By the middle of the 19th century the Industrial Revolution had exhausted the various styles and themes recognised in the decorative arts. Over-mechanisation and mass production were seen in certain artistic circles as creating pieces that were merely a reflection of what had gone before. The Great Exhibition of 1851 was perceived by some to be the culmination of all that was wrong in design and production at the time. The 17-year-old William Morris saw it as “wonderfully ugly” and believed it represented “all that was bad in an industrial age”, while John Ruskin branded it “morally decadent”.
The Arts & Crafts Movement: exponents, ethos and evolution
Justin Roberts, Jewellery Specialist, Historian and Lecturer, considers this most British of trends which from modest origins was to be interpreted throughout much of the world.
During the 19th century the Gothic revival, under the auspices of Augustus Pugin (see images I and 2) had sowed the seeds for an alternative route: an interest in Medievalism and an appreciation of the lost crafts of the pre-Industrial age, combined with the signs of handiwork, flaws and imperfections were welcomed as indicators of individualism. Artists were quick to adopt the religious and mystical symbolism so common in Medieval art – the galleon as a symbol of the Elizabethan Age of discovery and adventure, or the Peacock, a symbol of immortality and resurrection.
In addition, the opening up of Japan to the West generated significant interest in the country’s arts, culture and products, notably silks, lacquer, porcelain and metalware. The clean, linear lines seen in Japanese art were to heavily guide the work of designer Christopher Dresser, ironically this style pre-empted the Art Moderne movement of the 1920s (see image 3).
One of the major artistic influences of the period can be traced to the activities of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Founded in 1848 by artists William Holman Hunt, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and John Everett Millais, the society’s mantra was to create art suitable for the modern age expressed through a magic and symbolic realism which harked back to the Medieval Age and the art of 15th century Italy (see image 4).
The fusion of these various design movements helped to forge the new English style, which developed in reaction to the extreme systemisation seen in high Victorian design. Mass production characterised mainstream Victorian culture, whereas the new aesthetic championed individuality. English Arts & Crafts’ design ethos was rooted in Britain’s Medieval and Celtic past. There was a strong correlation between jewellery designers and painters: they all moved within the same artistic circles, and many artists who had started their careers as painters or architects saw the creation of jewels as the natural extension of their oeuvre.
The Guild of Handicraft, established in London in 1888 by the young radical architect Charles Robert Ashbee, became one of the foremost Arts & Crafts’ workshops of the period. Influenced by the ideas of William Morris, Ashbee’s aim was to establish a craft guild based on the Medieval example.
In 1901 the Guild relocated to the Cotswolds market town of Chipping Campden in order to create a colony along the lines of the Darmstadt Colony of Jugendstil artists in Germany. The focus was on communal life: some 150 artists and craftsmen lived and worked away from the industrial metropolis of London, enabling Ashbee to create a new society based on the socialist ideals and principles of the Medieval guild. The Guild specialised in metalworking, producing jewellery and enamels as well as hand-wrought copper and wrought ironwork. Ashbee himself designed jewels, frequently based on the popular Guild motif of the peacock. In the early 1900s he designed 12 brooches and a necklace based on this subject, the most iconic being the brooch he created in 1900 for his wife Janet, (see images 5, 6 and 7).
Although initially successful, the inevitable economic realities of the model made it impossible for the Guild to compete with the machine-made and less expensive items produced in volume in Birmingham by its competitors. As the movement’s exposure and popularity grew, it became clear that the consumer admired the aesthetics of the Medieval past but didn’t want to pay high artisan rates for it. The reality was that the Guild would never be commercially viable unless it watered down its desire to pursue a socialist utopian dream, and so it closed in 1908.
However, the continued enthusiasm for the new movement based on a Medieval and Celtic heritage was embraced by the firm of Liberty & Co.
Founded in 1875 by Arthur Lazenby Liberty, a Regent Street draper, Liberty popularised these designs and made them readily available to the public by, paradoxically, adopting the mechanisation abhorred by the early founders and cleverly employing some of the renowned Arts & Crafts designers, such as Archibald Knox, Jessie King and the husband-and-wife partnership, the Gaskins, (see images 8, 9, 10 and 11).
Such was his success that ‘Stile Liberty” was adopted in Italy to define the local variant of Art Nouveau. Liberty’s clients included members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and such luminaries of the age as Oscar Wilde who remarked that “Liberty is the chosen resort of the artistic shopper”.
On stage, Miss Lily Brayton, the Victorian Shakespearean actress, accessorised her Medieval costume with one of Archibald Knox’s Liberty necklaces, (see image 12).
Through his Celtic-inspired precious metal and pewter wares Archibald Knox became a household name, he titled the gold and silver range ‘Cymric’ and the pewter ‘Tudric’ to evoke the golden age of the Tudors. In jewellery, silver was employed as much as gold, while cabochon stones, and blister pearls were favoured for their irregularity, and hammered decoration and rivets were appreciated as evidence of the maker’s work. Liberty produced platinum jewels too, set with black opals, aquamarines and diamonds, configured into iconic Celtic ornaments, as far removed from the mainstream Belle Époque jewels of the Garland Style as can be imagined, (see image 13).
There was a strong correlation between the new English Arts & Crafts style and similar crafts movements in continental Europe, such as the Jugendstil style of Germany. The Anglo German firm Mürrle, Bennett & Co., founded by Ernst Mürrle and John Bennett is a good example of this phenomenon: with strong stylistic similarities to the designs of Archibald Knox, their jewels became widely fashionable and were sold through Liberty & Co. (see image 14). Arts & Crafts’ influences also spread through Scandinavia and the Russian empire, drawing inspiration there from the pan-Slavic style of Medieval Russia.
From humble beginnings forged as a reaction against the saturated designs of the Victorian age, Arts & Crafts was to operate on a global scale and unlike its Art Nouveau cousin continued to flourish and evolve after the First World War.