This review is reproduced here by kind permission of the online inter-disciplinary journal Cercles, where the original can be seen here. It has been reformatted and illustrated for the Victorian Web by Jacqueline Banerjee, who has also added the links and captions. Please click on the pictures to enlarge them, and for more detailed information about some of them.

The arts and crafts is a slippery concept. So slippery, in fact, that some scholars have recently suggested we should junk the term altogether. It encompasses a global movement of striking, bewildering diversity; one which stretched from the radical revivalism of anti-imperial artists in India and West Africa to a host of commercial enterprises, including an embroidery company founded by no less a figure than Queen Victoria. Its origins stretch back to the early nineteenth century and its influence can still be felt today. Although historians have sought its founding fathers in Augustus Pugin, John Ruskin, and William Morris, in fact it lacked any formal constitution or universally-accepted set of normative texts.

Even in England, which is often seen as its heartland, those in search of the true arts and crafts have particularly struggled to define the movement's nature. Should it be assessed and analysed in formal terms? Or is best understood as a sort of political movement? Is it an atavistic approach? Or did it herald the beginning of a new sort of design philosophy? Is it the endpoint of the Gothic Revival or the starting point for the modern movement?

Edward Schroder Prior, by Elliott & Fry, an albumen cabinet card, 1900s, ©National Portrait Gallery, London (NPG x12769).

The career of the architect Edward Prior offers a good example of these dilemmas. Prior was a founding member of the Art Workers' Guild; a leading figure in the campaign to oppose the professionalisation of architecture; and a man whose commitment to the movement was reflected, not least, in the very small number of projects he actually undertook. His desire to control every aspect of every project was a natural limitation to his success – and echoes, in that respect, pioneering arts and craftsmen like Morris' ally Philip Webb. Prior was also an author, one whose work celebrated the artisanal traditions which the arts and crafts movement was expected to revive.

Nonetheless, on closer examination, even Prior proves hard to pigeonhole. Indeed, in this book, the first ever biography of its subject, the arts and crafts is characterised successively by every single one of a series of apparently competing and contradictory definitions. It is seen as a formal – that is, a stylistic – movement, combining "medieval and naturalistic sources" (167). It is portrayed as a political movement – "an aesthetically led, utopian creed of ideas" (168). It is described as an attempt to "invoke early and primitive' architecture (116), but also "harbinger of the modern movement" (174), offering details "prophetic of Frank Lloyd Wright's Prairie style" (65).

Left to right: (a) Cambridge Medical School (1899), taken by Magnus Manske. (b) Home Place (also known as Voewood House), High Kelling, Norfolk, with thanks to Gavin.collins. (c) Title page of Prior's A History of Gothic Art in England from a University of California Libraries' copy in the Internet Archive.

The book nevertheless provides a very useful and wonderfully well-illustrated survey of Prior's work. This ranges from big buildings like his two "masterpieces" – a country house in Norfolk called Voewood and a church, St Andrew's Roker in Sunderland – to very small additions and refurbishments. A list of his architectural projects demonstrates just what a small practice he actually had, but will prove invaluable to scholars wishing to follow up the leads suggested by this book. It is also worth remarking on the infectious sense of enthusiasm which infuses every page of this study. Prior may be hard to categorise; his oeuvre may have been insubstantial. His career as an architect was short – and followed by a less than successful spell as professor of architecture at Cambridge. His books, too, were far from distinguished, much less "still the standard reference on the subject" (144). But Martin Godfrey Cook has the ability to make the reader empathise with Prior, whilst his images show us just how remarkable his work could be, at least when he was given the chance and a sufficiently sizeable fee.

Above all, perhaps, this biography serves to stress once again just how broad-ranging the arts and crafts proved to be. It is out of studies like this that a new synthesis may be made, one which proves capable of dealing with the many ambiguities, paradoxes, and apparent contradictions of the movement. Prior, with his celebration of medieval workmanship and willingness to use modern constructional methods, his arguments for functional architecture and his whimsical design details, is a perfect case in point. He exemplifies the fact that so many of our existing categories of analysis – aesthetic, intellectual, political, cultural – are not, at present, up to the job.

Book under Review

Cook, Martin Geoffrey. Edward Prior: Arts and Crafts Architect. Marlborough: The Crowood Press, 2015. Hardcover. 208 pages. ISBN 978-1785000119. £29.95.

Created 9 April 2016