This section is from the book "Arts & Crafts Magazine Vol1-2", by Hutchinson & Company.
The unprecedented commercial and industrial development of the last hundred years has not been altogether an unmixed blessing; rather it has brought in its train, along with many good effects, certain unexpected but serious evils. These we are only now beginning fully to realise, but we must cope with them at once as best we may.
It is a truism that things never turn out exactly as we expect. The men who first invented the labour-saving machinery which has so greatly cheapened production, were hailed as benefactors of the race, and so regarded alike by merchants, statesmen, and economists. But these rejoicings would have been less general could it have been foreseen that an indirect result of this cheapened production and increased output would be the degradation of the worker and the deterioration of the work produced. With the coming of the machine we began to bid farewell to the craftsman, but into so strange a state had we drifted, that it is only within the last few years that his absence has been noted.
Once pointed out, the difference in character between our manufactures since machinery was substituted for hand labour is so evident as hardly to require comment. Take any article of household furniture of to-day. What are its characteristics ? Cheapness it has, certainly; but this is unfortunately accompanied by serious defects. It is inefficient, and it is ugly. Look at the ordinary machine-made chairs which form part of the fittings of most of our rooms. We know they are cheap, and that is so far in their favour; but what are they besides ? They are badly designed, for they are not comfortable to sit on; they are badly made - a shake will almost bring them apart. As to ornamental qualities, the dull mechanical pattern stamped upon them can give no pleasure. It is too obviously insincere and meaningless. But in the average house of to-day, whether of the working or middle classes, you will hardly see such a thing as a comfortable or well designed piece of furniture. Almost the only exceptions are where you find an isolated piece of old work, an heirloom from a happier age, the product not of the machine and the mechanic, but of the craftsman.
It is not many years ago - not more than about a hundred and fifty - since every article of furniture, however simple and unpretentious, possessed at least two qualities: first, a design which combined suitability for its purpose with a certain elegance of proportion, and second, soundness of construction. To-day such articles are confined to the houses of the wealthy, and not only so, but to the comparatively small section who, in addition to their wealth, have sufficient taste to reject the ordinary trade goods and insist on obtaining an article which has the qualities they desire.
Things were probably at their worst about fifty years ago, a period when, in this country, art generally reached an almost unprecedented state of degradation. It is the honour of John Ruskin to have been the first to preach the gospel that work should be more than a mere daily toil for subsistence, that it should really be a part of life, and that into it the man should put the whole strength and force of his individuality, so that it becomes a living thing. And, following Ruskin, we have the great pioneer of the Arts and Crafts movement,. William Morris.
Music Cabinet in Oak, with Oxydised Copper Mounts.
(Designed and executed by the Guild of Handicraft, Ltd.
One of the group of brilliant men who formed the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, he struck out for himself a more practical line than the others. His lifework was to secure the revival of handicraft with all that accompanied it.
It is a significant fact that our designers and decorative artists turn at once for instruction in their crafts, not to the work of their immediate predecessors, but to the scanty remains of ancient and mediaeval work; for the finest specimens of
Side-Board in Fumed Oak, with Copper Repousse" Panel, Steel Mounts.
(Designed and executed by the Guild of Handicraft, Ltd.) handicraft which we possess are but the wreckage of a former age, the mere flotsam and jetsam washed up by the tide of time.
And Morris had clearly grasped the lesson of mediaeval times. The beauty which characterised the work, the homely fittings of the humblest cottage no less than the rich adornments of the palace, was the natural result of the conditions under which it was produced. "Art," said he, "is the expression of the work - man's joy in his labour," and his joy in his labour was the natural result of the conditions under which he worked. To secure a return to these more natural and healthy conditions was Morris's great aim.
Compare the surroundings of the old-time craftsman with those of the modern factory hand. There were no such things then as large workshops with their consequent division of labour. The same craftsman made an article from beginning to end; it had unity, and its adornment was simple and natural, arising from the qualities of the material, and the purpose for which the article was intended. There was interest in the work, and therefore pleasure. But now to turn to another picture. After the quiet of the old country workshop, imagine the din and noise of a modern factory. The gangs of workers are feverishly feeding the rapacious machines, which steadily, and always with the same hideous clatter, turn out the same article, or rather part of an article. One machine - chair legs, chair legs, and more chair legs; another - chair backs, chair backs, and still chair backs. No humouring here of the qualities of the material; each part is remorselessly turned out precisely the same as its predecessor. How can such methods result in anything but the deterioration of the work ? How can such a life lead to anything but the degradation of the workman ?
Challenge Cup in Hammered Silver, set with Enamel and Stones.
Reflector, Electric Light Fitting, in Pewter.
Hammered German-silver Plated Soup Tureen and Ladle.
(Designed and executed by the Guild of Handicraft, Ltd.)
The burden of Morris's message, then, was, "Let us get back to the old conditions of work." But this was not always easy. Some isolated craftsmen have struck out for themselves, and, after a hard struggle, have, by the quality of their work, found a market for it; but in most cases, surrounded as he is by the competition of large firms, the single craftsman finds this course almost impossible.
The solution of the difficulty was supplied by the formation of the Guilds of Handicraft. The old historic Guilds were more or less associations of masters, or, at the lowest, of journeymen, the ordinary craftsman not being admitted until after many years' service. They filled the place which the trades unions fill now, and looked after the interests of the crafts as a whole. The new Guilds are not associations of masters, but of craftsmen banded together for purposes of mutual assistance.
One of the first was the Guild of Handicraft, founded by Mr. Ashbee some seventeen years ago, and the stamp of his genius is discernible in most of the examples of that now flourishing association illustrated in the present article. It has grown immensely, and now at Essex House it turns out work which, it need hardly be said, has a high reputation.
Designed And Executed By The Mercian Guild Of Handicraft, Stoke-Upon-Trent.