It is difficult to understand English glass during its heydays (mid 19th century to about 1920) without relating it to the Arts and Crafts movement. It is equally true that French glass can only be understood from the perspective of the Art Nouveau and Art Deco design movements, but we will come to that in a later article.
This article covers the background to the Arts and Crafts Movement in England and its associated international design trends (the Shakers in the USA and Wiener Werkstatte in Europe). We will discuss why it developed, the concept of Industrial Design, the leading figures (Ruskin, Morris, Crane, Dresser), the contemporary Aesthetic Movement, parallel movements in Europe and America, effects on glass design, and in particular, the hand-blown glass of the Whitefriars factory (Powell glass) and the pressed glass of the Sowerby Glassworks.
The Arts and Crafts Movement was a response to the industrial revolution. It was a broad and diverse movement, incorporating many idealistic themes. Perhaps we should start by identifying the common beliefs:
Suddenly in the early 19th century there were huge factories manufacturing millions of items, and goods which had formerly been made by artisans, craftsmen/women, and artists were now being made without the help of any of these people. The factories were criticised for their effects on the day to day lives of working people (notably by Friedrich Engels) and for their effects on the home environment, filled with goods which were perceived to be devoid of beauty, devoid of harmony, and just plain ugly.
England in particular went through a low period in terms of the design and quality of its manufactured goods, so much so that the government set up a Select Committee on Art and Manufactures in 1835.
The Select Committee Report, published in 1836, proposed that the government should support setting up Schools of Design, as well as public art galleries, museums and botanical gardens with free admission, and publications on art and design.
Some of these took years to reach fulfilment, but they did happen. In addition the copyright laws were reformed to protect new designs, and a system of registration was introduced using the now-familiar diamond mark, which operated from 1842 until 1883 and showed the date of registration and details of where the registration could be found in the records. For more details of interpreting a diamond mark like the one on the right, see our article on Sowerby glass (click here).
There was widespread discontent with the effects of factories on the quality of life in the early 19th century. And out of this discontent grew the Arts and Crafts movement, with its diverse religious and idealistic beliefs.
The Arts and Crafts adherants wanted a different society. On the whole, they failed, but for more than half a century they had a profound effect on design in every field of manufacture. And in the glass field, the two most notable examples are Sowerby glass, where drawings and designs of the Arts and Crafts artists were used as patterns on the surface of pressed glass, and then produced by the thousand. And Powell glass, where Arts and Crafts designers were employed and craftsmen made the glass by hand.
The name "Arts and Crafts" came from the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society, set up in 1887 to show designers' work in a range of materials. The founding members included Walter Crane, William Morris, and Charles Robert Ashbee. The picture at the top of this page is an extract from one of Crane's prints (see John Bell's webpage for more Crane prints).
It could be said that the concept of industrial design was born from the Arts and Crafts Movement. Christopher Dresser has been identified as the father of industrial design, the principal that mass produced goods could still be well-designed. And although many of the true Arts and Crafts proponents would have nothing to do with mass production from factories, their ideas greatly influenced the design standards of the factories.
After the Great Exhibition of 1851 there was a desire amongst Victorian middle class people to acquire goods which looked magnificent and affluent, without spending much money. These were the "nouveau riche", not very highly educated, not artistically sophisticated, but with enough money to spend that they were a major influence on the manufacturers. And on the other hand, manufacturers took advantage of the capacity of machines to make goods which looked sumptuous but were very cheaply made. The goods of this period have been described as "absurdly decorated with gilt, veneers, and marble used at every opportuity". Walter Crane called it "design debauchery".
It was into this environment that the Arts and Crafts Movement entered and advocated good simple design made in basic, inexpensive materials but to a high standard.
John Ruskin was a writer and lecturer at Oxford University who had a very profound effect on the Pre-Raphaelites and the Arts and Crafts Movement in Britain and in the USA. He hated industrial capitalism which he believed destroyed the creativity in people's work. He admired the simple craftsmanship of medieval buildings and designs, and argued that although medieval working conditions were often harsh, at least the working people were free to choose how and when they worked, and this gave them dignity which was denied by mechanised industry.
