Morris, Ashbee and Lethaby in Picardy: Educational Aspects of Touring and Sketching Gothic Architecture for the Arts and Crafts Movement

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In this article I will focus on artist-travellers of the Arts and Crafts Movement and their sketches of the Picardy region, with its wealth of 13th-century Gothic cathedrals and churches. I will argue that these trips, made in their youth or at a more advanced age, proved to be formative for the development of their theory but also of their style. Some regions of France remained ignored by the travelling artist while others, such as Picardy, were well travelled, but this fact is little appreciated. In contrast to Lorraine or the Centre of France, Picardy is ideally situated on the way from Calais to Paris. In 1848, a railway line was established between Amiens and Boulogne-sur-Mer, linking the Northern shores of France with Paris, and Abbeville, Amiens, Laon, Soissons and Beauvais became familiar stages on the journey. Guides such as those written by John Murray or Karl Baedeker provided a ready-made route through the North of France, leaving little room to wander from the beaten track. (1) Members of the Arts and Crafts Movement tried to vary this route and develop their own model of a tour, by following the example of John Ruskin (1819-1900).

The starting point of the reflections here was an exhibition entitled 'Ruskin et Turner: Dessins et Voyages en Picardie Romantique', held at the Musee de Picardie in 2003. (2) It combined my interest in the region that I come from with a painter I admire, and so it proved to be inspirational. Picardy is often scorned within France and it is little known abroad, except as a battlefield in the First World War. The catalogue of the exhibition made clear that this region had once been thought worth studying and sketching. While throwing light on the attitude towards Picardy of one particular critic and of one particular artist, the exhibition also showed some of their contemporaries' watercolours and sketches. It revealed how Ruskin's repeated trips to Picardy changed his vision of art. I want to dwell here on the experience of those who followed in his footsteps.

Nothing has been written on the English artistic presence in Picardy during the later 19th century and especially not on the travels there of members of the Arts and Crafts Movement. (3) An article by Gavin Stamp focused on Normandy, which is very close to Picardy, but it did not extend further. (4) The author regretted that the architecture of Normandy had not been studied and that Ruskin did not write a 'Stones of Rouen'. (6) Ruskin did, however, write the Bible of Amiens which, together with The Nature of Gothic, proved immensely influential for generations of architects, and especially the members of the Arts and Crafts Movement. (7)

I will first provide a selected survey of the presence of members of the Arts and Crafts Movement in Picardy during the second half of the 19th century and then focus on William Morris (1834-96), Charles Robert Ashbee (1863-1942) and William Richard Lethaby (1857-1931), though other prominent members occasionally toured the region, such as Phillip Webb and Sidney Cockerell. I propose to tackle the theoretical points drawn from these visits to Picardy and the study of Gothic architecture alongside the artists' tenets and their religious stance towards it. I will take a close look at their practical implementation both in architecture and furniture. Lastly, I will examine the paradox at the very core of the Arts and Crafts Movement, which developed a quintessentially English style from what was in part a specifically French one.

Topographical draughtsmen and travellers

The members of the Arts and Crafts Movement who travelled across the Continent were not so different from their wealthy predecessors taking the Grand Tour. Most of the prominent members of the movement and their leader and luminary Morris had been educated at Oxford (Morris, Edward Burne-Jones) or Cambridge (Ashbee), with the exception of WR Lethaby. These men all shared a recently discovered artistic vocation, which inspired their journeys. …