The Arts and Crafts movement goes beyond the fields of the decorative and fine arts, with far reaching social and economic reform at its core. The 19th century was a time of great upheaval, resulting in some desparate conditions for everyday workers at one end of the scale, to enormous wealth and luxury at the other. These changes affected not only industry and output, but ultimately had an impact on the creative sectors of the day too. Charles Dickens portrays the imbalance time and again in his works. As a consequence, key figures within the Arts sought to re-adjust the balance. They rebelled against the industrialist age. The Movement championed traditional crafts, skills and techniques, and incorporated simple natural forms alongside medieval and folk motifs and tales. Its birth was here in Britain, but it's impact stretched the globe and the fundamental principles are observed to this day by craftsmen and women. Many credit one man as its lead figure - the designer, poet, and activist, William Morris. We look at a few other key names here, but many others fall under this category, and all can be found in the context of the 20th Century Decorative Arts auctions.
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William Morris was truly a significant figure in Victorian Britain across many disciplines. He trained as an architect and became close friends with the Pre-Raphaelite artists Edward Burne-Jones and Dante Gabriele Rossetti , and fellow architect Phillip Webb. He would continue to draw influence and share creative concepts and ideas with such talents throughout his own creative and commercial life. With Webb he designed and built a family home, Red House, in Upton, Kent, which on completion in 1860 became a template for the Arts and Crafts style of architecture. It was a thriving hub of creativity, celebrating the fine and decorative arts created by his social circle. In 1861 he formed the firm Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co which focused on a new interior for the 19th century. Morris designed wallpapers, textiles, fabric, furniture, and stained glass for the firm alongside Burne-Jones and Rosetti, amongst others. Their products were quickly embraced and became the height of fashion. In 1871 the firm became simply Morris & Co, which has become synonymous with the designs we now associate with this highly influential designer. In later life he formed the Kelmscott Press at his Oxfordshire home which re-invigorated the private-press movement. Lavishly bound and illustrated publications of medieval tales and poems, alongside his own writings, quickly became highly prized in the literary world, and remain so to collectors today. The Kelmscott Chaucer, published in 1896 was his final masterpiece, he died later that year but his legacy remains forever imprinted in the fabric of Britain and The Arts and Crafts Movement.
One life Morris had a direct influence on was that of Leicester-born Ernest Gimson. At the age of 19, Gimson attended Morris’ lecture “Art and Socialism” which had an immediate impact on the young trainee architect. Two years later, it was an introductory letter from Morris himself that opened the door for Gimson at John Sedding’s architectural practice in London. Here Gimson learnt many important aspects and the principles of the Arts and Crafts, and his offices were next door to the Morris & Co. showrooms. He was immersed in Morris’s teachings and creative output. It was during this time that he also formed close friendships with Ernest Barnsley and his brother Sidney, with whom Gimson would form various companies and workshops throughout his life. In 1893 Gimson and the Barnsley brothers moved to near Sapperton in the Cotswolds and set up their own furniture workshops. The trio were equally adept at architecture and furniture design, but with it came the knowledge and application to metalware, and in Gimson’s case plasterwork and the old English craft of rush-seated ladderback chairs. In 1900 Gimson opened workshops at Daneway House, and a year later employed chief cabinet maker Peter Waals, who stayed closely associated with Gimson to his death in 1919, and continued his workshops into the 1930s. The Cotswold School style of furniture is recognised by its simple lines, exquisite detailing in the construction and any metalwork, and using mostly native woods, handled by highly skilled craftsmen. So strong were its principles in design it inspired future generations throughout the 20th century, such as Gordon Russell, and contemporary furniture designers around the world today.
The 19th century saw the birth of the department store as we know them today. Morris & Co. was in itself a department store, offering textiles, fabrics, stained glass, wallpapers and the like. Other savvy merchants were quick to embrace the popular new styles that were emerging. Arthur Lasenby Liberty was one such merchant, who formed his own store on Regent Street, London, in 1875. Liberty & Co. was to become so integral to the promotion and sale of items associated with the Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveau movements that to the name has become synonymous with those styles. The retailer embraced the influences of the Far East and Japan; championed the style of the Aesthetic Movement; commissioned designs by leading designers in areas such as metalwork by the likes of Archibald Knox; and offered beautiful textiles, silks and fabrics, extending from Arthur Liberty’s own earlier retail expertise. For collectors today, anything that bears the Liberty name brings with it an added cache.
Another prominent figure of the late 19th century retailing scene was Ambrose Heal. Already from a retailing family, Ambrose Heal trained as a cabinet maker, and applied his training to a new range of furniture which was sold through his family’s firm, Heal & Son. Designs executed in light oak with simpler lines were undoubtedly influenced by Morris and the Cotswold School, and they were a success for the suburbanites of the new Garden Cities north of London. Under his guidance, Heal & Son, later simple Heal’s, became a leader in employing emerging designers throughout the 20th century. Like Liberty, Heal’s brought the popular styles of the day to a broader, fashion-conscious public.
The legacy of the Arts and Crafts Movement extends across into every medium of the decorative arts. Silversmiths following the likes of the Guild of Handicraft; metal workshops inspired by the Newlyn School and Keswick School of Industrial Arts; countless fabric and hand-printed textiles and wallpaper manufacturers; private presses and book binders; and of course many skilled cabinet makers have upheld the traditional crafts and skills central to the Movements core. One such group that has gained its own dedicated following stem from the workshops of Robert Thompson of Kilburn. To many he is more commonly known as “Mouseman”. Working from the 1920s through the 20th century, Robert Thompson developed his own signature style. Working in Yorkshire oak with a distinctive adzed finish, his pieces are signed by his characteristic carved mouse. Through his workshops many have tread and developed their own unique signatures. “The Critters” include Thomas “Gnomeman” Whittaker, Derek “Lizardman” Slater, and Wilf “Squirrelman” Hutchinson to name a few. Early examples of Mouseman’s work are currently commanding significant auction prices and are highly prized by avid collectors.
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