The Arts & Crafts Movement
SIMPLICITY of the Aesthetic format kept it from having a dramatic public
impact. By 1890 many people were concerned with the possibilities of the
Book Beautiful, but they had as yet no inspirational model despite the
experiments of the artists. It was then that a man, already well known in
other realms, appeared in the domain of books.
The life of William Morris has been recounted many times.1
Born at Walthamstow in 1834, he was the son of a well-to-do businessman
who left him a substantial income. He went up to Oxford in 1853 with
High-Church sentiments and the dream of taking orders. After making
friends with the future painter, Edward Burne-Jones and his Birmingham
circle, reading Ruskin’s Stones of
Venice (with its crucial chapter, “The Nature of Gothic”),
visiting the cathedrals of Belgium and France, and becoming disillusioned
with Oxford education, Morris decided to abandon the idea of becoming a
clergyman and turn instead to architecture. At this time he was also
beginning his long and successful career as a poet. His first book, The
Defense of Guenevere, published in 1858, was based on tales of the
Middle Ages. On finishing at the university in 1855 Morris remained in
Oxford, in the office of G. E. Street, a Gothic Revival architect. This
new career did not last long, however; in 1856 Morris came under the
influence of the Pre-Raphaelite painter and poet, Dante Gabriel Rossetti,
decided to become a painter, and moved to London in rooms with Burne-Jones
at Red Lion Square. Upon finding no furniture to suit him, Morris, who had
always been adept with his hands, decided to make his own.
In 1859 he married Jane Burden of Oxford, commissioning his
architect friend, Philip Webb, to build a house for them at Upton, Kent.
In 1860 they moved into Red House, as it was called, again resorting to
the talents of Morris and his friends for the furniture and decorations.
In 1861 a group of these friends, including Morris, Burne-Jones, Rossetti,
Webb, the painter Ford Madox Brown, the mathematician C. J. Faulkner, and
P. P. Marshall, a surveyor and sanitary engineer, formed Morris, Marshall,
Faulkner & Co., “Fine Art Workmen in Painting, Carving, Furniture
and the Metals.”2 The painter Arthur Hughes was also listed
but was never actually a member of the firm. In 1875 the firm was
reorganized as Morris & Co., with Morris as its only manager. The
company had enjoyed success from the start, winning two gold medals at the
Great Exhibition of 1862. As the century wore on it became one of the
leading decorating firms of England, with an international clientele.
Morris himself designed fabrics, wallpapers, tapestries, embroideries,
carpets, stained glass, and tiles, working from a sure knowledge of all
the handicrafts involved.
A commonly held assumption is that Morris & Co.
revolutionized the late-Victorian interior. Since Pevsner’s Pioneers of Modern Design:
From William Morris to Walter Gropius (first published as Pioneers
of the Modern Movement in 1936), Morris has been seen as the
fountainhead of modernism because of his emphasis on fitness to purpose,
on understanding materials and techniques, on unity rather than
eclecticism, and especially because of his attempt to combine utility and
beauty. Yet one must remember that although Victorian rooms were
less cluttered and more unified after Morris his designs do not look
modern today. They were based on historical styles of the past and are
transitional between historicism and the Modern Movement, as Pevsner
points out, rather than being the first examples of modern art.3
Their overwhelming success lies in the fact that during a period of shoddy
machine production Morris & Co. showed how beautiful hand-crafted
things could be and how they could be assembled with taste.
It was from the building and decoration of Red House,
followed by the activities of the firm, that the whole Arts and Crafts
Movement grew. Unlike Aestheticism, Arts and Crafts did have a
wider-reaching moral basis than Art-for-Art’s-Sake;
Art-for-Life’s-Sake might well be the opposing term.4 John
Ruskin, the writer on art and morality whom Morris had read at Oxford, was
even more ideational mover of Arts and Crafts than he had been of
Aestheticism. He saw Gothic art in quite another way from the
eighteenth-century Revivalists, Horace Walpole and William Beckford. It
was not picturesqueness that he valued but the fact that Gothic was a
freer, less rule-ridden art than the Classical style. With its abundance
of detail it allowed scope for the individual workmen to express their own
creativity. In this possibility for self-expression in handicraft, Ruskin
saw the only chance to save men’s souls from the brutalizing effects of
the new factories that were turning them into automated cogs of an
There were other nineteenth-century thinkers who turned
backwards for relief from the unlovely realities of the Industrial
Revolution. Thomas Carlyle, who had looked on the Middle Ages as a
favorable contrast to nineteenth-century disorder in Past
and Present (1843), influenced Ruskin. A. W. N. Pugin, the Gothic
Revival architect, also wrote important books, notably Contrasts (1836) and The True
Principles of Pointed or Christian Architecture (1841), that upheld
the Gothic style and its emphasis on handicrafts as the true national
style of England.
