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The best books on The Arts and Crafts Movement

recommended by Julia Griffin

Young Poland by Julia Griffin and Andrzej Szczerski

Young Poland
by Julia Griffin and Andrzej Szczerski

Read

Originating in 19th-century Britain, the Arts and Crafts movement was an international phenomenon extending across many media to Europe, America and Japan. Julia Griffin, who has examined its impact in Poland, tells us how it advanced notions of national identity and provided roots to modernism by establishing a sensitivity to materials, designs, and forms, a sensibility that is still with us today.

Interview by Romas Viesulas

Young Poland by Julia Griffin and Andrzej Szczerski

Young Poland
by Julia Griffin and Andrzej Szczerski

Read

Before we talk about the books you’ve selected, what was the Arts and Crafts movement?

It was a cultural movement which started in Britain around the middle of the 19th century. In fact, the foundation of the Arts & Crafts Exhibition Society in 1887 is frequently considered as a formal starting point of the Arts and Crafts movement. It began in Britain and spread across Europe and America over the next three decades, right up until the First World War. And then it continued to spread across to Japan from around the 1920s until the Second World War.

Although there has been some confusion between the Arts and Crafts movement and other modern art movements of around the same time – for example Art Nouveau – I firmly agree with the scholar Linda Parry that what distinguished the Arts and Crafts movement was that it was an ethos and not just a style. It was concerned with more than just the appearance of things: it was an ideology based on a set of moral and social principles effectively aimed at changing the world. I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that it was aimed at improving the human condition of work and life.

What I find so interesting is that the sheer multitude of the Arts and Crafts objects created is so diverse that one cannot pin the movement down in stylistic terms – not even within Great Britain alone. One can however find elements of a shared ethos, and this extends internationally. Of course, there are certain defining qualities such as simplicity, truth to materials, and truth to construction, with the objects revealing the materials they are made from, refraining from elaborate surface finishes such as marquetry, mosaic, or brocading. Crucially, the ethos is about the ennobling power of craftsmanship and an individual’s creative freedom in the process of the making, rather than just the aesthetics of the end product.

The other defining characteristic of the Arts and Crafts movement is the aspiration to equate all branches of art – departing from the commonly accepted hierarchy of painting, sculpture and architecture as the master arts and all other fields being the ‘lesser arts’. In fact, it accorded equal importance to any other aspect of material culture, including wood-carving, embroidery, ceramics, and others. This relates to the movement’s inherent cultural democracy, its fundamental commitment to ‘art for all’ and ‘beauty for all’, departing from elitist access to the arts.

You might say that in Britain the movement sprung up in an effort to counter the effects of the Industrial Revolution by championing handiwork. There’s a shared sensibility for the depredations of the Industrial Revolution, the way that people lived and the way people expressed themselves culturally, which was a rallying moment for the likes of Ruskin, William Morris and their wider circle.

To understand Arts and Crafts, it’s important to understand its leading protagonist. Let’s talk about William Morris. You’ve selected two books about this Victorian renaissance man. The first of the Arts and Crafts books about Morris you want to discuss is the newly published Routledge Companion to William Morris, edited by Professor Florence Boos.

Morris was such a polymath that one of his early 20th-century biographers, the aristocratic socialist Countess of Warwick stated that the word ‘reformer’ best described him because he was at once an artist, craftsman and manufacturer, major poet, translator, writer of utopias and romances, political leader and theorist!

The Companion is an outstanding and extraordinary guide to all aspects of the reformer’s life and work, animated by the recognition that because of Morris’s versatile activities, no single scholar could ever attempt to research all aspects of the man. It has 22 chapters in over 600 pages with very fresh and fascinating visual material, including over 120 mostly unpublished images. These include archival images of Morris’s homes, manuscripts, significant locations for the development of his ideology and new material about his design practice.

The first section offers essays about Morris’s life, biographies and his physical environment. It includes perspectives on the significance of his business practices, his portrayal of women, and his Icelandic travels. I contributed an essay about Morris’s tenure of Kelmscott Manor, investigating its previously unacknowledged role as an important site of his artistic and literary work, and challenging many misconceptions about this iconic house. A second section deals with his art, looking at his design practice and also commitment to the preservation of historic buildings. Interestingly, this looks at current appropriations of Morris in popular culture by contemporary artists such as Jeremy Deller, David Mabb and Kehinde Wiley. Still other sections deal with Morris’s literary works, his politics and activism, and his lifelong interest in books, including collecting books and the making of Arts and Crafts books via the Kelmscott Press.