Another major influence on the Arts and Crafts Movement was the The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood which was formed in the late 1840's by a group of artists (and later craftsmen/women) who rejected the prevailing sophisticated and ornate styles of art in favour of the simpler medieval styles of the 14th and 15th centuries. Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Ford Maddox Brown, Edward Burne-Jones, and William Morris were all members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and all of them designed glass for James Powell and Sons of London.
William Morris was a writer and a designer of fabrics, furniture, and books. He took the ideas of John Ruskin and the Pre-Raphaelites and turned them into practical realities. His workshops produced beautiful products made by artists and craftsmen. He looked backwards for his inspiration, admiring Gothic designs and the social structure of the middle ages. But at the end of his life he was disillusioned, and faced the stark reality that the goods his artists made were too expensive for the masses. His designs enhanced only the lives of the rich. They did not change society in the way he had hoped.
Charles Robert Ashbee was another idealist hoping to change society by returning to the medieval way of life. He set up a small community of artists and craftsmen/women outside London in Chipping Campden, but eventually had to seek financial assistance from his rich London friends to keep the community going.
Augustus Pugin, an architect, argued that Neo-Gothic building designs were architectural representations of Catholic Christian values. He believed that society itself could be improved through a return to Gothic design. Gothic architecture became very popular in mid-19th century Britain and also in the USA.
Philip Webb was another architect associated with the Arts and Crafts Movement. He designed William Morris's "Red House" which was furnished and decorated by the early Pre-Raphaelites. Their secluded community, supported financially by William Morris's income from tin mines, was a form of escape from the social and political problems generated by the industrial revolution. At this early stage the imaginary medieval world which they created had little or no impact on society. William Morris's later efforts to set up workshops where large numbers of craftsmen/women produced goods (Morris, Marshall, Faulkner and Company) were a more realistic effort to change society, although this company too had only limited effects. Philip Webb continued to work for Morris through this period, designing furniture and wallpapers as well as buildings.
Christopher Dresser was, in 1854, one of the first successful graduates of the new Central School of Design set up in London after the report of the 1836 Select Committee. He accepted that manufacturing was going to take place in factories, and he designed simple goods made from suitable and inexpensive materials specifically for large scale manufacture. In this, he departed from the main stream Arts and Crafts believers, most of whom longed for a return to small scale workshops.
Dresser's designs were abstract and stylised, decoration was usually simple and the form or shape of the object was often more important than the decoration on it. He was one of the first designers to use the flowing and translucent qualities of glass for their own sake in his designs.
His signature appears on his work next to the makers' mark, and he worked free-lance for many factories, designing carpets, wallpaper, pottery, glass, metalwork, furniture, textiles, and tiles. Like William Morris and many others, he advocated "Art for the Millions". His designs were intended for factory production, and so he came closer to this ideal than Morris, but not so close as Sowerby's Glassworks with their art reproductions on glass.
Walter Crane, a leading illustrator and designer of furnishings, worked free-lance for William Morris in the early 1880's. In 1884 he was part of "The Fifteen" who formed the Art Workers' Guild, a group which kept a low profile on social and political issues. Dissatisfied with this lack of action Crane and a number of others including Philip Webb formed a break away group called the "Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society" and held a series of highly successful exhibitions of the decorative arts. His work became very fashionable both in England and overseas. The detail in this illustration is from his print of Convolvulus and Honeysuckle.
Charles Rennie Mackintosh formed "The Four" in Glasgow (Herbert NacNair, Margaret and Frances McDonald, and himself) and amongst many acheivements, they won the competition to design a building for the Glasgow School of Art in 1897. Mackintosh also designed beautiful slender straight-sided furniture, and the Mackintosh School, as his followers came to be known, had a major influence on international trends in design, especially in Germany (the Wiener Werkstatte).
