At Cheltenham Art Gallery & Museum Arts and Crafts Museum

The Arts and Crafts Movement

Writing desk designed by C R Ashbee and made by the Guild of Handicraft, 1898-9The Arts and Crafts Movement developed in 19th-century Britain as a rebellion against the fashion for inventive sham and over-elaborate design and as an attempt to reverse the growing dehumanisation of work in society. It was based on simple forms, truth to materials and the use of nature as the source of pattern. Young London-based architects were inspired by the ideas of John Ruskin and William Morris. They founded the Art Workers' Guild in 1884 to break down barriers between architects, artists, designers and makers. The term 'Arts & Crafts' was first used at the suggestion of the bookbinder T J Cobden-Sanderson for its offshoot, the Arts & Crafts Exhibition Society, set up in 1888.

The Arts and Crafts Movement was a rebellion of substance as well as style. Its power came from the conviction that art and craft could change people's lives. Its strong social and moral purpose has ensured its continuing relevance. Many guilds and workshops were set up which had a long lasting impact on communities.

The work could be highly decorated but was often extremely plain. The roughness and simplicity of some work was shocking, one reviewer in 1899 referred to an Arts and Crafts piece as looking 'like the work of a savage'. However, most pieces show a concern for and understanding of craftsmanship. The bright colours, rich patterns and textures of many pieces are visually stunning.

Because ideas about art, work and society were central to the Arts and Crafts Movement, the arts of the book including calligraphy, typography, and book binding were highly valued. The private press movement began in Britain in 1891 with the setting up of the Kelmscott Press by William Morris with Emery Walker and spread worldwide.

Art schools and technical colleges particularly in London, Glasgow, and Birmingham played an important role in developing the movement. In return the Arts & Crafts ideas influenced the teaching of art, craft and design in Britain through to the 1950s and later.

For the first time women took a leading role in a major art movement as designers, makers and consumers. Both the home and women's role in it were elevated bringing a subversive freshness to architecture and interior decoration. The Arts & Crafts Movement encouraged the involvement of amateurs and students as well as professionals through organisations such as the Home Arts and Industries Association.

C R Ashbee wrote that 'the proper place for the Arts and Crafts is in the country'. An element of the movement included both the romanticising of rural life and an attempt to preserve its surviving heritage. There were significant Arts & Crafts communities in the Cotswolds, in Cornwall around Newlyn, and at Ditchling in Sussex.

Music and drama played a significant part in the movement. Composers such as Ralph Vaughan Williams and Gustav Holst shared the Arts & Crafts love of the countryside and folk traditions. As part of the movement, Arnold Dolmetch pioneered the revival of early English music while Cecil Sharp and others collected traditional folk songs and dances. Theatrical entertainments were an important social aspect of the movement involving both amateurs and professionals such as Bernard Shaw and John Masefield.

Find out more about the Movement in our Online Exhibitions.

Emery Walker AD 1