Emerging in the late 19th century Victorian England, the Arts and Crafts movement was more than just a nouveau style in decorative arts. It was born in reaction to Industrial Revolution, reevaluating the concept of hand-craftsmanship in the light of industrial manufacture, mechanization and mass-produced objects of inferior quality.
The movement was rooted in the ideals of pre-industrial times, a response to the anxieties that did not only concern aesthetics but also fundamental social issues like industrial labor, capitalism, and alienation of people from their work. It was also one of the first art movements that blurred the line between fine arts and crafts and due to this revision of traditional art hierarchy that allowed a greater involvement of women practitioners.
The story of female artists in Arts and Crafts movement is an interesting one and in this article, we will explore their paradoxical position within it.
In the world of art, the Arts and Crafts movement is assigned as style in decorative and fine arts, active between 1880 and 1910 inspired by the strong Anglo-Saxon tradition of craftsmanship and spread internationally from Great Britain and Europe to North America, Australia and Japan in the 1920s.
At the time of the beginning of the movement, in the last decades of the XIX century, societal context in Great Britain was predominantly influenced by the Industrial Revolution and fin-de-siecle fascination with new technologies, which brought the commercialization to the craftsmanship. New, industrially made design patterns, elements of interior and crafts were cheaper and simplified versions of artisanal crafts and soon overflown the market, all interiors and the art scene in general.
Contemporary critics found that the new trend was endangering the art scene with its awkward commercial aesthetics and they detected the need of rediscovering new principles of beauty within the art and crafts production and moreover for re-establishing of humanistic values of pre-industrial times. The major event of the end of the XIX century, meaningful for the birth of the movement, was the Great Exhibition of 1851 in Crystal Palace at Hyde Park in London from 1 May to 11 October 1851 that shown items which, according to critics were too vulgar artificial, industrially produced and totally ignored the qualities and the performances of the materials used.
The ornament was the crucial point of disagreement between craftsmen and architects from one hand, and the industrials from another. Influential authors of the epoch agreed in the thesis that the ornament should be secondary to the decorated item, and which is more important to be conceptually connected and derived from the material qualities, and inseparable from the design vision of a whole. Suggestions about the future of the design were in direction of the revival of craftsmanship and (re)humanization of the design process.
Before we move to the subject of the day, let’s see some of the characteristics of Arts and Crafts movement and its theoretical background. Its ideology derived from critical thoughts of two influential figures – art critic John Ruskin and writer and designer William Morris.
The figure of John Ruskin was essential to the theoretical background and directly followed by the birth of Arts and Crafts movement because his writing on art was of great influence on public taste in Victorian England. Furthermore, in his art essays, he addressed social problems and the context of the Industrial Revolution, which brought social consequences to the workingmen, with special emphasis on craftsmen and their welfare.
Ruskin developed the ideas of rediscovering the craftsmanship and restoring the pre-Victorian ideals of beauty, which were further developed in writings and art practice of William Morris, a respectful designer of the time. Ruskin’s idea of “servile labor”, the result of industrial capitalism, was embraced by Morris and put in practice in his design philosophy. Ruskin and Morris placed a great value on the production by hand, believing that factory work alienated workers from the fruits of their labor, depriving them of satisfaction and joy.
Furthermore, they criticized the rise of the consumer society, consumer goods of poor design and quality that were entering the market but also museum exhibitions. Their philosophy was influenced by populist and socialist ideas and consequently, it resulted in the vision of art and design made “by the people and for the people” with a special focus on the joy of craftsmanship. Their aesthetic and critical ideas shaped the philosophy and style of Arts and Crafts movement and new design tendencies.
Along with Art Deco, decorative style we discussed some time ago, Arts and Crafts Movement could be identified as the earlier prequel to Art Nouveau, Modernism and Modern Art in general, since it is relied on the unity of artistic media and it was oriented towards the production of functional objects with high aesthetic value.
