Arts and Crafts: From the Ideal to the Egalitarian

For its early leading lights, what came to be known as the Arts and Crafts movement was the practical pursuit of political and philosophical beliefs. 

Sir Ambrose Heal by Walter Benington, for Elliott & Fry chlorobromide print on tissue, 1930s | © National Portrait Gallery, London

William Morris and others of similar socialist bent such as Charles Robert Ashbee were concerned that the increasing industrialisation of work and production witnessed in England through the nineteenth century was harming not only the bodies, souls, and communities of working men and their families but also traditional artisan trades and crafts. The vision they advocated to counter this, much inspired by their romantic view of working and community life in England in earlier centuries, was a return to craft-based production on a smaller, more local scale, with fellow artisans working co-operatively close to each other in a way that would both reconnect men (and women) with the fruits of their labour and perpetuate traditional trades and crafts.

In partnership with fellow artists and designers, Morris put his vision into practical effect in 1861 with the firm that later became Morris & Co., producing mediaeval-inspired domestic furnishings made by hand using traditional methods. Following the considerable success of Morris & Co. through the 1860s and ‘70s and the broadening of its range of styles, the Arts and Crafts movement began in earnest in the 1880s with the formation of several small co-operative enterprises of furniture designers and craftsmen, several of these calling themselves a ‘guild’, emphasising their pre-modern inspiration and collegial style. Some of these more closely followed Morris’s original ideals, such as the Guild of Handicraft founded by Ashbee to foster craftsmanship in London’s impoverished East End and the Homes Arts and Industries Association for craftsmen and women working from home. Most, however, were founded by men who had trained as architects in the leading practices of the day and were generally less interested in philosophical ideals than in pursuing the creative possibilities inspired by looking anew at traditional craftsmanship and materials and integrating this within complementary architectural schemes.

An important Arts and Crafts oak high dresser by Ernest Gimson, 1910s
Sold for $18,750

The finest furniture pieces by the leading English Arts and Crafts designers and craftsmen – Philip Webb (Morris’s principal furniture designer), William Lethaby, Ashbee, C.F.A. Voysey, M.H. Ballie Scott, Ernest Gimson, and the Barnsley brothers, amongst others – were prized in their day as exemplars of strong original design using simple materials (solid oak and other native woods with hand-made fittings) coupled with high craftsmanship. What these pieces were not, however, was accessible to all. Some were unique, made for a particular interior scheme, but even those pieces that were made in some number for commercial sale (in London’s Mayfair and Oxford Street showrooms) were the preserve of a relatively small educated and wealthy class – somewhat at odds with Morris’s and others’ ideal that well-designed and made furnishings should be accessible to all.  

Arts and Crafts designers and makers had different views as to the extent, if any, that use of machines might have in making their furniture but the general presumption against it limited production and demanded high prices. Much less precious on this question was Ambrose Heal who saw no difficulty (other than in getting enough craftsmen to meet demand) in using machines while maintaining high standards of design and construction with his Plain Oak Furniture and Simple Bedroom Furniture, as his catalogues called it. With his unassuming commercially-minded approach, Heal did as much as anybody from the 1890s into the early twentieth century to bring Arts and Crafts furniture into the homes of those of more modest means. In this, and with Arts and Crafts design being promoted widely in journals and catalogues, Heal was soon joined by other firms in England and further afield producing Arts and Crafts furniture that continues to be appreciated today for its strong but unpretentious character, quality of construction, and versatility in a range of settings from the traditional to the contemporary.  

Our Decorative Arts & Asian Art Auction takes place on Monday 20 November in Melbourne. For viewing times and to see the full catalogue please visit our website.

DAVID PARSONS / Head of Private Estates & Valuations

Banner Image: William Morris by Frederick Hollyer, 1887

October 2023