Grandiloquent Designs Just what was it that made Arts and Crafts homes so different, so appealing? An uncannily contemporary combination of high specs and hair-shirt morality, says Clive Aslet
Just what was it that made Arts and Crafts homes so different, so appealing? An uncannily contemporary combination of high specs and hair-shirt morality, says Clive Aslet
EVERY STYLE HAS its time, and our miserably corrupt age calls out for the Arts and Crafts. Apologies if I’m laying it on thick, but I’ve just published a book called The Arts and Crafts Country House and my feelings are roused.
The pioneers of the Arts and Crafts movement — John Ruskin, William Morris and the like — wanted to inspire a moral and social renewal. I don’t know what Jesus Christ would do about the anti-capitalist campaigners outside St Paul’s Cathedral, but those Victorian seers would have gone to talk to them, probably at such length that they would have packed up and left screaming. Masters of the sound bite they were not, but they did have a programme for making the world better, and it answers some modern angsts.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. An aesthetic which espouses the virtues of the craftsman has long passed its sell-by date. We live in an age when even the Portland stone headstones of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission are recut, when worn, by laser. You can’t knit a mobile phone, or make a Lamborghini out of thatch. But hear me out. You don’t have to be a Rasputin-like homespun beardie to enjoy craftwork. Some of it, these days, is highly sophisticated, as well as highly finished. The ceramics specialist Joanna Bird recently held a show of Steffen Dam’s glass — incredible pieces which look like jellyfish trapped in bottles.
Chatsworth, where the Duke of Devonshire is no slouch when it comes to Contemporary art, has recently been buying Contemporary ceramics, and very fine it looks among boiseries and Old Masters. It would be just as good in an ultra-modern setting, too.
I admit that Morris got it wrong. Brawny and gregarious, red-haired and prone to explosions, Morris threw himself at the task of improving his contemporaries’ lives and taste. When he wasn’t writing epic poetry, he was weaving textiles; when he wasn’t weaving textiles, he was delivering lectures on his romantic brand of socialism; when he wasn’t lecturing, he was writing utopian tracts, or founding the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, or designing wallpaper.
All that energy didn’t stop him from being a King Canute who wanted to turn back the spate tide that was flooding towards the 20th and 21st centuries. Mass production would be the future. Most people could not afford his brand of romantic socialism, or his wallpapers. It tormented him. He railed against having to cater to the ‘swinish luxury of the rich’ when what he wanted to do was to improve the lot of working people. But his failure in that respect need not stop us from enjoying beautiful and lovingly made objects. Despite the economic crisis, there are an awful lot of people who could afford such things, and good for them.
THE TROUBLE WAS that Morris and his followers saw style as a moral issue but nobody else did. But the values of the Arts and Crafts might appeal to an age like ours, which has done with glitz and now struggles to re-engage with the inner Puritan that it believes must be hiding beneath the sleazeball surface. Like the Gothic Revival, the Arts and Crafts movement hated what it considered to be sham. It disapproved of excess, frippery, anything foreign and a lot of other things.
It would have disapproved of bankers’ bonuses if it had known about them. Instead, it hymned the righteousness of unadorned construction, where every timber that looks like oak really is — solid oak, cut by hand and held together by pegs, rather than nails. The materials of which a house is built should come from the site on which it sits. What’s that if not, in modern parlance, localism? It seemed loony once, but now it’s mainstream.
The Arts and Crafts didn’t care much for French upholstery or fancy food. Plain and hairy was the note. You see the relevance to today? There’s a nip of self-mortification in the air. Materially, it may feel that we couldn’t be further distant from an age which still used horses to pull haywains and servants to keep the middle classes in starched collars. Morris would be delighted about one aspect of the 21st century: we’re all healthier, longer-lived and (thanks to medicine and cosmetics) comelier than our hard-driven Victorian equivalents. Westminster Abbey is not soot-blackened, and the Thames is clean. Britain has moved into a post-industrial phase, relying on the populations of other countries to toil in factories. Morris himself predicted the use of electric cars.
The home — dulce domum — was sacred to the Arts and Crafts. Now we have the internet and the home-entertainment system, perhaps we should spend more time in it. Perhaps if the economy gets any worse, we’ll have to.
I know the track record wasn’t universally good. Such was the internal paradox that almost every Arts and Crafts venture was doomed. Poor, Quakerish CFA Voysey was destitute when he died; Detmar Blow was disgraced, having got too close to the odious 2nd Duke of Westminster; the Sapperton craftsmen, living in a hamlet, fell out with each other and wouldn’t speak; CR Ashbee’s Guild of Handicraft went bust. We know all about disaster since the credit crunch. These people may be just the men we need.
Clive Aslet is editor-at-large of Country Life