It was in this tradition that Red House was decorated with
heavy, dark furniture, painted with scenes from Le
Morte d’ Arthur, and that Morris & Co. emphasized stained glass
and tapestries as among its finest products. The numerous fabrics and
wallpapers designed by Morris went well with the company’s other
products, while their two-dimensionalism, floral motifs, and harmonies of
color made them also possible for the Aesthetes and, later, devotees of
Morris was as much given to verbal expression as to
handicrafts. He once said: “If a chap can’t compose an epic poem while
he’s weaving tapestry, he had better shut up, he’ll never do any good
at all.”5 In 1876 he began to be involved in politics,
becoming treasurer of the Eastern Question Association, a body devoted to
keeping England out of war against Russia on behalf of the Turks. In the
early eighties he broke with the Liberal party and became an active
Socialist, trying to bring into realization his ideas about the nobility
of the individual working man and his labor. The connection between a
properly organized society and its art is the great theme of the many
public lectures he gave, beginning with “The Decorative Arts” in 1877.
Thus, Morris’ ideas, as well as the artifacts of Morris & Co., were
well known in England.6
During the 1880s other people with similar ideas began to
organize themselves. A. H. Mackmurdo and Selwyn Image founded the Century
Guild in 1882, W. R. Lethaby and Walter Crane the Art Workers’ Guild in
1884, and C. R. Ashbee the Guild of Handicraft in 1888. This new Arts and
Crafts Movement was described by Walter Crane as: “The demand for the
acknowledgment of the personality of each responsible craftsman in a
cooperative work…. [and] The principle … of regarding the material,
object, method, and purpose of a work as essential conditions of its
artistic expression… .”7
In America there were movements parallel to the English
Gothic Revival and Arts and Crafts. Before and after the Civil War,
churches and public buildings often took pseudomedieval shapes. Scott’s
novels were the first great best sellers in this country.8 And
the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood had American followers.9
That there was still, at the end of the century, a
pervasive mood of sentimental Romantic medievalism may be seen by turning
to literature—even to Frank Norris, who, before becoming one of the
leaders in the movement toward naturalism, wrote a poem called Yvernelle:
A Legend of Feudal France (1892). Literary historians attribute the
persistence of a Romantic mood to nostalgia for the long ago and far away
that gripped the American people in their search for identity and escape
during the post-Civil War days of industrialization, expanding wealth, and
rapid social change. James D. Hart has pointed to the establishment of the
Daughters of the American Revolution, the phenomenon of American heiresses
marrying European titles, the popularity of the Grand Tour, as factors,
along with the immense success of the romantic novel, that indicate the
American’s desire to find roots in European culture and to flee from his
own current problems.10
The great national business boom, even between its panic
subsidences, did not elevate all Americans. “The disillusion rising out
of deferred hopes led to the idealization of the past …,”11
especially as seen in regional literature, the voice of the nonurban
population. Indiana, for example, produced several successful novelists,
such as Charles Major (When
Knighthood Was in Flower, 1898), Booth Tarkington (The
Gentleman from Indiana, 1899), Maurice Thompson (Alice
of Old Vincennes, 1900), and George Barr McCutcheon (Graustark, 1901), who wrote idealized romances that showed up
unintentionally the emptiness of the very culture they seemed to be
extolling; e.g., the “democratic” hero often turned out to be an
aristocrat in disguise. “Romance at the century’s end applied a patch
to the mortal would inflicted on the rural ideal by industrial America.”12
There was still another aspect of Romanticism that
emphasized the new rather than the old—a fin-de-siècle
mood, the feeling that change was necessary and inevitable as the century
came to an end. The rapid and unsettling events of the Industrial
Revolution, the profound shifts in thought caused by the growth of
scholarship and science gave people of the nineteenth century a
particularly poignant feeling of leaving one era and entering another.
