The birth of the Arts and Crafts movement in Britain in the late 19th century marked the beginning of a change. Learn about its history and the people that influenced the movement.
The Arts and Crafts Movement was begun over 150 years ago in Britain by architects, artisans, and designers. The mid-19th century was a tumultuous time, especially in Great Britain where industrialization was changing forever what was primarily a rural, agricultural way of life, and many recognized that while there were positive benefits there was a significant loss of a way of life that had been part of their heritage for generations.
The first to write about this, and to engage with how to make a meaningful change, was A.W.N. Pugin who in Contrasts compared the peace and harmony of a medieval city with the squalor and corruption of the 19th-century metropolis in order to point out the evils of the Industrial Revolution. He made the crucial connection between art and society, equating bad art and architecture with a corrupt and diseased society. And in his own work on the glorious Houses of Parliament and many Catholic churches up and down the country, he put those ideas into practice.
“William Burges responded to these changes in ways that have created some of the most beautiful buildings and objects of the past two centuries.”
John Ruskin immediately took on this idea and championed the redemptive power of fine art and architecture to inspire people to do good deeds, which he felt would inevitably lead to a good life. In turn, he influenced William Morris who in his writings and poetry idealized the medieval past as a time when men worked at their own crafts with a degree of independence and those in charge were noble and honorable knights. Together with Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Edmund Burne-Jones, and Philip Webb, he set up a company that insured that there were items for the home that were beautiful and beautifully crafted if not, unfortunately, always affordable to all.
Others agreed with Morris that what was lost could best be addressed by returning, in terms of the domestic arts, to the ways in which artisans worked during the Middle Ages – collaboratively, collectively, and within guilds. Architects and designers such as Pugin, William Morris, Edwin Lutyens, Philip Webb, C.F.A. Voysey, and William Burges responded to these changes in ways that have created some of the most beautiful buildings and objects of the past two centuries.
Morris later came to believe that the equation was weighted the other way: unless there was honor, equity, and fairness in the world there would be no good art, but in his early writings and in the example of the work of Morris and Company he helped perpetuate the belief in the ability of art to transform and improve society. This attitude became an enormously strong influence on many Arts and Crafts architects and craftsmen, and continued to inspire artists well into the twentieth century. Even today these ideals and ideas continue to have resonance.
Among the English designers, William Morris is paramount and will be the subject of one of our upcoming tours next year in time. There are many exceptional books on his life and work, not to mention his own prodigious writings.