“You might say that in Britain the movement sprung up in an effort to counter the effects of the Industrial Revolution by championing handiwork”

The section on his art includes an illuminating essay by Margaretta S. Frederick, the curator of the Bancroft Collection at the Delaware Museum, about Morris as a pioneer of professional interior design, arguing that his original approach to creating holistic interiors was arguably even more important than his contribution to individual branches of craft.

There’s also a great essay by Jim Cheshire about Morris’s stained glass, the evolution of the iconography of stained glass, and about the techniques used to create it, with a practical guide on how to read and interpret a Morris’s stained glass window. A superb chapter by Chris Miele concerns Morris’s architectural projects – mainly the decoration of Gothic Revival churches. This demonstrates how the nature of his work evolved hand in hand with his changing views and his foundation of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings and departure and separation from Victorian restoration work in favour of renovation. Another fascinating essay about the contents of Morris’s library by Yuri Cowan analyses the philosophy which propelled his antiquarian interests.

I could go on, but the key thing is that each essay highlights the relevance of Morris today. The whole concept of the Routledge Companion is to show that Morris’s vision is still very much alive.

The author Florence Boos is also editor of the William Morris Archive, an incredible online resource which includes different editions of Morris’s literary and political works as well as scans of Kelmscott Press publications, and a really fine selection of examples of Morris’s work in the book arts, with commentary by leading contemporary scholars. It was Boos who, with her outstanding international specialism in Morris’s literary work, has given us a better understanding of The Earthly Paradise and of his activism. Some years back she discovered the manuscript of his socialist diary and brought it to light. It is no wonder that The Routledge Companion to William Morris is unrivalled on literature and politics, an integral part of the Arts and Crafts movement given his publication of books, however much we might regard it primarily in visual terms. These aspects of his work and convictions are all interconnected.

Next you want to discuss Linda Parry’s monumental volume, William Morris, published to commemorate the centenary of Morris’s death in 1996.

This book has proven absolutely indispensable to my own research over the years. Despite having been conceived as an exhibition catalogue it has stood the test of time and in my view is still unrivalled as the definitive visual guide to Morris, and Morris & Co. It was in fact the world’s first visual compendium to present the complete range and scale of Morris’s work not only as a designer, craftsman and manufacturer, but also as an author and poet, political activist and conservationist.

The volume is presented under three key headings – ‘The Man,’ ‘The Art,’ and ‘The Legacy’ — and provides in one book an overview of the life and work of an extraordinary man with a particular focus on the visual arts. There are splendid overviews of Morris & Co’s furniture, tiles and tableware, wallpapers, calligraphy, and Kelmscott Press designs, as well as Linda Parry’s stupendous chapters on domestic decoration and textiles, the latter covering embroidery, printed cottons, carpets and tapestries. Remarkably, everything shown in the exhibition was catalogued in the book, bringing together over 600 illustrations and key Morris objects from around the world. Linda Parry’s seminal contribution to Morris scholarship in the area of all of his decorative arts (not least textiles) cannot be overstated. Her monumental work continues to be the foundation and inspiration for ongoing scholarship today.

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In recognition of the value and continuing appeal of this extraordinary book, in October 2021, 25 years after its original publication, Thames & Hudson in partnership with the V&A will be bringing out a new updated edition. Linda has been involved in its preparation and the new editor is Anna Mason, former Director of the William Morris Gallery, who is a very talented art historian with a real commitment to promoting Morris’s vision. Anna can be credited for the resurgence of scholarship on May Morris. She was co-editor of May Morris: Arts & Crafts Designer, and is currently editing her letters with Margaretta S. Frederick. The new edition will follow the same structure as the original edition, and will reflect new findings, archives and objects that have come to light over the past three decades – for example the recent revelation of the original decorative scheme at Red House, new scholarship on Philip Webb and George Jack, and newly re-discovered artefacts such as the Peacock and Bird carpet, and two painted chairs from Red Lion Square acquired by Delaware in 1997. With splendid new photography and additional illustrations, it promises to be a visual feast.

