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.
All this time we had, as we still have, a Royal Academy of Arts. But somewhere in the early eighties arose certain bold, bad men who - not satisfied with an annual picture-show of some two thousand works or so, always fresh - desired to see a national exhibition of art which should comprise not only paintings, sculpture, and architectural water-colours, but some representation of the arts and handicrafts of design.
Another plank in this artistic platform was the annual election of a selection and hanging committee out of and by the whole body of artists in the kingdom. This movement attracted a considerable number of adherents, largely among the rising school of painting, until it was discovered that several of the leaders desired to belong to the garrison of the fortress they proposed to attack.
The Arts and Crafts section of this movement, mostly members of the Guild aforesaid, seeing their vision look hopeless in that direction, then withdrew, and formed themselves into the present Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society, with power to add to their number. And I think they gathered to themselves all the artists and craftsmen of standing who were sympathetic and willing to subscribe to their aims.
We may note here that since the directors of the Grosvenor Gallery in its Winter Exhibition of 1881 arranged a collection of designs for decoration, including cartoons for mosaic, tapestry, and glass, no attempt to show contemporary work of the kind had been made.
We were, however, but few at first, and but few of us widely known, and with limited influence. William Morris and Burne-Jones did not join us until we had fairly organized ourselves and defined our programme, though their works from the first have enriched our exhibitions.
The initial steps were laborious and difficult and the process of organization slow, each step being carefully debated. Suitable premises seemed at one time impossible to procure, the demands of an ordinary picture-gallery being by no means suited to the mixed displays of an arts and crafts exhibition, so little so, indeed, that it was proposed to hire a large old-fashioned London mansion in order to group our exhibits in better relation.
Time, however, seemed to help us somewhat, as, during the period of our formation the New Gallery was opened - emerging in marble and gilding from its whilom dusty chrysalis as an abandoned meat market - and here, in the autumn of 1888, as may be remembered, supported by a courageous list of guarantors we opened our first exhibition.
I think we were fully conscious that an exhibition is at the best necessarily a very imperfect thing, and should probably even agree that it was a necessary evil. An exhibition of such various elements as an arts and crafts show brings together has its own particular difficulties.
One cannot place fragmentary pieces of decorative art in their proper relation, and relation is of the essence of good decorative art.
We are driven to a sort of compromise, finding practical difficulties in the way of logical systems - such as the grouping according to kind, or the grouping according to authorship - and have resorted to a mixed method with a view to the best decorative ensemble with the materials at hand - with the result, I fear, of hurting the feelings of nearly everybody concerned - but that is the common fate of exhibition committees.
Having had the honour of being president during the first three years of the society's existence I had occasion to state its objects and principles as far as I understood them, and as these are set forth in our Book of Essays it does not seem necessary to repeat what is there written, but a short re-statement of the chief points may not be out of place here.
We desired first of all to give opportunity to the designer and craftsman to exhibit their work to the public for its artistic interest and thus to assert the claims of decorative art and handicraft to attention equally with the painter of easel pictures, hitherto almost exclusively associated with the term art in the public mind.
Ignoring the artificial distinction between Fine and Decorative art, we felt that the real distinction was what we conceived to be between good and bad art, or false and true taste and methods in handicraft, considering it of little value to endeavour to classify art according to its commercial value or social importance, while everything depended upon the spirit as well as the skill and fidelity with which the conception was expressed, in whatever material, seeing that a worker earned the title of artist by the sympathy with and treatment of his material, by due recognition of its capacity, and its natural limitations, as well as of the relation of the work to use and life.
We sought to trace back ornament to its organic source in constructive necessity.
We asserted the principle that the Designer and Craftsman should be hand in hand, and work head with hand in both cases, so that mere redundancy of ingenious surface ornament on the one hand, or mechanical ingenuity in executive skill on the other, should not be considered as ends in themselves, but only as means to ends, neither the one nor the other being tolerable without controlling taste.
But how assign artistic credit to nameless workers? One can hardly expect artistic judgement and distinction without artistic responsibility, and, according to the usual methods of industrial exhibitions, individual designers and craftsmen were concealed under the general designation of a firm.
We therefore asked for names of responsible executants - those who had contributed in any way to the artistic character of the work.
This seemed a simple and obvious request, but there has probably been more difficulty over this one point than over any other of our programme.
But here we encounter the sharp corner of an economic question, as is so often the case in pursuing a question of principle in art - a question touching the position and artistic freedom of the workman. A workman, one perhaps of many who contribute to the production of a piece of modern craftsmanship, is in the hands of the firm that exhibits the work. It is to the commercial interest of the firm to be known as the producer of the work, and it must be therefore out of good nature or sense of fairness, or desire to conform to our conditions, when the name of the actual workman is given, who so long as he is in the employ of a firm is supposed to work exclusively in that firm's interest. Complaints have been made that the workman whose name is given on an exhibited work may be tempted away to work for a rival firm, - an interesting illustration of the working of our system of commercial competition.