Therefore, artists and manufacturers are encouraged to abandon the excessive Victorian ornamentation and to discover the clarity of lines and shapes focusing on the material properties and qualities. New aesthetics brought the objects that were based on clear natural forms, patterns have repetitive character and creatives were insisting on elegant, vertical and elongated forms, with the strong reminiscence on the pre-Victorian, late medieval, renaissance and gothic influences.
Décor elements were reduced to cleanse the lines and to purify the forms, to emphasize accordance of the materials and global sense of the harmony in interior design. Long before the famous maxim of Mies Van Der Rohe “The Less is More”, William Morris stated “the less, the better”, and paved the official direction to modern design and the philosophy of Modernism.
In 1887, the creatives gathered around the Arts and Crafts movement formed the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society to display decorative arts and its achievements, in order to broaden the field of fine arts and include the new decorative practices. Promotion of the new philosophy was held trough the annual exhibitions at the New Gallery in London in three years from 1888 to 1890 and despite its commercial debacle were of great importance for the future life and influence of Arts and Crafts Movement, first in Britain and then abroad.
After the first three years of public engagement of the practitioners trough the museum and gallery exhibitions, the newly formed society published the Arts and Craft Essays in 1893, and writers include the illustrator and designer Walter Crane, president of the Society, as well as William and May Morris, T. J. Cobden-Sanderson and Ford Madox Brown. Following exhibitions were more and more successful, and the crown was the retrospective exhibition of William Morris in 1899.
The Society entered the new century with new and productive exhibitions in 1906, 1910, 1912 and 1916, activating different locations and spreading the movement across the country. One of the major results of these collaborative activities of the prominent creatives in Britain is setting the book of standards within the newly formed Design and Industries Association in 1915, in order to directly affect and improve national industrial standards.
The Arts and Crafts Movement broadly influenced the fields of fine and applied arts, architecture all decorative art and nouveau practices as well as craftsmanship at the turn of the century both in Continental Europe and North America, as well as Australia and Japan.
In Europe, many movements simultaneously flourished as reaction to the industrialization of the craftsmanship - the aforementioned Art Nouveau, Art Deco or Style Moderne in France or the Viennese Secession. Among those influenced by the Arts and Crafts Movement, there is the folk-art movement, which affirmed vernacular building style in Hungary, and romanticism in Finland and Russia.
Soon after the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, the Arts and Crafts Movement flourished in New York State Area and so its principles entered the formal education. In the following period from 1910 to 1925, in architecture, design and decorative arts, the philosophy and the values of the movement spread through the magazines and influenced the new “Craftsman"-style housing, adaptation of the European Arts and Crafts philosophy for the American context.
The American Craftsman became predominant style and with the concept of well-decorated middle-class homes directly influenced so-called Chicago "Prairie School" and practice of Frank Lloyd Wright, George Washington Maher among others.
Across the world, in Japan, the return of tradition in the 1920s is seen as influence of the British and American Arts and Crafts Movement and the writings of Morris and Ruskin in artwork of Yanagi Sōetsu, creator of the Japanese Folk Art Movement.
The Arts and Crafts movement was at its peak in the years between 1880 and 1910 in Western Europe and the United States, also spreading to Japan in the 1920’s. During those years, a large number of designers, architects, manufacturers, and workshops adopted the ideas proposed by William Morris and John Ruskin.
Among those art practitioners, many were women. However, the position of women workers in the field of Art and Craft is a controversial one. Although there were many female artisans, their artwork is still under-recognized compared to their male peers. If we want to better understand the role of female creatives in this movement, we should take a closer look at the social and cultural position of women in the Victorian era.
"Angel in the House" is the term most frequently used to describe the ideals of a middle-class woman in the Victorian era. Innocent and fragile, this angel-wife would spend all of her days in the domestic environment. She was devoted to her husband, passive and submissive creature whose activities revolved around social duties and household management.