Toward the end of the century the adjective “new” was ubiquitous: the
New Hedonism, the New Woman. This interest in change accounts in part for
the épate le bourgeois side of
the Aesthetic Movement and for the tremendous success of Art Nouveau in
the 1890s. As one observer of the period has said: “The Eighteen
Nineties were so tolerant of novelty in art and ideas that it would seem
as though the declining century wished to make amends for several decades
of intellectual and artistic monotony.”13 The desire for
novelty, combined with the lasting love of the Middle Ages, set the stage
for Arts and Crafts’ reinterpretation of the Gothic, although the older
Gothic Revival style in book-making persisted, especially in certain
An example is Richard de Bury’s Philobiblon in three volumes, printed by De Vinne in 1889 for the
Grolier Club, in an edition of 297 on handmade paper and 3 on vellum. The
first volume is the Latin version of the text in Gothic type (Plate 4),
the second volume an English version in modern-style roman type with
Renaissance arabesque ornament, and the third volume, also in roman, has
notes by Andrew Fleming West. The ornaments by James West, Charles M.
Jenckes, and George Wharton Edwards include a vellum binding; red, black,
and gold end papers; a block-set title page with a gilt “P”; line
fillers, fleurons, decorated initials, and headpieces throughout the text.
The marginal notes of the first volume are in roman and italic, an
unpleasant contrast to the Gothic text. The whole is intensely
pseudo-Gothic but not artistically successful because of the inharmonious
design. The books from this earlier Gothic Revival style tend to exhibit
in their type and art work more pointed, angular lines than the blunt,
rounded lines of Arts and Crafts.
As early as 1881 there was a Morris & Co. showroom in
New York14 (by the turn of the century there were others in
Boston and Chicago as well), laying the foundation for an American Arts
and Crafts Movement. In 1891 Walter Crane visited the United States,
bringing the ideas and ideals of the English movement as Oscar Wilde had
done for Aestheticism in 1882. Specific artists, such as John La Farge and
Louis Tiffany, were inspired by English examples.15 The same
regionalism that fostered Romantic literature may have encouraged Arts and
Crafts by its “more or less handmade habitat,”16 i.e., a
tradition of handicraft and artisanship. There was also a strong
anticapitalist movement seen in such writers as Henry George (Progress and Poverty, 1879) and Edward Bellamy (Looking
Backward, 1888) who were, however, without the Arts and Crafts
antipathy for machine production. In general, the Ruskinian combination of
art with morality and his emphasis on Truth to Nature were profoundly
attractive to Americans.17 Dickason has pointed out two
mid-century periodicals inspired by Ruskin: W. J. stillman’s Crayon
of the 1850s and the New Path
put out by the Society for the Advancement of Truth in Art, founded in
The major periodical of American Arts and Crafts was the Craftsman,
published by the United Crafts at Eastwood, New York, from 1901 to 1916,
under the direction of Gustav Stickley. The first issue (October 1901) was
entirely devoted to “William Morris: Some Thoughts upon His Life, Work
and Influence,” which gave Morris the whole credit for the journal’s
inspiration. The second issue was devoted to Ruskin, the third to “The
Gilds of the Middle Ages,” the fourth to “Textiles Old and New,” the
fifth to “Robert Owen and Factory Reform,” and the sixth to “The
Gothic Revival,” giving a fair picture of their spectrum of interests.
The first American Society of Arts and Crafts was founded
in Boston in 1897 with Charles Eliot Norton, Ruskin’s friend, as
president. The Guild of Arts and Crafts of New York was founded by four
young women in January 1900.19 There were also Morris
Societies, such as the one founded in Chicago in May 1903 with Oscar L.