The Aesthetic Movement is a name that may be applied to the interest in art which developed in the 1870's and 1880's amongst the upper middle classes, especially in London and Paris. Art was a popular topic of conversation, encouraged by the galleries and artistic stores such as Liberty's in London and Le Style Liberty in Paris. This interest had nothing to do with the philosophical, political, nor social theories under-pinning the Arts and Crafts Movement; and yet the desire for good quality artistic designs was held in common. The designs bought for Liberty's were often modified and mass produced, and the designers were not usually acknowledged. Nevertheless, Liberty's aims of raising the standard of public awareness of art and design were achieved.
The Shakers were a part of the Quaker religious communities in the USA, who had fled from persecution in England during the 17th and 18th centuries. They held values and followed a way of life which were the very ones advocated by the Arts and Crafts Movement. But they were not a rennaissance of those values and practices, they were a continuation from medieval days. The Shaker tradition was not brought about by a reaction to the industrial revolution. They did not learn their design principles from Arts and Crafts idealists. They held beliefs about the value of craft work, the beauty to be found in simple, functional designs, and the advantages of co-operative workshops; values which had been carried with them from medieval England. Their designs bear striking similarity to the work of Mackintosh and Dresser.
The Association for Advancement of Truth in Art was set up in the USA in the 1860's by a group of painters inspired by John Ruskin and the Pre-Raphaelites. They were seeking a cultural identity for art in America which would not be based on old European academic traditions. They produced a magazine (The New Path) and were sharply critical of contemporary artists like Thomas Cole, who painted in a traditional English style. However, they lasted less than ten years, and their influence on art and design in America was limited.
The Wiener Werkstatte (Vienna Workshops) was formed in 1903 in a coffee-house in Vienna, by a group of young radical artists and designers who were frustrated by the series of "renaissances" in art and design which had taken place in Vienna over the previous thirty years. They wanted a "naissance", a new birth rather than the rediscovery of yet another old style. They soon attracted Otto Wagner, Gustav Klimt and Koloman Moser away from the "Secession Movement" and into the Wiener Werkstatte. The work of this school was elegant, simple, functional, and spurned excessive ornamentation and historicism. In spite of continuing financial problems, it lasted until 1932 and had a profound effect on art and design in Vienna and Germany and nearby countries.
In the USA, Louis Comfort Tiffany established his glass and interior design company in 1879, influenced, he said, by William Morris. Following the Arts and Crafts tradition, they aimed to form an alliance between art and industry, to apply artistic design principles and use mechanised processes to augment hand production methods. Tiffany also aimed to improve the standard of artistic taste. They set up a studio which was intended to operate like a medieval workshop with Tiffany as the creative master craftsman and designer.
In England, Harry Powell, the grandson of James Powell, joined the family glass company in London in 1873 and became manager in 1875. Well educated and affluent, Powell knew the designers of the Arts and Crafts Movement and understood the middle class Londoners who bought their products. His company produced glass between 1880 and 1920 which was held in the highest esteem in Britain, Europe and the USA. Powell Glass from the Whitefriars Glassworks in Central London, is the subject of our first article for 1998 (click here). England's longest surviving glassworks, this hand blowing works held to strong design beliefs which were often at odds with prevailing trends amongst glass manufacturers, but which nevertheless captured the spirit of the Arts and Crafts movement.
In Scotland James Couper and Sons employed Christopher Dresser to design a series of glass vessels which they called "Clutha Glass". These had random bubbles and colour streaks, and very unusual shapes which often combined flowing curves with angular or straight line features.
And last but not least, John G. Sowerby, manager of the Sowerby Glassworks in the North East of England during the 1870's and 80's, was a close friend of William Morris and of Thomas Crane, Walter Crane's brother. Morris was a frequent visitor to Sowerby's home in Gateshead; and Sowerby and Thomas Crane collaborated on a successful series of illustrated children's books. Sowerby was an artist who exhibited his paintings in the London exhibitions. So it is no suprise that Sowerby set up an art glass workshop in 1871 and produced a line of Venetian style glassware in the style of the Arts and Crafts designs of the period. This was never promoted and was not widely distributed nor publicised. Sowerby also used popular Arts and Crafts designs, mostly illustrations by Walter Crane, as surface patterns for literally millions of small glass items like this posy vase. There is a link to our article on Sowerby glass in the list lower down this page.
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