The Arts and Crafts Movement By Rosalind P Blakesley.Phaidon, 2006. £39.95
'The Arts and Crafts Movement came to a halt with the First World War, ' writes Rosalind Blakesley. 'Conicts between theory and practice' were a key factor in its demise, she argues, and the story of the Arts and Crafts in Britain which she relates draws to a close with the Garden City Movement. The torch was passed to others, in Scandinavia, Germany, Eastern Europe and the USA, and it was they who would 'bring the designer and the manufacturer together, creating in the process a new vanguard in modern design'. Nearly two-thirds of Blakesley's book is devoted to developments outside Britain.
Two years ago, a disappointing V&A exhibition on the Arts and Crafts came to similar conclusions, arbitrarily ignoring its development in Britain after 1914 and declining to explore its inuence on the budding Modern Movement in this country. For a full account of the Arts and Crafts between the wars (and beyond), we await the major study being prepared by Alan Crawford.
So what does Blakesley's book have to offer beyond those already available?
For a start, it is exceptionally well produced, even by Phaidon standards - design and printing are of the highest quality. Secondly, Blakesley is a uent and engaging writer, with an expressive spark that frequently illuminates the subject matter.
Thirdly, she has read widely, travelled extensively and knows her source material inside out.
Her account of the roots of the Arts and Crafts in the Gothic Revival and PreRaphaelitism, in the ideas of Ruskin and Morris, is first rate.
If the Arts and Crafts had a birthplace it was surely the office of the architect G E Street, where Morris and Philip Webb (designer of the Red House, Bexleyheath) both worked for a time. It was the rationalism of the Gothic Revival and its insistence on 'honest' construction, as preached by A W N Pugin, that underpinned the Arts and Crafts in decades to come.
Blakesley's grasp of architectural issues makes her book a useful supplement to Peter Davey's classic Arts and Crafts Architecture (AJ 22.06.95).
It was in the world of architecture that the movement found both its roots and its finest expression. 'I have never begun to be satisfied until my work looks commonplace, ' Webb declared. Finally rejecting the perceived artificiality of the Gothic Revival, Webb and others looked to vernacular sources, and particularly the English tradition of domestic design, for inspiration.
The Arts and Crafts ideal was one of buildings generated by their context, 'of the soil'.
In this light, was Voysey, whose work conspicuously ignored local traditions, really an Arts and Crafts architect? Voysey's determination to control every detail of a building, leaving little scope for the imagination of the craftsman, set him at odds with the philosophy of the movement, within which Mackintosh too seems an exotic outsider.
Mackintosh's work was, of course, widely known across Europe, but the perception remains that the Arts and Crafts was a peculiarly English backwater, owering and withering in little more than half a century. In fact, coinciding with the rapid expansion of international travel and communications, its impact beyond Britain was immense. Baillie Scott was revered in Germany, where Muthesius' Das Englische Haus (1904-05) was a celebration of the work of English and Scottish architects. C R Ashbee, who toured Hungary with Walter Crane, was a frequent visitor to the USA and an inuence on Frank Lloyd Wright. Some of Christopher Whall's finest stained glass is to be found in a church in Boston, Massachusetts.
Contemporary with the rise of the Arts and Crafts Movement in Britain, with its emphasis on the social dimension of design, new design movements in other countries, notably National Romanticism in Scandinavia, ourished in a world of radical social and political change, accelerated in due course by the First World War. This book is particularly informative about developments in Eastern Europe, though the cumbrous furniture, overwrought ceramics and fussily historicist architecture of turn-of-the-century Russia seems rather at odds with the message of Webb, Ashbee and Lethaby.
As Blakesley hints in a brief afterword, the ideas of these pioneers resonate still in a world dominated by over-production and waste and badly in need of a new philosophy of architecture and design.
Kenneth Powell is an architectural journalist