The second industrial revolution of the late 19th century saw the world embrace the mass production of food, clothing, building supplies, furniture, silver, jewellery, weapons, and much much more. The revolution was responsible for the increase in living standards, yet was also responsible for the mass unemployment brought about by the widespread use of machines. These conditions famously saw the birth and rise of new political ideals such as socialism and communism, yet few people know of the anti-industrial principles of the Arts and Crafts Movement.
Unlike what the name suggests, the Arts and Crafts Movement wasn’t about making things out of pipe cleaners and glitter, yet rather a return to an artistic purity that was left behind with the rapid growth of mass production. Having built up a following by the 1860’s, and finally establishing a name in the 1880’s, the Arts and Crafts Movement directly influenced artisans well up until the 1930’s, inspiring and borrowing from many different styles throughout the turn of the century.
The Arts and Crafts Movement was a conscious act of sticking it to the man by a group of students from Oxford University during the latter half of the 1850’s. Led by William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones, the Arts and Crafts Movement was a ‘holy warfare against the age’, in response to what they believed to be a degradation of the arts, and the manor of which they were produced. Little did Morris and Burne-Jones realize that they would spark a notion that would inspire a hand-crafted rebellion across the world!
Whilst there were many voices in the Arts and Crafts Movement, dictating certain levels of mechanical reliance, it was widely accepted that an item was to be built by an individual or small group. Whilst some members of the Movement embraced ‘the machine’, particular members of the Movement dictated that hardware such as hinges, locks, nails, and keys, should all be forged and hammered by hand; that timber should be carved and whittled with knives; and that paintings should be applied with a brush and not a stamp.
The Movement proved to be extremely popular throughout the British Isles, yet also had a strong presence in America, becoming known as the American Arts and Crafts Movement or American Craftsmen Style. Craftsmen and women from both continents drew inspiration from gothic and medieval motifs, paying homage to a time where every stage of production was done by hand. The Gothic Revival style of the early 20th century was directly tied with the Arts and Crafts Movement, as they both promoted an appreciation for talents that were being forgotten. William Morris famously noted that treasures and buildings from the middle ages represented a period in greatness for the common people, as all of these historically important artifacts were crafted by ‘unsophisticated peasants’. A great example of Gothic revival here in Brisbane was the foyer for The Regent movie theatre, a gorgeous building constructed in 1929, which was devastatingly set to be demolished in 2012.
Another well-known style that drew inspiration from the Movement is Art Nouveau. Effectively translated as “new art”, Art Nouveau drew on many of the same philosophical and design influences as the Arts and Crafts Movement, yet differed in their acceptance of machines and industrial technology. As Art Deco gained popularity in the 1920’s, many Nouveau craftsmen and women turned back to the Arts and Crafts Movement, preferring the organic motifs that differed from the rigid lines and symmetry of the Deco style. In America, the Arts and Crafts Movement heavily influenced the early 20th century works of Frank Lloyd Wright, one of America’s greatest architects. The Arts and Crafts Movement is also said to play a crucial role in the establishment of the Mission Revival style in America, as well as paving the way for the iconic architectural motifs of the American and Australian Bungalow.
Antique furniture and silver from the Arts and Crafts Movement can easily be identified through their unmistakable design motifs. English Arts and Crafts pieces make excellent use of native flora and fauna, with thistles, swans, artichokes, and hares often seen in wallpapers, prints, and carvings. A common principle often embraced by the movement was the celebration of the material used, with the belief that ornamentation should come second to the piece being decorated. Sterling silver Arts and Crafts pieces often celebrate the raw nature of the precious metal, with many silversmiths preferring to disturb plain surfaces and showcase their hand hammered work.
In a time where flat-pack furniture is the norm, and many ‘luxury’ items are produced by machines, there is a greater desire to appreciate the time and energy that craftsmen and women throughout the ages have dedicated to their work. The Arts and Crafts Movement was born from anti-industrialism, and serves as a great example of the wider public rejecting convenience over craftsmanship. Here at The Antique Guild, we have seen a great rise in the popularity of antiques, as more and more people choose a piece of history over an allen-key assembled ordeal.
Written by Josh O’Donnell
Feature Article Image: ‘Snakeshead’ Print by William Morris.