Arts and Crafts Movement

Aimed to promote a return to hand-craftsmanship and to assert the creative independence of individual craftspeople.

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The Arts and Crafts Movement (ACM) aimed to promote a return to hand-craftsmanship and to assert the creative independence of individual craftspeople. It was a reaction against the industrialised society that had boomed in Britain in the Victorian period, and aimed for social as well as artistic reform. Its example was followed in other countries, particularly the U.S.A. After the 1914–18 war, other artistic trends overtook the ACM, and it declined.

Industrial production of consumer goods, developed in Britain in the eighteenth century, increased massively in the nineteenth and inevitably aroused some opposition. The Gothic Revival, the principle artistic trend in nineteenth-century architecture and art, can itself be seen as a reaction against industrialisation. Its early exponent, A.W.N. Pugin (b.1812), contrasted the iniquities of modern industrial society with a highly romanticised view of the Middle Ages. Pugin died in 1852, but an even more eloquent critic emerged in John Ruskin (1819–1900). After establishing himself as a writer on painting, he turned to architecture, publishing The Stones of Venice in 1851–53. In its second volume (1853) appeared a chapter entitled “On the Nature of Gothic", which presented an image of the medieval craftsman working out with his hands the free impulses of his creative mind. This vision remained a prime source of inspiration for the ACM.

William Morris (1834–96) provided yet greater inspiration. Simultaneously a romantic poet and dreamer, a businessman and a political campaigner, he had an impressively forceful, practical character. He had great manual skill — J.D. Sedding said that Morris “put an apron on, tucked up his sleeves, and set to work" — and, because he himself could design and execute work of outstanding beauty in wallpapers, in printed, woven and embroidered textiles and in book production, he offered a living example to others of what they might achieve. He founded a firm to retail furnishings produced in his own workshops, where craftsmen were given free rein. The firm’s products, however, while intended to brighten the lives of ordinary people, were too expensive to sell to any but the rich. Nonetheless, Morris’ immense charisma provided the driving force behind the ACM.

Morris had set out to train as an architect, in the office of the eminent Gothic Revivalist, G. E. Street (1824–81). Also working for Street was Philip Webb (1831–1951), who, a lifelong friend of Morris, designed for him the Red House, Bexley (1859–60), which is regarded as the first fully integrated Arts and Crafts domestic environment. Webb continued to work primarily as an architect. He and his contemporaries developed styles inspired by vernacular architecture and extended patronage to Arts and Crafts artists as well as influencing many younger architects with the Arts and Crafts ethos. Some artists who began with architectural training moved on, like Morris, to specialise in the decorative arts, but architecture remained a decisive influence in the ACM.

Both Ruskin and Morris felt that modern art was bad, largely because of the conditions of life of working people in an industrialised society, and therefore campaigned for a better quality of life. Ruskin was a paternalistic conservative, but Morris eventually wholeheartedly embraced socialism. In this he was followed to a greater or lesser degree by most adherents of the ACM, who, while promoting beauty and the status of the individual craftsperson, usually saw their work in a wider context of social reform.

The ACM chiefly made progress through special-interest associations. In imitation of medieval craft guilds, Ruskin started the St George’s Guild. Though this was more concerned with communal living than with art practice, it surely inspired adherents of the ACM to band together in guilds. Sometimes these were small co-operative production units, sometimes broader confederations dedicated to publicising the cause. One of the earliest was the Century Guild (1882–8), founded by A.H. Mackmurdo, regarded as a pioneer of the Art Nouveau style. While this guild was chiefly concerned with production, its stylish magazine, the Hobby Horse (1886–92), projected an alluring image of the Arts and Crafts lifestyle.

A greater, more enduring association (which survives today) was the Art Workers’ Guild, founded in 1884, chiefly by a group of architects from the architectural office of Richard Norman Shaw. Meeting every month, this guild aimed primarily to succour its members, functioning as “a spiritual oasis in the wilderness of modern life". A more outgoing, missionary agency was the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society, founded in 1887. This arranged exhibitions and lectures, which were widely influential. It functioned as the public face of the ACM, and introduced the term “Arts and Crafts".

The ACM was always as much about ideology as about decorative art objects themselves, and this aspect was grounded in the National Association for the Advancement of Art and its Application to Industry (1888–91). This held Congresses in Liverpool, Edinburgh and Birmingham, in which many of the principal figures in the ACM took a larger view of the current state of the decorative arts. Creative groups and similar societies arose in provincial towns. C.R. Ashbee started his Guild of Handicraft (1888–1914) and school in the East End of London, but in 1901 moved the workshops and the workers to Chipping Camden in Gloucestershire. This was an attempt to live out his conviction that the practice of the crafts required “repose, margin, leisure, reserve, restraint and colour in life", and that these qualities “are better found in country surroundings where there are green fields and trees and beauty…" Some other craftspeople set up their workshops in the country, but on the whole, the decorative arts flourish best in towns and London remained the centre of the ACM.

As the ACM’s views became known in the 1890s, they secured a foothold in art education. Two designers were especially influential from the earliest days of the movement. Walter Crane (1845–1915), who first made his way as a book illustrator, worked within the educational system at the Manchester School of Art (1893–8), and as Principal of the Royal College of Art (briefly but effectively, 1898–9); he wrote widely; and he had a high reputation throughout Europe. Lewis Foreman Day (1845–1910) was another practical freelance designer (specialising in flat pattern), who wrote prolifically and taught at the Art Schools at South Kensington. Most of the existing British art schools were influenced by the ACM and an important newcomer was the London County Council’s Central School of Arts and Crafts, founded in 1896 with architect W. R. Lethaby as principal. This college was regarded as the most progressive art school in Europe before the Bauhaus. The Glasgow School of Art included in its staff artists — including Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1868–1928) — who, at first in tune with the ACM, advanced along their own paths. The ACM also encouraged amateurs to take up the decorative arts. “Carry your crafts home," cried J. D. Sedding, “… in old days … art was a dear and genuine inmate of home: take your crafts home, let them make your home homelier, family-life brighter." The Home Arts and Industries Association (1888) supported non-professional craftspeople (including members of the royal family), organising classes and exhibitions throughout the country.

