Although students of Victorian art, architecture, and design confidently discuss the sources, importance, and influence of the Arts and Crafts Movement, they rarely agree on precisely what it was or who belonged to the movement. Everyone seems to agree that A. W. Pugin, John Ruskin, and William Morris greatly influenced the movement, endowing it with the following ideas and emphases:
- One cannot validly distinguish between fine and applied or decorative arts.
- The artisan or craftsman should have the same imaginative pleasure and freedom as painters, sculptors, and architects.
- The Industrial Revolution both greatly damaged popular taste and did much to destroy traditional craft skills.
- Mid-nineteenth century design was by and large dreadful, and artists, sculptors, designers, craftsmen, theorists, and the buying public had work together to remedy this situation.
- Properly designed objects should embody truth to materials — what Ruskin had called the "Lamp of Truth." In practice this meant, for example, that furniture should use solid wood rather than veneers, and all objects from small pieces of jewelry to entire buildings should explore the intrinsic capacities of the materials from which they are made.
- The role of the craftsman must be appreciated.
All also agree that the Arts and Crafts Movement created the twentieth- and twenty-first century idea of Fine Craft, in which artist-craftsman produce furniture, glass, ceramics, jewelry, textiles, clothing, and other kinds of applied arts that museums, galleries, and collectors consider as either as fine art or as aesthetically equal to it. In fact, now that the intertwined worlds of commercial galleries, museums, and purchasers of fine arts have long abandoned the artist's personal skill as a criterion of excellence, Fine Crafts have filled the need for those who appreciate exquisite workmanship. The word art originally meant simply "craft" or "skill," and the word fine — or Beaux (as in les beaux arts) — became attached to art as a means of elevating it to a liberal art analogous to poetry. Now things to have come full circle; or almost.
Scholars of the movement also agree that the movement drew importantly upon or was inspired by a wide range of historically or geographically distant cultural objects and ideals ranging from Pugin and Ruskin's medievalism to the ceramics and lacquerware of Japan. Thus far, agreement. The difficulties arise when one tries to decide precisely which designers and what objects should be considered genuinely Arts and Crafts. One major problem appears in the fact that, as Clive Wainright points out in "The Architect and the Decorative Arts," the ideal of the artisan-craftsman as inspired independent artist now so much a part of contemporary culture almost never met realization earlier because architects, such as William Burges, E. W. Godwin, Charles Rennie Macintosh, F. W. Troup, and Frank Lloyd Wright, and major designers, such as C. F. A. Voysey and William Morris, designed work for others to produce: they were artist- and architect-designers rather than art-craftsmen. Secondly, designers, even some closely associated with the movement, designed materials for mechanical, if not mass, production. Third, authors do not always agree if specific artists or objects belong to the Arts and Crafts or to Japonisme or the Aesthetic Movement, in part because some of the artist-designers changed and evolved during the course of their careers. A final difficulty in delimiting what the term Arts and Crafts should mean arises in the fact that often artists who would seem to have little in common with this approach worked on projects with those who did. For example, Holy Trinity, Sloane Street, London, which is known as "the Arts and Crafts church," has work by the fine sculptor H. H. Armstead, whom I would not normally associate with the movement.
Nonetheless, certain points seem clear. In the last decades of the nineteenth century, art furniture, which had begin with the medieval revivalism pioneered by Pugin's work and that of Morris, became much lighter as Japan rather than medieval Europe became a major source of inspiration — something clearly apparent in E. W. Godwin's ebonised cabinet of 1875, C. R. Ashbee's 1895 etagère, and the turn-of-the-century cabinets of E. A. Taylor. In addition, although the artist-designer-craftsman figure never really existed in the fields of stained class, textiles, and wallpaper, and metalwork, Arthur and Georgie Gaskin, like Nelson and Edith Dawson, show that it did in jewelry. Furniture followed more slowly. But, finally, as the century nears its close, one find difficult deciding whether to call the work of the aesthetic movement, Art Nouveau, and Macintosh's early Art Deco part of the Arts and Crafts Movement or something that has moved well beyond it in new directions.
Cumming, Elizabeth, and Nancy Kaplan. The Arts and Crafts Movement. London: Thames and Hudson, 1991.
Naylor, Gillian. The Arts and Crafts Movement: A Study of Its Sources, Ideals, and Influence on Design Theory. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1971.
Skipwith, Peyton. Holy Trinity, Sloane Street. London: The Trinity Arts and Crafts Guild, 2002.
Wainright, Clive. Architect-Designers from Pugin to Mackintosh. Exhibition catalogue. London: The Fine Art Society with Haslam & Whiteway Ltd., 1981.
Last modified 22 November 2006