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The Studio and the Arts and Crafts Movement

This article was first published in High Art and Low Life: The Studio and the fin de siécle, a special centenary issue of Studio International (Volume 201, Number 1021/1023, 1993) that incorporated the catalogue to the 1993 exhibition High Art and Low Life: The Studio and the Arts of the 1890s at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.



The originators of The Studio, from its inception, were keenly aware that the recently consummated marriage between the Fine Arts and the Crafts would be central to their own outlook. The formal rites and tussles of that marriage had much occupied and challenged the world of Art for the past decade both in England and America, and would continue to repercuss for many years to come.

by Peter Rose

Three men were jointly responsible for its predominantly Arts and Crafts flavour: Charles Holme, a businessman associate of Christopher Dresser and owner of the Red House, who financed and later edited the publication; Lewis Hind a sub-editor of the Art Journal, who conceived the idea of a new-style art magazine using the novel technology of halftone engraving and briefly steered it forward; finally Gleeson White, whose commitment to the Arts and Crafts Movement was absolute. He became editor for the first two years, following Lewis Hind’s abrupt departure to edit the weekly Pall Mall Budget, before Charles Holme took a more active control.

The Studio was by no means the first publication to take the Applied Arts seriously. The formidably serious Art Journal and its predecessor The Art Union Journal had given prominence to the decorative arts, particularly the industrial arts, for over half a century, and in American several publications had similar aims. Indeed, unknown to The Studio a New York publication with the same title already flourished, and in Philadelphia a magazine, Arts and Crafts, published by the artworkers Guild of that city, had recently been started, with a cover design by Walter Crane.1

The Art Journal and the more recently established Magazine of Art, both monthly publications, had developed a certain staidness and stuffiness, combined with an increasingly anachronistic, old-fashioned presentation. In the last decade of the century they were still presenting regular full-page engravings as their preferred mode of reproduction. Permeating both publications was an undeclared, implicit hierarchy of the arts, with Painting and Sculpture at the top of the pile. There was little in presentation or content to tempt the newly enfranchised artworkers, particularly the craftswomen, who were making spectacular inroads into a traditionally male-dominated world.2 These skilled enthusiasts provided a new constituency for a popular Arts and Crafts publication. It was therefore a propitious time to launch a magazine aimed at a very broad readership.

It was the bookbinder T. J. Cobden-Sanderson who coined the term ‘Arts and Crafts’ in connection with the formation of the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society. It soon became the accepted way of encapsulating that quintessentially Morrisian concept of the artist-practitioner, using traditional skills, making objects of beauty and utility. The idea and the phrase reverberated through the artistic community worldwide for the next half-century and is today again a potent force.

Arts and Crafts was to become the raison d’être of The Studio, although the first issue contains no such editorial declaration. Significantly the very first piece, ‘Artist as Craftsman No. 1, Sir Frederic Leighton Bart PRA, As a Modeller in Clay’, consists of an appraisal and an interview (in itself a novelty) with the most distinguished British artist of the day, presumably, although it is unsigned, by the editor Gleeson White, Commitment to New Art is splendidly signalled with an extended piece on Aubrey Beardsley. Lasenby Liberty contributes a piece on Spitalfields brocades, and there is an extended well-illustrated review of the second edition of Frederic Litchfield’s Illustrated History of Furniture, both these pieces demonstrating an equal commitment to tradition and to historical style. ‘Designs for Bookplates’, the first of many articles on a subject much favoured by the editor, includes work by the young artist Robert Anning Bell, who was himself to become a regular feature of The Studio over the next decade.  Bell, with his concern for the crafts, notably book illustration, coloured plaster reliefs, stained glass and designs for pottery, was from The Studio viewpoint the archetypal artist-craftsman. Finally an illustrated piece, ‘Current Notes on the Applied Arts’, covers tapestry designs by Burne-Jones for Morris; furniture designed by George Jack & Co. for the same firm; wallpapers designed by Lewis F. Day, Walter Crane, C. F. A. Voysey and Heywood Sumner and others for Jeffrey & Co. All this demonstrating how strongly and overtly The Studio supported the Morrisian artist-craftsman.

