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Tom Gurney BSc (Hons) is an art history expert with over 20 years experience
Published on June 19, 2020 / Updated on October 14, 2023
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Established towards the end of the 19th Century in Britain, the Arts and Crafts Movement came as a response to the damaging effects of the industrial revolution, which had negatively affected social values and aesthetics. Industrialisation had not only affected the quality of goods that were being manufactured, but it had also downsized craftsmanship.

The Arts and Crafts Movement: How it all Started

The pioneers of this movement started it from an understanding that there could be a better way of manufacturing items, which included the preservation of craftsmanship. William Morris, John Ruskin, and Augustus Pugin are some of the key figures that were behind this revolution. They tried hard to see that the effects of industrialisation did not affect traditional creative and decorative artworks. Their belief in the capacity of art to restructure societal values propelled the expansion of the arts and crafts movement across Britain, America, and the rest of Europe.

The History of The Arts and Crafts Movement

The Arts and Crafts movement was coined after a London-based group known as the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society, which was founded by Walter Crane. Although the need to curb the effects of the industrial revolution had been felt for some time, it is the Arts and Crafts Movement that realised these desires. Launched between 1880 and around the 1920s, the movement had become an umbrella of societies, artists, designers, architects, and artisans who were geared towards creating decorative arts. Among the champions of this movement was William Morris, who had grown into an established designer and manufacturer.

Although William Morris joined the movement years after it was launched, his decorative artwork had a significant impact on most artists. This led to the creation of numerous organisations across Britain and other regions which drove the ideas of the Arts and Crafts Movement. This movement comes shortly after the Great Exhibition of 1851, which was associated with the use of low-quality materials that were artificial and excessively ornate. The critics of this Exhibition such as John Ruskin became the source of inspiration for most members of the Arts and Crafts Movement, including William Morris.

Around the 1890s, the movement had been approved across diverse regions of the UK, including Glasgow, London, Edinburg, and Manchester. It was no longer associated with individuals or a small group. Instead, Arts and Crafts had now become a widespread culture of design of manufacturing items. The acceptance of Arts and Crafts was on the belief that it would change the social values of people who would adopt it. This led to the development of art schools, workshops, technical colleges, and individual artists.

The Beliefs of the Arts and Crafts Movement

Decorative arts and architecture were the primary concerns of the Arts and Crafts movement. These included mosaic art, jewellery, ceramics, furniture and furnishings, stained glass, tapestry art, and printed fabrics. The movement believed in craftsmanship, with an emphasis on aspects such as inspirations from nature, the beauty of the material, and core values such as beauty and simplicity. The movement was opposed to the dynamics of the industrial revolution, which involved dehumanising methods of enslaving people in urban factories and mills. The members of the Arts and Crafts movement believed that industrialisation was not only there to degrade social values but also to destroy the environment upon which craftsmanship would prosper.

The Arts and Crafts Movement was also opposed to the fact that industrialisation ignored the quality of materials, which would influence how people viewed objects. They believed that decorative artwork and craftsmanship created a platform that was essential in shaping how people think about manufactured items. Most of the beliefs of the members and pioneers of the Arts and Crafts movement were geared towards socialism. This is because most of the designers and artists behind this platform were socialists. They spent most of their resources advocating for humane relationships between employers and their employees.

Contributions of William Morris to the Arts and Crafts Movement

William Morris was a multitalented genius with skills that cut across poetry, painting, designs, artwork, philosophy, typography, and politics. Among the champions of the Arts and Crafts movement, William Morris is arguably the most commemorated. He stood opposed to the industrial revolution that had set its way in during the Victorian era. Morris fought for the craftmanship and decorative artwork which was soon getting replaced by machine-produced products. Morris was not entirely against machines. What he was against was the use of machines to produce large quantities of materials at the expense of quality and beauty. Below are some of his key contributions to the Arts and Crafts movement.

The Red House

The Red House remains to be one of the most significant pieces of artwork that represent the philosophy of the Arts and Crafts movement. The house was designed and built by Morris and his friend Phillip Webb, which would become Morris' first residential home. Made using red bricks, the house was devoid of pretentious facades with the incorporation of traditional methods of construction. Some of the creative designers of the time, who were friends to Morris, spent significant time in the Red House assisting him in undertaking detailed decoration. Such friends include Dante Gabriel Rosetti and Edward Burne-Jones. Unfortunately, the location of the house and his perfectionism forced him to move out of the house after five years of residing there. However, Morris appreciated the indelible mark the Red House would leave to the future generations in the world of Arts and Crafts.

