere, Peasants Association and then there were various workshops that bubble up in places like Cheswick called an industrial design school. All these places are community-based and are seen as furthering the interests of local people and drawing upon local craft skills. There’s a Compton guild that was set up by Mr and Mrs Watts, and that’s a classic example of trying to embed craft into a local community. And there are also other organisations that aren’t called ‘Arts and Crafts’ organisations, but none the less draw upon the Crafts Movement more broadly. I’m thinking of the Home Crafts Association, that ran in parallel to the main organisations.

R: By ‘Mr and Mrs Watts’ do you mean G.F Watts?

CT: Yeah, George Frederic Watts and his wife Mary they set up, well she does really, they set up this pottery in Compton in Surrey, which I think was called the Home Arts Association.

R: That’s interesting in terms of the history of the Whitworth because the first acquisitions the gallery collected was work related to the Arts and Crafts Movement, tapestries and wallpapers by Morris and Co and Love and Death by G.F Watts was the first work to enter the collection. Why do you think that was? Was it that the purpose of the gallery kind of mirrored that idea of enriching the lives of working-class people so that they can produce better work?

CT: That’s a really good area to discuss isn’t it- because what you’ve got running alongside the Arts and Crafts Movement, or perhaps it’s part of it is this realisation that really kicks off in the middle of the 19th Century that art might just be about motions of hospitality. And Ruskin is certainly someone who believes in that, believes in the notion that the perfect artform is hospitable in some way. It deals with human relationships- it deals with human exchange. I’m thinking of the importance of the porch as a space in Arts and Crafts architecture- that kind of homeliness.

And a great figure of influence over here would be Augustus Comte, a great French political scientist or philosopher who influences all sorts of people in this country, particularly a man called Fredrick Harrison who sets up this church of humanity in London. And many of the figures that were involved in the Arts and Crafts Movement were either fellows or fellow travellers of this organisation.

George Frederic Watts (1817-1904), ‘Love and Death’, oil painting. Source: the Whitworth

So, there’s all sorts of connections, really, between these movements and the Arts and Crafts Movement and Watts, and you mentioned that large painting earlier on, sits very neatly into this culture of altruism, this sense of there’s this love greater than self-love and Capitalism is associated with this self-love by these figures, there was a sense of service and duty. So, the Arts and Crafts Movement is linked into this very complex picture of anti-Capitalist activity. Now having said that, not all of the Arts and Crafts Movement were anti-Capitalist. People like Voysey weren’t, and I’ve already mentioned Mackmurdo who saw himself as part of a wholly commercial society in its endless forms. But most of the famous figures in the Arts and Crafts world were at least sceptical of the money-worshiping aspects of the modern age.

Charles Francis Annesley Voysey (1857-1941) for Alexander Morton and Co Ltd (1867-1914) ‘Helena Range’ (1895 – 1897) Source: the Whitworth

R: I find that a lot of William Morris’s earlier work very separate from his politics- although not entirely.    

CT: Yeah, that was from when he saw himself as a Liberal. He doesn’t become a Marxist until quite late on. But it’s like most of these figures, their positions adjusted over the course of time. Then again, you go back to someone like Blake and, whether or not we see him as when he was responding to the French Revolution in the 1790’s and perhaps he was a revolutionary, or perhaps later on where he becomes more conservative or mainstream in his views. Human beings are complex!   

There comes that broader trend of altruism that’s very strong in Victorian thought, particularly in the second half of the 19th Century. And this is a response to the soullessness, or the materialism of the modern age. And Ruskin is the forceful figure that thrust that argument into the foreground, with Unto This Last most famously, where he’s constantly arguing against Mill which he presents as a utilitarian, which probably misrepresents the Mill’s position. But nonetheless he needs to find an enemy in his account of his vision of how human beings should operate.  

Hubert von Herkomer (1849-1914), ‘Portrait of John Ruskin’, c. 1880. Source: the Whitworth

R: I find that side of Ruskin quite amusing, because he always seems to be the antagonist.  

CT: I think he needed to have an enemy to develop his vision, and in identifying his enemy he sometimes exaggerates. I think Mill gets attacked by him for reasons which were not entirely accurate, I have to say. But it doesn’t matter. Ruskin clearly has a bigger argument there about what he sees as the horrors of Victorian living, and who can blame him!?  

R: No not at all! I have read that Ruskin and Morris had quite a big fall out.  

CT: Well Ruskin falls out with just about everyone doesn’t he? From his wife to, most famously I suppose, Ford Maddox Brown, and of course Morris. Morris could be quite truculent as well, so it’s difficult to know the full circumstances of what happened. Having said that, Morris of course regards Ruskin as the great social prophet of the age, and he was.

