William Morris, (1834-1898) perhaps best known now for his wallpaper designs,
though in his lifetime he was thought of most highly by the public as
a poet who dabbled in other things - and dabble he did. His legendary
work rate and breadth of interest and imagination led him to work in many
fields; interior design, furniture making, tapestry work, dyeing, embroidery,
architecture, stained glass, tiling, painting, illustration, book design,
typography & printing. And although his writings and work inspired
a whole generation of architects and craftsmen, not to say utopian dreamers
and ordinary men & women, he himself never attempted to set up a community
based on his ideals. He was tempted on a number of occasions.
At The Red
House at Bexleyheath, built for Morris by the architect Phillip Webb,
he had planned to extend the house into a quadrangle and even commissioned
drawings when it looked like fellow artist Edward Burne-Jones and his
family would come and join him. Later when looking for a site to set up
the workshops for Morris & Co he scouted the the half-deserted Cotswold
village of Blockley with the view to setting
up an Arts & Crafts based community at the abandoned silk mill there.
He was persuaded against the move by his business partners, something
he later regretted. He set up at Merton Abbey, near Wimbeoldon instead.
Finally, in the later years of his life at Kelmscott,
(the house he rented on the upper reaches of the Thames), he would hold
gatherings of political and artistic colleagues who would plot the creation
of a new world. Among those who gathered in the Thames-side drawing room
was the elderly Owenite E.T. Craig, veteran of
Ralahine and the Chartist agitation. At the end Morris proclaimed
a sort of Marxist-based anarchism that ruled out setting up ideal communities
until after the revolution.
Others saw no need to wait for the revolution and inspired by Morris set
about reorganising existing society. The Guild of Handicraft which opened
its doors in Whitechapel in 1888 was the brainchild of a young architect
Charles Robert Ashbee. Whilst a trainee at the office of architect G.F.Bodley,
and living at Toynbee Hall, Ashbee was influenced not only by the ideas
of Morris & Ruskin, but also met Edward Carpenter, philosopher of
the simple life and proponent of `homogenic love'. The Guild grew out
of lectures Ashbee gave on Ruskin to the 'BWM', his shorthand for the
British Working Man. Frustrated by the well-intentioned philanthropy of
Toynbee Hall "neither a college,
convent nor a club" he conceived of a more practical experiment,
a craft 'co-operative' modelled on English Medieval Guilds, where skilled
craftsmen working by the principles of Ruskin & Morris would not only
produce hand-crafted goods, but also run a school for young apprentices.
The idea was greeted with great enthusiasm by almost everyone except Morris
himself, who was by now deeply involved in promoting revolutionary socialism.
In an attempt to win his support Ashbee declared,
"look I am going to forge a weapon for you;- and thus I too work
for you in the overthrow of society",
to which Morris replied,
" The weapon is too small
to be of any Value."
Ashbee, like Morris before him was a rich boy turned revolutionary. His
mother came from a wealthy Jewish family in Hamburg and his father was
a senior partner in a London law firm. Despite Morris's discouragement
Ashbee pushed on with both the Guild & School of Handicrafts opening
in rooms at Toynbee Hall on June 23rd 1888. The venture was a surprise
success and shortly moved to larger premises on the top floor of a nearby
warehouse and then onto a rather grand Georgian house in Mile End Road
and open a shop in the West End to sell the Guild's goods. At Essex
House the Guild carried out carpentry, carving, cabinet making and
decorative painting . A smithy was built in the garden and metalwork,
silverwork & jewellery were added to the Guild trades. Ashbee's success
in Whitechapel was based partly on his own developing architecture practice,
with the guild providing the furniture, fixtures and fittings for a growing
number of commissions. Other factors contributing to the success were
no doubt the contact with the wealthy patrons of Toynbee Hall and the
success of other young Arts & Crafts architects, supplied by the Guild.
A lively social life was established at the Guild with programmes of lectures,
and Guild suppers, where the men sang songs and acted in masques. An Essex
House cricket X1 was formed and a number of country cottages were acquired
to which the guildsmen would cycle for weekend breaks and short holidays.
Arts & crafts international
Inspired by the Guilds example, and the British Arts & Crafts movement
in general, others made attempts to emulate them throughout Europe and
America. Following a visit to Morris's workshop at
Merton Abbey in 1895 the American Elbert Hubbard founded the Roycroft
community at East Aurora, New York. Hubbard was considered something
of a conman. However his community survived until the depression of the
1930s producing an extensive line of crafts and providing its workers
with decent housing and recreational facilities. Somewhat better thought
of was the work of Gustav Stickley. Initially inspired by seeing Shaker
furniture exhibited at the 1876 Centennial Show in Philadephia, Stickley
would go on to become one of the leading Arts & Crafts practitioners
in the US, developing a distinctive America style known as 'Mission Furniture'.
Stickley did not believe in a slavish adherence to handworking and used
machines in an attempt to produce what he called 'democratic' furniture
that was affordable to a wide range of customers. To a certain extent
he was successful in this. Where others relied on rich patrons Stickley
managed to reach a wide audience through his influential magazine, The
Craftsman and through extensive use of mail-order catalogues. In 1898
he established workshops at Syracuse organised on Guild lines and renamed
his company The United Craftsmen.