Again, due to the incredible breadth of Morris and his associates’ activities, William Morris relies on expert contributions from numerous leading scholars. I am honoured to be a part of it. In my own new chapter on Morris’s painting and drawing, I am tracing the vital role of Dante Gabriel Rossetti in the professionalisation of Morris’s decorative arts practice, including the Pre-Raphaelite artist’s part in the foundation and activities of Morris, Marshall, Morris & Co, in which the practice of painting initially played far greater role than previously acknowledged.

In my pursuit of 19th-century visual arts I have been blessed with Florence Boos’s and Linda Parry’s mentorship over the last decade. In my academic career, these are the two people I go to for answers to even to the most obscure questions. I don’t want to call them walking encyclopaedias, because that wouldn’t do justice to their lifelong dedication for their work – for me, they are the ultimate authorities on the subject and they are very generous in encouraging the next generations of Morris scholars.

The international extent of Arts and Crafts may come as a surprise to readers. To illustrate this, tell us about your new book. How does British Arts and Crafts relate to ‘Young Poland’?

Young Poland: The Arts and Crafts Movement, 1890-1918, which I have co-edited with Andrzej Szczerski, is the result of a larger three-year international research and exhibition project, done in partnership between the William Morris Gallery, the National Museum in Kraków and the Polish Cultural Institute in London. An exhibition on the same subject will open at the William Morris Gallery in October 2021. In spite of the challenges of the past year, the book has been possible thanks to a most fortuitous constellation of people and organisations.

Andrzej Szczerski, Professor of Art History from Jagiellonian University and Director of the National Museum in Kraków, is an expert on the cultural exchange between Poland and Great Britain around 1900, and the history of Polish design and architecture in the 19th and 20th centuries. My own doctoral specialism is Victorian art and design with particular reference to the British Arts and Crafts movement, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and William Morris. Our fellow Young Poland project curator, Roisin Inglesby, is Senior Curator of the William Morris Gallery and her experimental work focusses on Morris’s international connections.  The William Morris Gallery holds an internationally significant collection and archive of the British Arts and Crafts Movement while the National Museum in Kraków, Poland’s oldest national museum, has the largest collection of Young Poland objects – a perfect match all around and a great team of colleagues!

Our book is the world’s first study of the Young Poland movement systematically shown from the international Arts and Crafts perspective. Over the last century, Young Poland has been viewed primarily in reference to the fine arts, and almost exclusively in the context of European Art Nouveau, not allowing for a more nuanced understanding of the complexity and values of the movement. Crucially, the Art Nouveau perspective is contrary to how many Young Poland makers viewed their own practice. Many of them, including for example Stanisław Wyspiański and Karol Kłosowski, openly disassociated themselves from the style, as not sufficiently original or native.  We therefore very much hope that our book can contribute to changing the existing paradigm by arguing that Young Poland displayed more fundamental parallels with the international Arts and Crafts movement.

The Polish Arts and Crafts perspective has been debated in books since the 1990s, including pioneering research in David Crowley’s book National Style and Nation-State; Jan Cavanaugh’s Out Looking In; and Andrzej Szczerski’s brilliant monograph on the reception of British art in Central Europe, with special reference to Pre-Raphaelitism and the Arts and Crafts movement, Views of Albion (originally published in Polish as ‘Models of Identity’). There were also chapters on the Arts and Crafts of Poland in two extensive and richly illustrated overviews of the international Arts and Crafts movement – Rosalind Blakesley’s The Arts and Crafts Movement, and Linda Parry and Karen Livingstone’s superb International Arts and Crafts.

Indeed, Parry and Livingstone’s International Arts and Crafts, is the next book on our Arts and Crafts reading list.

It’s a good starting point for understanding the multinational appeal and influence of Arts and Crafts. As the title suggests, International Arts and Crafts argues compellingly that the movement, initiated in 19th-century Britain, was an international phenomenon with widespread impact into the mid-20th century, from Britain to America, Europe and Japan. It matured in these geographies at a time of rapid social change often resulting in art that expressed or advanced notions of national identity.

Like the landmark exhibition that it originally accompanied in 2005, this book convincingly shows that Arts and Crafts provided roots to modernism by establishing a profound sensitivity to materials, designs, and forms.  Our book Young Poland: The Polish Arts and Crafts Movement, 1890-1918 has built on this pioneering scholarship, whilst going a step further – proposing the novel premise that the Young Poland artistic movement, characterised by an unprecedented flourishing and integration of all the arts and a revival of crafts, can, in fact, be considered as an Arts and Crafts movement in terms of its cultural, iconographic, and ideological pursuits.