R: Ruskin was a very interesting man…I find his humanity really comes out of what he created. He’s a very human being I would say.  

CT: Yeah, I think so. And, of course behind Ruskin looms another figure who probably doesn’t get as much airtime as him, but Ruskin regarded him as his intellectual idol, which was Thomas Carlyle. He’s another figure who’s interested in, perhaps not as explicitly as Ruskin, what he regards as grotesque features of modern life. But Ruskin’s writings on the grotesque are particularly good I think, and you’ll find a lot of them in the Stones of Venice, particularly around the second of the three editions where he talks about the nature of gothic.  

R: So, on that note of the sort of grotesque lifestyle people had in those days, with the Coronavirus at the moment with people in lockdown, there has been a kind of resurgence of craft activities. Things like knitting, myself included, and sewing and things that would have pleased all the people involved in the Arts and Crafts Movement. I can only imagine it being a sort of reaction to our times, people wanting something safe and something that is familiar, something that is based in our history as people. Making things with our hands and by ourselves is something that seems to be a very crucial thing.  

CT: Handmade- yeah that’s it, that’s the crucial thing. If you read Ruskin, particularly in the Nature of Gothic, he talks about the kinetic power of the hand of the Medieval craftsman. He’s comparing the Medieval craftsman and his hands and what he sees as his sort of energy to what he sees as the sort of formulaic nature of the Greek sculptor, who’s presented as a kind of automaton.  So yeah, it’s about that authenticity of the energy that comes through a mobile hand, that expresses itself freely. So, the handmade thing is crucial and the other reason it’s crucial to Ruskin, and to the Arts and Crafts Movement, is that it’s unique- it’s unrepeatable. So, it’s not reproduced: it’s authentic. Ruskin is horrified by the Great Exhibition of 1861, because he sees it as the sort of cult of similitudes. The hand becomes this kind of purity really, that free hand, that handmade thing that’s not perfect in terms of its outcome, but perfect in how it’s produced.

R: I find it really interesting that across most of the Arts and Crafts Movement, and I know for a fact that Ruskin would have been a part of this, but they seemed to be more accepting of female artists.

CT: That’s right, that’s another important thing isn’t it, there was this sense of democracy, not just through work, but there isn’t this hierarchy through this notion of training, specialisation nor the idea that men create better art than women because they’re involved with ‘higher forms of art’. The movement was interested in creating communities, which are egalitarian essentially, as much as they can be. Obviously, there would be a master craftsman who runs the workshop, but the people they trained up were seen to have these specialised skills that gave them their independence. Think of something locally which fits into this discussion of women being employed, do you know this very interesting gallery over at Birkenhead called the Williamson Art Gallery?

 R: I think I’ve heard of it.

CT: They have this collection of works produced by this fascinating pottery that was set up by a man called Rathbone, who was a follower of Ruskin effectively, and it was called the Della Robbia Potteries. And they made all this wonderful earthenware, these wonderful vases and a lot of the people that worked there were women trained by one or two professionals and most of the collectable items were produced by working class men and women from Merseyside in the 1890’s though to about 1910. So yes, women were important, not just as producers but figures that collaborate and were involved in organising some of these communities. The Home Arts Association, which we talked about earlier on, which is essentially an Arts and Crafts Movement community that was ran by women.

William Morris (1834 – 1896) Morris and Company (Merton Abbey) (b.1881) Morris and Company (1861 – 1940) ‘Strawberry Thief’ (1883). Source: the Whitworth

R: I want to finish this interview off with something about you, so what inspired your interest in the Arts and Crafts Movement in the first place?

CT: For years I was a bit blasé about the Arts and Crafts Movement, having written about all sorts of other subjects I kind of thought that it had been written about exhaustively by other writers. So, what actually brought me to it was Blake, realizing that a lot of these people, Crane and Ashbee in particular, though lots of others as well (but not Morris- Morris basically ignored Blake). But the others were interested in him and regarded him as a prototypical figure, someone who invented the ethos, the philosophy of the Arts and Crafts Movement. And as someone who writes about Blake, and I’ve written a very long book on Blake, Afterlife. So, in a way, I came to the Arts and Crafts Movement via Blake. I’ve always had an interest in Ruskin as well.

R: Thank you very much for chatting with me.

One thought on “The Arts and Crafts Movement for Our Times

  1. Interesting to revisit the Arts & Crafts Movement in the Covid-19 context…along with the current resurgence in crafts with so many people wanting to make things and be creative with their hands, there is a comparison with less love of capitalism. People are making, re-purposing, sharing and upcycling rather than having to have the latest goods making it more equitable. Even if its hard to survive with less money to go around, hope can be found through making.


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