BOOKS Ideas Taking Shape in a Very English Way; the Crafts in Britain in the 20th Century. by Tanya Harrod (Yale, Pounds 45). Reviewed by Richard Edmonds

By Edmonds, Richard | The Birmingham Post (England), June 19, 1999 | Go to article overview

BOOKS Ideas Taking Shape in a Very English Way; the Crafts in Britain in the 20th Century. by Tanya Harrod (Yale, Pounds 45). Reviewed by Richard Edmonds


Edmonds, Richard, The Birmingham Post (England)


From ceramics to silver-smithing, glass engraving to weaving, we can safely assume that the arts and crafts have played a complex role in the social, cultural and artistic history of 20th century Britain.

The range of craftsmen and designers is prodigious over time, but they were all linked with a common anxiety which focused on the decline of standards in an increasingly industrialised society where advertising papered over the cracks in shoddy workmanship.

Tanya Harrod in this magnificent book begins with the craft revival during the late 19th century, a movement which included William Morris, John Ruskin and many lesser known artist-philosophers.

Using rare and carefully-chosen illustrations, she shows how crafts were forced into new forms during the First World War pointing out that the crafts were always closely connected to Modernism.

She cites Diaghilev's Russian Ballet with its avant-garde designers as a seminal influence, where the geometrical patterns used by the ballet designers affected all kinds of things from woven fabrics to jewellery, fine painting and ceramic design.

During the Depression, craft work was seen as a panacea for unemployment and shops selling ceramic pots, honey jar covers or basketwork plant holders sprang up in rural England or in the side streets of large cities.

They reflected a concern with the values of a time gone by but developed eventually a negative angle since many people associated such places with plain, unvarnished women of an indeterminate age passing the day painting earthernware pots or weaving sideboard runners in porridge coloured linen. There was also a muscular Christianity moving along inside it all.

But the other side to all this, especially during the 1940s when Britain struggled on through horrific bombings and food restrictions, was that the honesty of craft propagandised a unique culture - the British way of life - which was worth defending.

Then Harrod moves into a post-war culture led by the potter Bernard Leach, who lifted craft into a new relationship with architecture and post-war urban planning focused on bomb-damaged cities.

Particular artists to remember are John Hutton, the glass engraver, who made some stunningly beautiful windows for the Shakespeare Centre in Stratford-upon-Avon and also a magnificent carved glass screen at Coventry Cathedral.

Whether we should identify Graham Sutherland's huge altar tapestry with the craft movement is debatable, and I feel Epstein's awesome exterior sculpture showing St Michael and the Devil comes within the same debate. But perhaps they represent the arts element within the arts and crafts defining structures.

But everything comes back initially to the 19th century and William Morris, who attempted to raise the standards of the working class and failed. Morris blockprinted fine wallpapers and produced books bound in vellum - things only the well-heeled middle classes could afford.

By 1915, the recognition by the newly-formed Design and Industry's Association of other smaller companies increased fragmentation of Morris's ideal craft society.

Roger Fry's Omega Workshop appeared, supported by Virginia Woolf and like-minded friends. The only trouble was that Omega craft items were a joke as far as workmanship was concerned. Although beautifully painted by Woolf's Bloomsbury friend Duncan Grant, they were of shoddy construction and frequently fell apart.

But the Omega artists saw themselves as "artist craftsmen" encompassing craft in all its forms from bookbinding to calligraphy. It all meant very little to people struggling on the breadline. But the breadline seemed not to matter to people living in cloud cuckoo land making pretty little brooches out of moonstones and solid silver.

Happily, this fine book with its striking linen binding in modernistic colours of chocolate brown and beige, does not impose potted histories of the various craft workshops on the reader. …

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