The following five issues are somewhat disappointing, although pieces by Crane, Bell and Brangwyn appear in issue number 2. A dearth of new and stimulating events in the late summer seems to have thinned out the content (much as happens today), and those items which might be described as Arts and Crafts particularly so. To such an extent was this evident that all the six monthly parts were slim enough to be bound within one volume.3

Volume 2, starting with the October issue, begins with a resounding reaffirmation of the magazine’s dedication to Arts and Crafts. The occasion was the fourth show of the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society, which was held in the New Gallery. It merited a 27-page review with 56 illustrations, and a second notice with a further eight illustrations, taking up most of the editorial content of issue number 7. The coincidence of this exhibition occurring so soon after the launch of The Studio was most fortunate. Exhibitions had been held yearly from the first in 1888 until the third in 1890, but, after the initial triumph, the idea seemed to have lost impetus and the last one had failed to meet costs. It was decided to allow a three-year interval4 to elapse before embarking on a further venture. The occasion was marked also by the publication of a collection of essays culled from previous Arts and Crafts catalogues. It was edited by William Morris, who had succeeded Walter Crane as President of the Society, and contained key statements from the leading figures in the Arts and Crafts movement, including Crane, Benson, Walker, Lethaby, Day and many others. The publication was given the lead review in the same issue of The Studio, where William Morris’s preface to it is castigated for his attack on Impressionism.5

The reviews provide a rich harvest of these thoughtful and progressive views, which have come to be identified with The Studio standpoint. Several hands were at work in assembling a formidable critique of the exhibition: Aymer Vallance, who was also an exhibitor, noticed the embroideries, textiles and wallpapers, and Horace Townsend the architecture and furniture, mainly the latter. The main review, however, which most closely reflected the editorial viewpoint, is identified merely by the single letter ‘G’.

A concern close to William Morris’s own heart emerged early on: ‘You feel that although the industrial exhibits represent (as they should do) the individual art of many clever designers and makers, they do not represent (as one hoped they might) the average commercial products made directly for public sale in the ordinary way.’6 The writer affirms, however, that show that attracts ‘the classes rather than the masses’ will ultimately affect the general level of public taste. The paradox of good design costing money far beyond the means of the masses, which so enraged Morris, is countered by a quotation from Walter Crane’s defence in the Society’s first catalogue, reprinted in the Essays:

In some quarter it appears to have been supposed that our exhibitions are intended to appeal, by the exhibition of cheap and saleable articles, to what are rudely termed ‘the masses’; we appeal to all, certainly, but it should be remembered that cheapness in art and handicraft is well-nigh impossible, save in some forms of more or less mechanical reproduction. In fact, cheapness, as a rule, in the sense of low-priced production, can only be obtained at the cost of cheapness – that is, the cheapening of human life and labour; surely in reality a most wasteful and extravagant cheapness.7

The airing of Crane’s articulate defence of what was essentially a reactionary position goes some way towards explaining The Studio’s initial lack of enthusiasm for those examples of mechanical reproduction which did truly attempt a wider appeal. W. A. S. Benson, who used factory methods to mass-produce his stylish but utilitarian copper and brass utensils and light fittings, is admired, rather perversely, for ‘some very beautiful specimens, those in silver gilt being especially noticeable for the repose of their plain surfaces’. Benson was arguably the most successful of all the artworkers in reconciling factory methods with quality of design, and The Studio’s relative neglect of him (there are only two indexed references in the first 20 volumes) is difficult to explain.

A laudable aim, which the Exhibition Society had declared from its earliest days, was, as the reviews stated approvingly, to ‘give full prominence to the individuality of each designer and craftsman engaged in the production of its exhibits … a list of all persons engaged upon any essential features of the works was to be added to the catalogue description’. This policy chimed happily with The Studio’s own determination to appeal to a very wide constituency, and it reflected to some extent in the wide choice of illustrations, over 60 of which accompany the various texts. Many of these are by virtually unknown names but frustratingly are not accompanied by a textual reference. The uneven quality of the reproduction, the disparate nature of the image-making processes, together with the somewhat arbitrary choice of subject, indicate the difficulties experienced in obtaining illustrations, particularly as the Society’s own catalogue was unillustrated. These difficulties are hinted at by the reviewer when he confesses, apropos studies by Christopher Whall, that ‘an accident prevents our reproducing them this month’. Despite these reservations, The Studio was the only publication to provide such a lavish coverage with so much visual material. In comparison, the Art Journal review by Lewis F. Day is spread over three-and-a-half pages with nine illustrations,8 the Magazine of Art appears to have virtually ignored the exhibition.

The textual treatment of the exhibitors seems to be based on narrower criteria of choice than for the illustrations, with the old guard accorded due reverence. Of the stained-glass designs by Ford Madox Brown, the reviewer ‘doubts if these drawings have ever been surpassed, or if they have been equalled’; Leighton’s modelled studies ‘lend distinction to the exhibition’. However, the young talent, ‘Mr George Frampton, Mr R. Anning Bell, Mr R. W. Pomeroy, Mr H. Wilson, Mr C. F. A. Voysey’ are given an approving nod for ‘attempting – as the present writer thinks successfully – to evolve an English style from past tradition’.

