Arts and Crafts and Artisan Movements

Section
3. Replace God of Growth with God of Quality
Page
3.8

In many ways the modern ‘slow’ movements can be said to have come out of the Arts and Crafts Movement of the late 19th and early 20 centuries, which in turn had roots in medieval craft guilds.

The Victoria and Albert Museum in London has an extensive collection of Arts and Crafts works and nicely summarises the rise of the Movement: “In Britain the damaging effects of machine-dominated production on both social conditions and the quality of manufactured goods had been recognised since around 1840. But it was not until the 1860s and ’70s that new approaches in architecture and design were championed in an attempt to correct the problem. The Arts and Crafts movement in Britain was born out of an increasing understanding that society needed to adopt a different set of priorities in relation to the manufacture of objects. Its leaders wanted to develop products that not only had more integrity but which were also made in a less dehumanising way.” A strong influence on the movement was designer William Morris who “believed passionately in the importance of –

(Voysey, C. 1914-18. Birds of Many Climes.Textile Design. V&A Museum)

Looking to the past, particularly the medieval period, for simpler and better models for both living and production, Morris argued for the return to a system of manufacture based on small-scale workshops.”

Here, again, is a value system based on quality – the quality of life and the quality of work. While the above quotes don’t mention the natural world, a love of Nature was central to the Movement and formed the backbone of so much of their work and designs. The image of CFA Voysey, above, is typical of this, and there was even an Arts and Crafts garden ‘movement’ created by designers and gardeners like Jekyll and Lutyens, that created such wonderful places as Stockbridge and Great Dixter.

(Tankard, J. 2021. Sunk Garden- Great Dixter, UK)

 

The emphasis was on the human scale, harmony, and inward-looking diversity, quality and complexity – the intimate – not the gross ‘muscling’ of size, number, and expansion.

As mentioned in the V&A introduction, at least part of the movement sprang from admiration of medieval crafts and guilds, and while not wanting to be too dewy-eyed about many medieval practices and attitudes, the fulfilment gained through the quality of so many of their works would have brought great meaning and satisfaction.

The power of this ‘excellence through quality’ was sharply brought home to me on seeing my first medieval cathedral. It was a bitterly cold, grey day in January, as befits a grand, Gothic cathedral, and there, suddenly, it was, soaring out of the mist – Ely Cathedral in East Anglia. The place was virtually deserted and as I walked its aisles, fog-breath steaming out of me, I could not help but be amazed at the craftsmanship, the audacious skill of the stonemasons, glaziers, weavers, and more, that had built this extraordinary building nearly 1000 years ago. Tombs line its side aisles, in keeping with its sombre Gothic tone, and more than 40 metres above, the Octagon Tower draws you up and ‘rings’ you with intricate carvings and plate glass. Whereas so much of today’s production has no purpose, or end-point, or meaning, beyond the faux goal of ‘more’, or the displaced goal of money, this work was all about quality and excellence and the exultation of something other than us; in this case, for the craftsmen, it was the glory of God; a far cry from the mean and narrow parameters of much of the modern world.

 

(Garrod, N. 2009. Ely Cathedral and Octagon. Flickr)

 

(pixdaus.com. 2017. Tomb in Ely Cathedral)

 

The standard rejoinder to this call for quality over volume, is that it is elitist and expensive and totally unable to meet the vast consumptive needs of the modern world. This is entirely disingenuous, as both the work at Ely and that championed by the Arts and Crafts was explicitly of the common person, and as for cost, well, of course, modern goods, such as a two-dollar t-shirt, are not cheap at all for society or the environment – quite the opposite –  nor ‘cheap’ even in the sophistic measurement schemes of the modern-day industrial accountant, if longevity/durability were taken properly into account. As to being not up to supply requirements, this is a nice piece of circular argument, as this massive scale has been actively and expressly brought about to drive excessive demand, which in turn drives gargantuan production, and on and on it goes.

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3.8 Arts and Crafts and Artisan Movements

In many ways the modern ‘slow’ movements can be said to have come out of the Arts and Crafts Movement of the late 19th and early 20 centuries, which in turn had roots in medieval craft guilds. The Victoria and Albert Museum in London...

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1/11

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