In our book, we have similarly set out to showcase the key artists, craftsmen and manufacturers, as well as the key places, objects and ideas that came to define the Polish Arts and Crafts Movement. Young Poland presents a wide range of makers and phenomena, with special reference to Stanisław Wyspiański (1869-1907), shown as a counterpart of William Morris; the all-encompassing national style – Zakopane Style – which comprised architecture, interior decoration and fashion; and the work of the artists’ cooperative, the Kraków Workshops. We endeavoured to showcase the whole spectrum of the arts from textiles, stained-glass and ceramics to more modest media unique to Poland – for example – innovative Christmas-tree decorations . The visual and academic content of the book are intended to bring joy and be widely accessible to specialists and the general public alike.

Let’s talk about the process of cultural exchange across national boundaries during this incredibly fertile cultural moment, the turn of the 19th century. The next book you have chosen, Views of Albion, addresses this process head on.

Until a few years ago much art history had been dominated by a Franco-centric model, considering France as the sole trendsetting cultural centre for the European and the international avant-garde. It had been therefore widely accepted that ideas from France had been permeating into the other countries across time. Andrzej Szczerski’s Views of Albion: The Reception of British Art and Design in Central Europe was a game-changer. It compellingly demonstrated that the model based on the distinction between centre and periphery no longer adequately explains the actual patterns of artistic dissemination. This is because the countries traditionally deemed ‘peripheral’ were not constrained by having to look exclusively to France or another cultural ‘centre’ for sources of inspiration. They were able to establish direct contact between themselves, which undermines the very idea of ‘periphery vs centre’.

“The other defining characteristic of the Arts and Crafts movement is the aspiration to equate all branches of art”

Views of Albion shows that British ideas, disseminating by means of various periodicals, books, travel, and personal contacts, were in fact tremendously influential in the Polish lands. This exciting monograph traces the reception of British art and design in Central Europe between 1890 and 1918, mapping the whole cultural landscape. The book not only sets  a new paradigm, but also has a breathtaking scope, covering the whole of Central Europe including Germany, Austria, Poland, the Czech lands, Slovakia, Hungary, and Southern Slavic countries. This sort of comprehensive study would be an accomplishment in one country alone!

Andrzej Szczerski’s  seminal research has specifically demonstrated that for example, in the Polish lands Pre-Raphaelitism was very much viewed as an inherent link with the Arts and Crafts movement, recognising the Brotherhood’s vital role in the design reform in Britain, which is sometimes forgotten in Britain today.

I was fascinated to discover that the Pre-Raphaelites and their iconography also became a very direct means of transmission of pictorial ideas to the Vienna Secession, for example.

Views of Albion sheds fascinating light on Klimt’s British inspirations, including visual tributes to Rossetti, Edward Burne-Jones, Aubrey Beardsley and Margaret Macdonald. That’s incredible, I agree.

We think of Arts and Crafts, Art Nouveau, the Secession as distinct historical movements. What you begin to realise in reading this book is how interlinked they all were.

That’s right. In the case of Young Poland those distinctions were not so clear-cut. Due to political oppression Polish artists were simultaneous trying to develop an autonomous artistic idiom, aimed at preserving an endangered cultural identity, whilst striving to keep up with progressive trends in Europe to be taken seriously in an international arena. This is why during the Young Poland period there were many competing and blending influences, including the French and Austrian Art Nouveau.

Our book Young Poland argues that Polish art displayed most paramount commonalities with the British ethos. Similarly, Views of Albion had first offered a thought-provoking overview of British inspirations in Polish art, looking for example at the work of Wyspiański, Stanisław Mehoffer, and the extraordinary bookbinder Bonawentura Lenart, who actually visited Britain during his training, attending classes at the Camberwell School of Art and meeting direct descendants of Morris’s bookbinding legacy. It also looks at the extraordinary designers Karol Frycz, Henryk Uziembło, who studied in Britain, as well as the links between British Arts and Crafts architecture and the Zakopane style – including Witkiewicz’s correspondence with Ruskin. Views of Albion includes some fascinating visual material as well and has become the standard work of reference on the European reception on British ideas.