The degrees of that success in evolving a new English Style is chronicled in The Studio over the remainder of the decade. There are over 30 separate illustrated references to both Frampton and Bell, more than a dozen to Pomeroy, and well over 40 to Voysey; Wilson, with five, seems to have been treated less generously.

Horace Townsend in his review of the architecture and furniture made a real discovery:

Tucked away, however, in a corner of the Gallery where not one in ten of the exhibition visitors is likely ever to espy it – for it is in that corner remotest from ‘the cold collation’ – hangs a frame of photographs of a little Surrey church which owes its creation to Mr Sidney H. Barnsley, a name with which I grieve to say I am not familiar … Handled with a reticent feeling and sense of proportion beyond praise … Nothing jars on one’s sense of well-oriented harmony. It is emphatically the work of an artist rather than a ‘professional man’.9

The photographs must have been of St Sophia, Lower Kingwood, of 1891.10 In this case, however, The Studio failed to follow up its own perceptive reviewer, and the magazine appears to have shown little interest in Barnsley or indeed Climson until well into the 20th century.11

The Studio, with its diverse and widespread readership in mind, seldom missed an opportunity to publicise provincial as well as European and American manifestations of the Arts and Crafts. There were regular pieces on provincial Arts and Crafts, and it gave extensive coverage of the work of the Birmingham Municipal School of Art in two extended articles, with over 30 illustrations, at the end of 1893 and beginning of 1894: these covered a wide range of the Applied Arts. The Manchester Arts and Crafts Second Exhibition in the Spring of 1895 gave the reviewer, Gleeson White, a chance to examine the opportunities and limitations of holding exhibitions in the provinces. The disparity between the taste of the masses, in particular the provincial masses, and the ‘taste of the few who form the [selection] committee’ is given extensive consideration. He is concerned that the selection might be unrepresentative, ‘the display of a clique’, since much of the exhibition comprised exhibits by the familiar metropolitan grandees. By this time, however, there is more concern shown for the practicalities of exhibiting objects within the financial reach of the exhibition visitor, and some amends are made towards W. A. S. Benson:

A collection of lamps such as Messrs Benson show may ultimately influence the taste of a greater number than the superb Morris Burne-Jones’ tapestries. For, notwithstanding the importance of setting a very high standard of excellence before designers and the general public, it is dangerous to set one altogether over their heads. The home of the ordinary person will hardly be influenced by a study of the Morris tapestries, at £250 each – they are too far removed from his sympathy.12

A distinctive feature of the Manchester exhibition, stressed by the reviewer, was the opportunity to exhibit work of local origin. He singles out for particular praise furniture designed by Edgar Wood, which he illustrates with several line drawings and details of fittings. Edgar Wood (1860-1935), a native of Middleton, had moved his office from Oldham to Manchester in 1893 and subsequently in 1896 became a founder member of the Northern Art Workers’ Guild. The recently established Della-Robbia pottery of Birkenhead is also praised as ‘worthy of prolonged study’. Harold Rathbone, the son of a prominent Liverpool businessman and benefactor, had been a pupil of Ford Madox Brown. He decided, with assistance from Robert Anning Bell (who had recently taken up an academic post in Liverpool), to found a pottery along the lines of other successful art potteries, such as Doultons of Lambeth, which had flourished for over 20 years. He employed young ladies of a respectable class who had received art school training and were in need of gainful employment. Cassandra Ann Walker is singled out for assisting Rathbone in the enterprise.

The three-year interval between the fourth and fifth Exhibition Society show was a period of consolidation for The Studio. The cliquishness which Gleeson White feared might mar the judgement of the provincial judges was not wholly avoided in the magazine itself. Among the young progressives, Voysey and Baillie-Scott were regularly featured, but the Establishment, represented by Leighton in particular, was by no means neglected. This was not the whole story, however, for the names of many young unknowns feature throughout, not only in the regular competitions but also in extensive reviews of the Home Arts and Industries exhibitions, which celebrated the work of a host of provincial amateurs. Perhaps the most surprising omission frtom the early pages of The Studio was all mention of the former business associate of Charles Holme and doye of designers, possibly the first genuine industrial designer, Christopher Dresser. It was not until Volume 15 that a piece on Dresser was published.