Morris & Co.

Morris & Co., formerly known as Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co., was a commercial venture that was started by Morris and friends who worked with him at the Red House. This interior design firm, founded in 1860, became an umbrella of creative designers who would restore the quality of medieval craftsmanship. Morris and Company sought to implement the philosophy of mixing art and craft, which had been induced by John Ruskin. With the aim of creating beautiful and artistic objects, members of Morris and Company turned out to be renowned designers and producers of objects such as wallpaper, tiles, carpets, jewellery, tapestry, furniture, and furnishing fabrics. The creations of Morris and Company reshaped the design landscape of Britain, most of which remain to be an inspiration to today’s designers and manufacturers.

Wallpaper Designs

His wallpaper designs are probably the reason why Morris is regarded as the Master of Arts and Crafts. With a blend of tree branches, trellises, and swirling leaves, the designs of Morris availed in wallpapers continue to spark an element of uniqueness that is ultimately timeless. The success of his wallpaper designs was dependent on his observance of nature. These designs are a reflection of the pure forms of nature that he observed in fields, gardens, and hedgerows. He used some of his wallpaper designs to decorate his Red House as well as other places such as St. James' Palace and the Balmoral Castle. William Morris, with the help of Morris and Company, was able to produce over fifty wallpaper designs.

The Kelmscott Press

With a production base of over 18000 volumes within its first 80 years of establishment, the Kelmscott Press is another piece of artwork for which Morris is celebrated today. Named after Kelmscott, a village in Oxford where Morris lived, the Kelmscott Press was a centre that invested in typography to produce premier quality books. Morris started the Press after an inspirational lecture about incunabula publications and medieval manuscripts. While the intention was to enhance readability, Morris also intended to have the Kelmscott Press preserve aesthetics integrity.

This was evident in the stylised title pages, ornamental borders, and typefaces which Morris designed. Every book was printed on handmade paper. The resources used to produce hand-crafted books in the Kelmscott Press could not enable them to realise a profit. The Press was therefore not financially successful. However, the artwork and designs that revolved around this Press became an inspiration to the European and American presses. The development of graphic design and typography in the 20th century could not be a reality with the inputs of the Kelmscott Press.

William Morris' Inspiration

John Ruskin - In addition to his skilful observation of nature, William Morris contributions to the Arts and Crafts Movement were inspired by the philosophy of John Ruskin. Ruskin was one of the leading critics of the Industrial Revolution. He advocated for the moral and social health of people, which he believed were influenced by the nature of architectural work and the quality of materials used in designs.

Ruskin considered the division of labour and the mechanised production of products to be inhumane, claiming that it robbed people of dignity. He believed that craftsmanship and handwork in the production of items integrated labour and dignity. Morris and his college friend Edward Burne-Jones had noticed Ruskin's philosophy while they pursued their studies. Teaming up with Dante Gabriel Rosetti, one of their role models, they co-founded the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood which was founded on most of Ruskin’s principles.

Augustus W. N. Pugin - The success of William Morris in design and decorative designs was also inspired by the architectural ideas of Augustus W. N. Pugin. Pugin had anticipated most of the philosophies and ideas of the Arts and Crafts Movement. Pugin compared and contrasted the contemporary buildings with medieval craftsmanship, pointing out the flaws that came with modern society in the architectural world. He championed for the adoption of craftsmanship in architecture. His ideas would later be adopted and applied by John Ruskin and William Morris, which formed the basis of the works of the Arts and Crafts movement.

The Legacy of William Morris

Morris has become a widely celebrated figure in the world of design and artwork. While some remember him for his pieces of poetry, many attribute the blueprint of garden suburbs and cities to the Morris' contributions to Arts and Crafts. His philosophy of preserving the natural world against the contrasting damages of the environment anticipated by industrialisation is still cherished by many of his followers today. The William Morris Gallery and the William Morris Society are some of the existing tools that depict the authentic works of Morris and his contributions to Arts and Crafts.