Paintbrushes, Palettes, Smocks and Mahl Sticks: Painting in the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society

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The Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society opened its first exhibition on 4 October 1888 (Pl 1). Pottery and architectural designs, tapestries and metalwork, books and embroidery and furniture and paintings were displayed together in one exhibition and, in doing so, challenged the Royal Academy's narrow definition of the arts. The exhibition was daring in its concept, because for the first time the fine and decorative arts were displayed together without hierarchy and each craftsman was credited for their work. Blurring the division between the fine and decorative arts, 'paintings, pianos, pots and pans' (1) were displayed together in the same galleries.

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The Royal Academy, from its inception, perpetuated a belief in the distinction between high and low art. Exclusive, hierarchical, and restricted to promoting and cultivating the fine arts, the Academy embodied principles antithetical to those embraced by the Arts and Crafts Movement. Foreseeing that the intransigent Academy was unlikely to reform, craftsmen established their own guilds and societies in the 1880s to promote their philosophies and works of art. The craftsmen's aim was to unify the arts. AS the architect John D Sedding (1838-91) emphasised in a lecture on medieval handicrafts, 'All good art is one; all good artists are of one family.' (2)

Although these new organisations provided camaraderie and debates with other like-minded craftsmen, they failed to provide a public forum for collaboration and exhibition of works. An earlier attempt at a national exhibition of the arts met with little support from the craftsmen, who felt that it pandered to the Royal Academy. (3) Attending a meeting in February 1887 to discuss a possible national art exhibition, William Arthur Smith Benson (1854-1924), frustrated with conflicting politics, wrote on the back of his programme among his sketches for copper lamps, 'Would it be possible for the decorative section to work for a winter exhibition, say at the Grosvenor?' (4) By May 1887, under the provisional name 'The Combined Arts,' the first outline for the Society was in place. (5) A year later, as the first exhibition was about to open, the Society solidified its aims and published its rules, which stated three main objectives: to hold exhibitions of applied design and handicraft; to credit each artisan involved in the design and creation of the work of art; and to arrange lectures where the craftsman could 'demonstrate to the public the aptitudes and the limitations of his craft.' (6) Through these exhibitions the Society hoped to give craftsmen an opportunity for showing their work under their own names and 'gaining the chance at least of the attention and applause now generally monopolized by the pictorial artist.' (7) From the beginning, the organisation's aims were clear; all arts would be welcomed. The exhibitions would emphasise design and handicraft, 'without, however, excluding paintings and sculptures' provided that space was available. (8) After all, the purpose of exhibiting the fine and decorative arts together was 'to illustrate the relation of the arts in application to different materials and uses.' (9) A name for the organisation was less apparent. After much debate, the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society was chosen, a suggestion put forth by Thomas J Cobden-Sanderson (1840-1922). (10) The Arts and Crafts Movement was subsequently christened, deriving its name from the Society, whose philosophies of design reform, joy in labour, and unity of the arts the craftsmen unequivocally embraced.

Despite the fundamental principle of 'unity of the arts,' previous assessments of the Arts and Crafts Movement have focused on the decorative arts, and in turn, neglected the fine arts. The Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society's archives reveal unmistakable evidence of the painter's role in the movement. Painters embraced the ideals of the craftsman, by grinding their own pigments; designing, carving and gilding their frames; and integrating the arts by transferring their skills to the applied and decorative arts. …