Up until the mid-ninetieth century, paid work was considered debasing for middle-class women and there were only several professions that were considered appropriate. Arts and Crafts movement with its orientation towards the domestic environment, homemade goods, emphasis on the skills that were widely considered feminine allowed greater involvement of female artisans.
On one hand, women were encouraged to participate, as craftwork was seen as an extension of their traditional roles. On the other, their work remained under-recognized because women were considered executants of the designs created by men, rather than talented creators themselves. Two influential Arts and Crafts guilds, Guild of Handicraft and Art Workers’ Guild, excluded women from their membership.
Arts and Crafts movement was paradoxically dependent on women's involvement and hostile towards their work. Regardless of the inequity, it opened a window for female art and craft workers, allowing them to work within the frame established by the patriarchal society, but to also start being paid for their practice and to expand their influence outside of home which was a big step towards the idea of emancipation.
Although art histories mostly focus on male designers and guilds, there were several associations created by women for women that have influenced the further development and allowed greater exposure to female creatives.
One of the most influential figures in Arts and Crafts movement was Mary “May” Morris, the daughter of William Morris. Although her engagement stayed in the shadow of her father’s for many years, May Morris' contribution to the movement cannot be overlooked. She was among the best embroidery creators and jewelers in the Arts and Crafts movement in Britain.
As a designer and the executant of her work, she opposed the idea of labor division showing that women are not limited to the subordinate positions. She also rebelled against the idea of female exclusion from the art guilds and established Women’s Guild of Arts in 1907 providing a much-needed platform for female artisans to collaborate, make connections and gain professional status.
In America, the situation was slightly better for women, as the popularity of Arts and Crafts movement coincided with the progressive era and the idea that economic independence was desirable for women. In Boston, Saturday Evening Girls Club founded the Paul Revere Pottery, allowing the girls to earn good wages from their crafts.
Another important association of female art workers was Newcomb Pottery under the auspices of the H. Sophie Newcomb Memorial College, an educational institution for women. In addition to pottery and embroidery, there were influential female creators working in jewelry design. Florence Koehler and Marie Zimmermann are among the best-known female jewelers in Arts and Crafts movement.
When it comes to Arts and Crafts architecture we need to mention the figure of Julia Morgan who was one of the pioneering professionals in the field, the first woman to be admitted to the program at l'École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris and the first woman architect licensed in California.
There are two schools of thought when it comes to the interpretation of Arts and Crafts movement in relation to the female art production. It is true that the movement was sympathetic towards women and many woman authors became accomplished professionals, able the compete with their male colleagues. Art education for women was also encouraged at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, as more girls were allowed to enter art schools.
However important Arts and Crafts movement was for the education and emancipation of women, it also implicitly kept the division between fine arts and crafts. Women were encouraged to participate in decorative arts and at the same time, they were deprived of fine art education that was reserved for the male members. It wasn’t until the seventies and the emergence of Feminist Art Movement that female artist began their fight for the equal place in the art world by addressing the traditional notions of crafts and decorative arts and the idea of “female aesthetics”.
The Arts and Crafts movement has a conflicting status when it comes to art by female authors, but remains a significant source of inspiration in contemporary women's art, whether it is being praised, questioned or critiqued.
Edited by Maria R.
Editors’ Tip: Women Artists of the Arts and Crafts Movement, 1870-1914
In her book Women Artists of the Arts and Crafts Movement, 1870-1914, Anthea Callen, professor-elect in the department of the history of art, University of Nottingham, and formerly research professor in the history of art, De Montfort University, Leicester, deals with less known and brings "her-story" of the Art and Crafts Movement. Callen chose to conduct research on women's art and craft practices without the strict hierarchical structure or insisting on major roles and influential artworks in order to show a broader presence of women, the intensity of their work and its political significance.
Featured images: May Morris - Embroidery; Julia Morgan - Merrill Hall, California. All images used for illustrative purposes only.