Although the ACM promoted the individualism of the craftsman, it had some influence on commercial firms, such as Heal and Son, and Liberty, which retailed and commissioned goods in the Arts and Crafts spirit.

Arts and Crafts objects were produced in all media: metalwork, ceramics, glass, textiles and furniture. Architecture often provided a setting for a unified achievement in interior design. William Morris’s Kelmscott Press inspired several adherents of the ACM to experiment with typography, with varied results. Painters contributed decoration to decorative art objects, though there was no identifiable school of Arts and Crafts painting. While, say, Morris’ textiles, Gimson’s furniture, or Ashbee’s jewellery manifested exquisite finish and superb technical skill, a good deal of ACM production had a home-made air. This was a deliberate endeavour to proclaim that these objects were not made by machine: Ruskin had asserted the aesthetic value of an imperfect finish in “The Nature of Gothic" and a later furniture maker, Romney Green (1872–1945), said that the “play of light on the tool-marks … is almost better than conscious ornament". It was a point of honour with ACM artists to respect the materials they worked with. Machines, they thought, had destroyed the intimate relationship between a craftsman and his material, and this they aimed to restore, using natural materials and relishing rough textures. Nature was for them the chief source of applied ornament.

By the beginning of the 20th century, the ACM had established itself as the principal art movement in Britain, and was well known abroad, through illustration in European magazines, An American ACM was more democratic and less ideological than its English counterpart. In Europe, Germany responded most enthusiastically to Arts and Crafts' influence, especially in the Darmstadt Artists’ Colony, and through the foundation in 1907 of the Deutscher Werkbund, which was, however, less antagonistic to industry. In the countries of eastern Europe and Scandinavia, Arts and Crafts' influence combined with a revival of interest in folk art, which fed into nationalist movements. A late echo of the ACM was the Mingei movement in Japan.

After the First World War the ACM declined. Although some adherents of the ACM accommodated themselves to the machine, and were involved in the foundation of the Design and Industries Association in 1915, its anti-machine stance no longer carried weight. Indeed, when the “Modern Movement" (which glorified the machine-made) had become established, the art historian, Nikolaus Pevsner, in his book Pioneers of the Modern Movement (1936), argued that the ACM had foreshadowed it. This view was widely accepted for many years, but now the idea that there was a line of progressive advance from the ACM to Modernism does not command assent. There were, indeed, common elements of ideology and theory in the two movements, but the art and architecture they created are unmistakably different.

Image Credits

Candle sconce, Ernest William Gimson. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Swan, Rush and Iris, Walter Crane. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Acanthus, William Morris. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Decanter, Charles Robert Ashbee. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Vase, Walter Crane. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London



John Ruskin’s chapter 'On the Nature of Gothic' first published in volume 2 of The Stones of Venice


William Morris founds the firm Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Company (Morris and Company from 1875)


Guild of St George founded by John Ruskin


Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings founded by William Morris


Century Guild founded by Arthur Heygate Mackmurdo


Home Arts and Industries Association founded by Eglantyne Jebb


Art Workers’ Guild founded


Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society founded. First exhibition in 1888

National Association for the Advancement of Art and its Application to Industry founded


Guild and School of Handicraft founded by C. R. Ashbee


Den norske Husflidsforening (Norwegian Society for Home Industry) founded


The Studio magazine started, with W. Gleeson White as editor


Roycroft Community, East Aurora, NY, founded by Elbert Hubbard


Society of Arts and Crafts founded in Boston, U.S.A

Vereinigte Werkstätten für Kunst im Handwerk (United Workshops for Art in Handicraft) founded in Munich

Dresdner Werkstätten für Handwerkskunst (Dresden Workshops for Handicraft) founded


Chicago Arts and Crafts Society founded


Föreningen Svenska Hemslöjd (Swedish Handicraft Society) founded

Künstlerkolonie Mathildenhöhe (Mathildenhöhe Artists’ Colony) founded in Darmstadt by Grand Duke Ernst Ludwig of Hesse


The Craftsman magazine begun by Gustav Stickley, partly to publicise his firm, the Craftsman Workshops, Syracuse, NY

Towarzystwo Polska Sztuka Stosowana (Polish Applied Art Society) founded in Krakow


Byrdcliffe Colony, Woodstock, NY, founded by R. R. Whitehead

Gödöllö Artists’ Colony, near Budapest, founded


Wiener Werkstätten founded by Josef Hoffmann in Vienna


Deutscher Werkbund founded

Further reading

Arts and Crafts Essays

Author: Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society

Publisher: Thoemmes Continuum (1996; Original ed. 1893)

The Arts and Crafts Movement

Authors: Elizabeth Cumming and Wendy Kaplan

Publisher: Thames and Hudson (1991)

The Arts & Crafts Movement in Europe & America

Editor: Wendy Kaplan

Publisher: Thames and Hudson (2004)

Arts and Crafts Architecture

Author: Peter Davey

Publisher: Phaidon (1997)

International Arts and Crafts

Editors: Karen Livingstone and Linda Parry

Publisher: V&A Publishing (2005)

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