This section is from the book "Ideals In Art: Papers Theoretical Practical Critical", by Walter Crane . Also available from Amazon: Ideals in Art: Papers Theoretical, Practical, Critical.
IT seems a strange thing that the last quarter of the nineteenth - or what I was going to call our machine-made - century should be characterized by a revival of the handicrafts; yet of the reality of that revival there can now be no manner of doubt, from whatever point we date its beginnings, or to whomsoever we may trace its initiation.
Indeed, it seems to me that the more we consider the characteristics of different epochs in the history of art, or of the world, the less we are able to isolate them, or to deal with them as phenomena by themselves, so related they seem to what has gone before them, and to what succeeds them, just as are the personalities associated with them; and I do not think this movement of ours will prove any exception to this rule.
Standing as we do on the threshold of a new century - which so often means a new epoch in history, if not in art - it may, perhaps, be allowable to look back a bit, as well as forward, in attempting a general survey of the movement. Like a traveller who has reached a certain stage of his journey, we look back over the region traversed, losing sight, in such a wide prospect, and in the mists of such a far distance, of many turns in the road, and places by the way, which at one time seemed important, and only noting here and there certain significant landmarks which declare the way by which we have come.
To take a very rapid glance at the phases of decorative art of the past century, we see much of the old life and traditions in art carried on from the eighteenth century into the early years of the nineteenth, when the handicrafts were still the chief means in the production of things of use or beauty. The luxurious excess of the later renascence forms in decoration, learned from France and Italy (though adopted in this country with a certain reserve), corrected by a mixture of Dutch homeliness, and later by French empire translations of Greek and Roman fashions in ornament, often attained a certain elegance and charm in the gilded stucco mirror frames and painted furniture of our Regency period, which replaced the more refined joinery, veneer, and inlaid work of Chippendale and his kinds.
Classical taste dominated our architecture, striving hard to become domesticated, but looking chilly and colourless in our English gray climate, as if conscious of inadequate clothing.
This Greco-Roman empire elegance gradually wore off, and turned to frigid plainness in domestic architecture, and to corpulency in furniture, as the middle of the century was approached, when the old classical tradition in furniture, handed on from Chippendale, Sheraton, and Hepple-white, seemed to be suddenly broken into by wild fancies and fantastic attempts at naturalism in carving, combined with a reckless curvature of arms and legs supporting (or supported by) springs and padding. Drawing-rooms revelled in ormolu and French clocks, vast looking-glasses, and the heavy artillery of polished mahogany pianos, while Berlin-wool-work and antimacassars in crochet took possession of any ground not occupied by artificial flowers, and other wonders, under glass shades.
The'51 Exhibition was the apotheosis of mid-nineteenth century taste, or absence of taste, perhaps. The display of industrial art and furniture then, to judge from illustrated catalogues and journals of the period, seemed to indicate that ideas of design and craftsmanship were in a strange state. The new naturalism was beginning to assert itself, but generally in the wrong place, and in all sorts of unsuitable materials. Those were the days when people marvelled at the skill of a sculptor who represented a veiled figure in marble so that you could almost see through the veil! - but that was "Fine Art." Industrial art was in a very different category, yet it was influenced by fine art, and, generally, greatly to its disadvantage. We had vignetted landscapes upon china and coal-boxes, for instance, and Landseer pictures on hearth-rugs - and our people loved to have it so.
These things were done, and more also, in the ordinary course of trade, which flourished exceedingly, and no one bothered about design. If furniture and fittings were wanted, the upholsterer and ironmonger did the rest.
Yet was it not in the "fifties" that Alfred Stevens made designs for iron grates? so that there must have been one artist, at any rate, not above giving thought to common things. Designers like Alfred Stevens, and his followers Godfrey Sykes and Moody, certainly represented in their day a movement inspired chiefly by a study of the earlier renascence, and an honest desire to adapt its forms to modern decoration. Their work, though suffering - like all original work - deterioration at the hands of imitators, showed a search for style and boldness of contour and line, touched with a certain refined naturalism which gives the work of Alfred Stevens and his school a very distinct place. It was mainly a sculptor's and modeller's movement, and represented a renascence revival in modern English decorative art; and through the work of Godfrey Sykes and Moody, in association with the government schools of art, it had a considerable effect upon the art of the country.
But I think many and mixed elements contributed to the change of feeling and fashion which came about rather later, in which perhaps may be traced the influence of modes of thought expressing themselves also in literature and poetry, as well as the study of different models in design.
One cannot forget that the early years of the nineteenth century were illuminated by the name and work of William Blake, whose fresh inspiration and clearness of inner vision were expressed in so individual a form with such fervour of poetic feeling and social aspiration, both in verse and design, in the books engraved marked an epoch in English poetic illustration, associated with wood engraving and printing, of very distinct character and beauty, the influence of which may be seen at the present day in some of the woodcuts of Mr. Sturge Moore. The more conscious classical designs of Flaxman and Stothard were colder, but graceful, and mark a period from which we seem more widely-separated than from others more remote, yet seemingly nearer in sentiment.
Wood Engravings by Edward Calvert
The Return Home
Ideal Pastoral Life