The fifth Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society show was held in the autumn of 1896. The Studio celebrated this event by devoting a large part of four successive issues to an extensive survey, accompanied by 128 illustrations. A large part of the coverage examines the work of artists and craftsmen already familiar to the regular readership of The Studio, particularly Crane, Frampton, Anning, Bell and Voysey. So much so that the writer who, although anonymous, we must assume to be Gleeson White, admits ruefully that ‘a notion of this year’s exhibition might almost be compiled with paste and scissors employed upon a set of The Studio, did not good taste prevent one “cutting up” the magazine either metaphorically or actually to concoct a new article from the fragments’.13

However, new artists and movements are recognised, although with a certain reserve: ‘the Spook School’, as it was already nicknamed, with metal relief panels by the Misses Macdonald and a hall settee by Mackintosh, is admired for its originality, ‘which owes absolutely nothing to the past’. The reviewer assumed that ‘probably nothing in the gallery has provoked more decided censure than these various exhibits; and that fact alone should cause a thoughtful observer of art to pause before he joins the opponents’.14

A new cosmopolitanism was abroad which greatly suited The Studio with its increasingly international readership and coverage: ‘Now eight years after, Paris has an “Arts and Crafts” – L’Art Noveau,’ the writer notes with unrepentant insularity. ‘But with no wish to be conceited …, truth forces one to admit that at present the continental designers, with one or two exceptions, have not succeeded in distinguishing between novelty and eccentricity, between beauty and the grotesque, between first principles of decoration and very mediocre practice.’15

A recurring theme in many of The Studio pieces was criticism of the expressiveness and exclusiveness of the craft products. There is a ringing declaration of that viewpoint at the conclusion of the final article:

Is it beyond the power of a body which numbers nearly every prominent architect, designer, or craftsman to face the problem of beautiful yet economic furniture? Can they not institute a section devoted to designs with estimates of the cost attached?

The writer then lists (thus making amends in some instances for past neglect) those individuals, firms and products which had successfully reconciled quality with economy:

The silver-ware of Mr Ashbee, the excellent Fitzroy pictures, the delightful wall-papers of Messrs Jeffrey and Messrs Essex, the carpets from Messrs Tompkinson and Adam, the fabrics designed by Mr Voysey, the brass and copper works of Messrs Benson the Whitefriars glass of Messrs Powell, the grates of Mr Thomas Elsey: [all] working on strictly commercial lines … nevertheless admirable and satisfactory in all respects.16

The Studio was approaching the fourth anniversary of its first publication and was by now firmly set on the path which made it the staunch advocate of Arts and Crafts for the next 20 years or more, well beyond the point when the world had moved decisively away from the philosophy of William Morris who had been its inspiration. Nicholas Pevsner wrote a piece in The Studio in 1938 celebrating the 50th anniversary of the first Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society exhibition, in which he records his view of the influence of The Studio from a European standpoint:

To give universal recognition to the Arts and Crafts Movement, and above all, to transplant it to the continent a still wider medium of publicity was required. This is where The Studio came in. The effect of The Studio on the decorative arts on the continent must have been both immediate and profound.

Pevsner recalls a Viennese writer’s short story of around 1900, where he depicts the loving consideration with which ‘a cultured and sensitive husband carefully removes from his young wife any disturbance that may spoil her self-chosen solitude the evening after the new number of The Studio has arrived. Sacred silence rules the house, while she slowly turns over the pages of the magazine from London’.17

Notes and References

1. An anonymous article (presumably by Charles Holme) in Vol. 1, Issue 2 of The Studio: The Art Magazine of America provides a comprehensive survey of the American publishing scene, pp.143-49.
2. Some indication of the extent of these inroads can be deduced from the anual Howell & James exhibition of painting on pottery and porcelain, instituted in 1875 and flourishing throughout the 1880s. The event rivalled the Royal Academy Summer Show as a social and artisitic event of the London season.
3. It was not until the second year of publication that the practice of having four-issue volumes was adopted.
4. For some unexplained reason both The Studio reviewer and Lewis F. Day in the Art Journal refer to a two-year interval rather than three.
5. William Morris: ‘That the modern impressionists loudly proclaim their enmity to beauty, and are no more unconscious of their aim (towards ugliness and nullity) than the artists of the revival are of their longing to limit themselves with the traditional arts of the past.’
6. The Studio Vol. 7, p.4.
7. Quoted from: Walter Crane. ‘Of the Revival of Design and Handicraft: with Notes on the Work of the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society.’ In: William Morris (ed.). Arts and Crafts Essays. Longmans Green & Co., 1893, p.18.
8. Lewis F. Day. ‘Virtue & Co Ltd. Arts and Crafts.’ The Art Journal, 1893, pp.330-33.
9. The Studio Vol 7, p.15.
10. Nairn and Pevsner. The Buildings of England: Surrey. Penguin Books, 1962, p.288.
11. The 1906 Exhibition Society Show, reviewed in The Studio.
12. The Studio Vol. 5, p134.
13. The Studio Vol. 9, p124.
14. Ibid., p.202.
15. Ibid., p.227.
16. Ibid., pp.283-4.
17. Vol 116, p.230.

 



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