An English audience will likely underestimate the richness of the Arts and Crafts movement abroad. In Central and Eastern Europe there was an important national dimension, that to explore a national identity through decorative arts became a way of resisting the regimes of the German (Prussian), Russian and Austrian (Austro-Hungarian) Empires, which had effectively colonised this entire corridor of Eastern Europe. David Crowley’s National Style and the Nation-State, the final book on your list, explores the cultural signifiers that enabled a national identity to coalesce into something strong enough to effectively generate nation states. The Wilsonian idea of national self-determination was arguably made possible precisely because these cultural movements which occurred in the 19th century as a precursor to the political ideas.

This book, published in 1992, was one of the first and perhaps the most significant British publication about Polish design. David Crowley, a brilliant scholar, spent time in Poland and brilliantly traced the Polish applied arts from the late 1890s until the 1930s in the context of the evolution of a national style. National Style and the Nation-State specifically applied the term the Polish Arts and Crafts movement to the Zakopane Style. It also likened the aspiration of the Krakow Workshops designers to Morris’s vision of communal craft workshops from News from Nowhere! An extremely enjoyable and novel book.

David Crowley’s discussion of the Zakopane Style uniquely focussed on the collaborative ethos central to this approach, countering the notion that Witkiewicz had worked in isolation. In fact, Witkiewicz had gathered around him a great number of local artisans and designers while initiating a movement amongst professional architects from many localities across the Polish lands. Crowley came up with the clever concept of Young Poland objects serving as carriers of national identity, which we have also adopted in our book.

I actually believe that, just as it had been the case in the Polish lands, the driving force behind the British Arts and Crafts movement was also to cultivate an endangered idea of national identity – not how Britain is usually presented. Looking at Morris’s work through this prism, although Britain wasn’t subjected to political oppression in the way that the populations of Eastern Europe were, the effects of the Industrial Revolution were in fact seen as threatening the ethos of Englishness symbolised by a vanishing pre-industrial, rural way of life.

Arguably, the Polish Arts and Crafts Movement, certainly in Galicia (the Austro-Hungarian partition), was less about dealing with the effects of the Industrial Revolution, as it had remained virtually untouched by industrialisation by that point. However, the value of handiwork was not so much about counteracting mechanical production but rather about preserving folk traditions, the latter seen as a way of countering the undesirable foreign influence of the partitioning powers.

We seem to be living in an era where the nature and value of work is being questioned and reevaluated. What is the key lesson that these books about Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement still hold for us today?

If I was to explain Morris’s design and social philosophy to a child, I would probably say that everyone – irrespective of their financial or social status – deserves to derive pleasure and fulfilment from useful and creative work, and live in a beautiful home. Looking at our current times, I believe these are real preoccupations and urgent needs, and reimagining Morris’s ideals may suggest some universally applicable solutions for providing people with the basis for a good life.

Interview by Romas Viesulas

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Julia Griffin

Julia Griffin is a Courtauld-trained art historian and curator specialising in the Arts & Crafts Movement and Victorian painting. Her PhD explores William Morris and D.G. Rossetti’s occupancy of Kelmscott Manor (Central Saint Martins, UAL). Julia has been responsible for a number of exhibitions and permanent collection rehangs, notably the City’s Collection Displays (2015) at the Guildhall Art Gallery, for which she was awarded Freedom of the City of London. Recent publications include contributions to May Morris. Art and Life (William Morris Gallery: 2017) and the Routledge Research Companion to William Morris (2020), as well as Young Poland: The Arts and Crafts Movement, 1890-1918.

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Julia Griffin

Julia Griffin is a Courtauld-trained art historian and curator specialising in the Arts & Crafts Movement and Victorian painting. Her PhD explores William Morris and D.G. Rossetti’s occupancy of Kelmscott Manor (Central Saint Martins, UAL). Julia has been responsible for a number of exhibitions and permanent collection rehangs, notably the City’s Collection Displays (2015) at the Guildhall Art Gallery, for which she was awarded Freedom of the City of London. Recent publications include contributions to May Morris. Art and Life (William Morris Gallery: 2017) and the Routledge Research Companion to William Morris (2020), as well as Young Poland: The Arts and Crafts Movement, 1890-1918.