British movement of the late nineteenth century which sought to revive handcrafts and improve design in an age of increasing mass-production. Key thinkers associated with the movement are William Morris and John Ruskin.

Walter Crane Design for a Calendar for the Scottish Provident Institution Unknown

The Arts and Crafts was a British movement of the late nineteenth century, later spreading into the United States, which sought to revive handcrafts and improve design in an age of increasing mass production. Key thinkers associated with the movement are William Morris and John Ruskin.

Arts and Crafts: Early Origins

The Arts and Crafts style emerged gradually from mid-nineteenth century England in the wake of the Industrial Revolution. Much like the Pre-Raphaelite painters who came before them, those associated with the school of thought saw factory-led production as a destructive force, devaluing the status of the decorative arts and demoralising social conditions.  With a strong moral conscience, leaders of the new style sought ways to improve the production and quality of manufacture, which they believed could bolster society, improving working conditions and the standard of design.

The Great Exhibition of 1851 was one of the first venues to exhibit Arts and Crafts objects, later followed by displays at the Refreshment Rooms of the South Kensington Museum (the former V&A), although those practicing the decorative arts often struggled to find venues to showcase their work. The movement evolved around a set of ideals rather than one definitive style, although many members rejected Victorian ornamentation over simple flowing forms, which were translated into the design and manufacture of everything from buildings and furniture to wallpaper, stained glass and jewellery.

The Arts and Crafts Society

In 1887 a group in London founded The Arts and Crafts Society, the foundation of the movement’s name. They aimed at raising the value of decorative arts to the same status as fine arts through regular exhibitions and displays. President of the society, artist and book illustrator Walter Crane, wrote in the catalogue for their first exhibition, 'The true root and basis of all art lies in the handicrafts'. Throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth century they achieved great financial and critical success which would last well into the 1920s.

The Idealists: William Morris and John Ruskin

Two of the most prominent and influential voices supporting the Arts and Crafts movement were writer John Ruskin and designer William Morris. Both came from an idealistic generation who believed the arts had the potential to transform society for the better. Ruskin was a champion for decorative design, claiming it had the power to create a richer, more wholesome society by supporting better working conditions and more aesthetically appealing living standards. He famously wrote, 'Fine art is that in which the hand, the head, and the heart of man go together'. As Britain’s leading art critic from the Victorian era, he was deeply critical of new industrialisation and rejected machine made products in favour of the handmade. Along with the Pre-Raphaelite painters he looked back to medieval society for what he saw as a superior model of living, encouraging small scale factory production.

Ruskin’s ideas had a profound influence on designer William Morris, who began his career as an architect’s apprentice before founding the interior design company Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. with his two business partners Peter Paul Marshall and Charles Faulkner, promoting the decorative arts through designs inspired by nature. Together they enlisted the help of other prominent figures including Pre-Raphaelite painters Edward Burne-Jones, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Ford Maddox Brown, along with architect Philip Webb, supporting Ruskin’s ideology for bespoke, handcrafted design.  Morris also became one of the most prominent members of the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society, famously believing people should, '…have nothing in your house that you do not believe to be beautiful or useful'. Like Ruskin, medieval art was a powerful influence, and it helped shape the intricate floral patterns in many of his designs.

A National Style

Throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth century the Arts and Crafts ideas took hold across the UK, spreading from London to Birmingham, Manchester, Edinburgh and Glasgow, driving the creation of over a hundred organisations based on Arts and Crafts ideas.  New art schools and technical colleges encouraged artisan skills including enamelling, embroidery and calligraphy.

Several prominent artists arose in Scotland, including Phoebe Anna Traquair, who produced murals, illuminated texts and stitched panels, revealing a passion for the revival of medieval arts. Traquair even wrote to Ruskin, persuading him to let her borrow several medieval illuminated books from his private collection. Scottish artist Robert Burns also promoted Arts and Crafts principles, blurring boundaries between art and design in various immersive projects including the interior design of Crawford’s tea rooms on Princes Street in Edinburgh.

Later Developments

Arts and Crafts ideas spread from Britain to the United States in the early twentieth century, where it adopted various names, including the American Craftsman Style and the Mission Style. Eventually the labour intensive production methods involved in the Arts and Crafts style would lead to its demise; rather than creating democratic art objects for the masses, their handcrafted items became collectable art objects for the wealthy few, an ethos that eventually proved financially unsustainable. But the honesty of expression they promoted led the way for subsequent avant-garde movements including Art Nouveau, Art Deco, the Bauhaus and the rise of twentieth-century Modernism.

Artists

Phoebe Anna Traquair
1852 - 1936
Robert Burns
1869 - 1941

Glossary terms

  • A decorative art style popular in Europe and North America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It is characterised by stylised flowing lines of all kinds, most notably the distinctive “whiplash” curve, which was used to illustrate many forms including tendrils, plant stems, flames, waves and flowing hair.

  • Taking its name from the major exhibition of decorative arts held in Paris in 1925, Art Deco was a design style that epitomised the 1920s and 1930s. It was characterised by geometric or stylised shapes and bright colours.