Triggs as secretary. Their Bulletin (November 1903 to February 1905) gives indications of
rather widespread interest in Morris. There were seventy-five charter
members, most of them from Chicago but a few from other parts of the
country. The second issue mentions new Morris circles or possibilities of
them in Columbus, Ohio, Toledo, Ohio, and Billings, Montana. Talks on
Morris were given in Pittsburgh, Nashville, and Chicago, and an entire
course on him was offered at the University of Chicago. In 1902 Triggs
published a book on Arts and Crafts in which he wrote: “I count 1860 as
the approximate year of its beginning, when William Morris built his
famous Red House on the outskirts of London.”20
Back in England, still another body, the Arts and Crafts
Exhibition Society, had been formed in 1888. At the time of its first
exhibition, William Morris realized that none of his books, as a physical
object, was worthy of inclusion. His friend, the typographer Emery Walker,
gave a lecture on printing in which he presented lantern slides of
enlarged type specimens from the fifteenth century. This lecture was a
momentous occasion for it opened Morris’ eyes to the creative
possibilities within type itself.
1. The first biography is still the
standard one: John William Mackail, The
Life of William Morris (London: Longmans, Green, 1899), 2 vols.
2. From the title of their first
prospectus, April 1861.
3. Nikolaus Pevsner, Pioneers of Modern Design (3d ed.; Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1965),
p. 107. For a rebuttal of Pevsner, see Herwin Schaefer, Nineteenth Century Modern: The Functional Tradition in Victorian Design
(New York: Praeger,1970), which points out the continuing line of
undecorated simplicity in functional and vernacular objects.
4. Used by Peter A. Wick in Introduction
to The Turn of a Century 1885–1910
(Cambridge: Department of Printing and Graphic Arts, Houghton Library,
Harvard University, 1970), p. l.
5. Quoted in Mackail, William Morris, vol. 1,
6. Lionel Trilling has pointed to
Morris’ great personal force: “The peculiar power and charm of William
Morris are suggested by the deep admiration in which he was held by two
great writers of the generation after his own, William Butler Yeats and
George Bernard Shaw. The dissimilarity of these men is legendary… .
Antithetical as they were in their hopes for life, both men acknowledged
Morris as master.” (“Aggression and Utopia: A Note on William
Morris’ ‘News from Nowhere,’” Psychoanalytic Quarterly, XLII (April 1973): 214–215.
7. Walter Crane, “Arts and Crafts,” Encyclopaedia
Britannica vol. II (11th ed., 1911), p.701.
8. David A. Randall, “Waverley in
America,” Colophon, N.S., I
(Summer 1935): 39.
9. See David H. Dickason, The Daring Young Men: The Story of the American Pre-Raphaelites
(Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1953).
10. James D. Hart, The
Popular Book (New York: Oxford University Press, 1950), pp. 181–186.
11. Jay Martin, Harvests
of Change (Englewood Cliffs, N.j.: Prentice-Hall, 1967), p.217.
12. Larzer Ziff, The
American 1890’s (New York: Viking, 1966), p. 92.
13. Holbrook Jackson, The
Eighteen Nineties (NewYork: Knopf, n.d.), pp. 17–18.
14. Elizabeth Aslin, The
Aesthetic Movement: Prelude to Art Nouveau (New York: Praeger, 1969),
15. For a thorough discussion of American Arts and
Crafts, see Dickason, The Daring
Young Men and Robert Judson Clark, ed., The
Arts and Crafts Movement in America 1876–1916 (Princeton: Princeton
Art Museum, 1972).
16. Quoted in Warner Berthoff, The Ferment of Realism (New York: Free Press, 1965), p. 28.
17. For a discussion from the viewpoint of the
history of ideas, see Roger B. Stein, John
Ruskin and Aesthetic Thought in America: 1840–1900 (Cambridge:
Harvard University Press, 1967).
18. Dickason, The
Daring Young Men, p. 5.
19. “Exhibition of the Gild of Arts and Crafts
of New York,” Craftsman, II
(May 1902): 99.
Oscar Lovell Triggs, Chapters
in the History of the Arts and Crafts Movement (Chicago: The Bohemia
Guild of the Industrial Art League, 1902), p. 1.