Later plans to establish a community and model farm in New Jersey failed
after the company went bankrupt following the purchase of a skyscraper
in New York.
One of Ashbee's commissions led directly to the formation of a community
at Darmstadt in Germany. Following work
by Baille Scott & Ashbee to the palace of the Grand Duke of Hesse,
the Duke sponsored the building of a series of artist studios and houses
on his estate.
House at the Darmstadt
colony in Germany
back in Britain Schools of Handicraft and Guilds were proliferating across
the country. Schools had been set up in Birmingham, Glasgow, Edinburgh
& Dublin. A friend of Ashbee, Godfrey Blount set up The Haslemere
Peasant Industries in I896 in Surrey. It was an umbrella organisation
for a number of small craft workshops employing local skilled labour.
Blount and his wife Ethel Hine were concerned with reviving local craft
traditions and included weaving & embroidery alongside the by-now-standard
crafts of woodwork, metalwork, bookbinding & handprinting. Their aim
was; `the revival of a true country life where handicrafts and the arts
of husbandry shall exercise body and mind and express the relation of
man to earth and to the fruits of earth'.
At the peak his success in Whitechapel in 1898 Ashbee married Janet Forbes,
an accomplished musician who would bring a female dimension to the Guild's
so-far-male, comradely atmosphere. Janet Ashbee would take an active role
in the working of the guild; the Ashbee's marriage being a remarkably
'equal' partnership. Women were involved in the Arts & Crafts movement
not only in traditional female crafts like weaving & embroidery, but
also others such as bookbinding, with a Guild of Women Bookbinders being
based in London. Mary Watts, wife of the painter G.F. Watts, directed
a women's pottery guild at the Compton pottery. In the USA a successful
women artists' community, Cogslea, was founded by Violet Oakley. At Ditchling
in Sussex Ethel Mairet pioneered new weaving designs. Gertrude Jekyll,
the garden designer & writer carried out much of her work in conjunction
with Arts & Crafts architects. And May Morris, having worked alongside
the old man himself, went on to produce original embroidery works of her
own, becoming a figurehead for craftswomen in England and leading to the
setting up in 1907 of the Women's Art Guild.
In 1901 with a string of successful commissions behind it and an increasingly
international reputation for its work the Guild of Handicrafts was facing
the expiry of its lease on Essex House. A search was started for new premises
conducive to 'good honest craftsmanship'. After looking for suitable properties
close at hand in Bow, South Byfleet, Fulham, Chelsea, Ruislip & Harrow,
Ashbee started to consider moving out to the country. A watermill at Sawbridge
in Kent, possible buildings at Letchworth, the old silk mill at Blockley
that Morris had looked at 20 years before were all considered. All were
forgotten though on the 'discovery' of the run-down Cotswold market town
of Chipping Campden. On offer in this sleepy agricultural backwater were
empty buildings for workshops and schools, cottages available to let all
in a picturesque quasi-medieval setting almost straight from the pages
of News from Nowhere. Ashbee convinced himself that Chipping Campden offered
an opportunity to fulfil his ambitions. However, whilst he was in effect
the leader, the Guild had a democratic structure and the Guildsmen had
to make the decision to move from the East End of London to the Cotswolds
themselves. An 'official' visit by Ashbee and the foremen from each department
of the Guild went well. A few of the men cycled over to see what they
might be letting themselves in for. The craftsmen were by no means all
in favour of the move, being split on workshop lines with the mainly-unionised
carpenters and metal workers in favour and the un-unionised jewellers
against. In the end the vote was 2 to 1 in favour of the move. On hearing
the result of the vote Ashbee wrote in his journal;
I am glad to think that the men themselves have decided on the whole it
is better to leave Babylon and go home to the land.
of the Builders of the City of the Sun.
Comrades, our city of the sun!
A quest unfound, a joy unwon;
Ay, here in England shall it rise
Beneath her grey and solemn skies.
Far in her golden past, or far
Ahead where her Utopias are,
For hearts that feel and souls that find
Their inner life within the mind,
The inner life yet scarce begun,
Here stands our city of the sun!
journey from Mile End Road to Chipping Campden appeared to some of the
men as a journey from the dawn of the 20th century back to the closing
of the 16th century. What had been an affluent market town made prosperous
by the wool merchants of the 1400s was by Ashbee's day a somewhat sleepy
rural backwater, little changed since Sir Baptist Hicks had burnt down
Campden House to stop it falling into Cromwell's hands during the Civil
War. The picturesque stone buildings and air of semi-dereliction fitted
the Guild's own mythology of a revival of a lost mediaeval England so
well that they were unable to see their arrival as part of a ongoing cycle
of rural depression and revival, the town not being quite as sleepy as
was made out.
arrival of some 150 Eastenders did however have a significant impact on
the small town. The Guild moved out to the country over a number of months,
workshop after workshop being installed one at a time into the Old Silk
Mill now renamed Essex House. On the ground floor went the Essex House
Press, set up with the presses from Kelmscott acquired on Wiliam Morris's
death. Alongside the press were the drawing offices and showrooms. On
the floor above went the jewellers and on the top floor the carpentry
workshop, with the blacksmith's shop being set up in the yard. The mill
was set in its own garden and orchard and had installed the first electric
lighting in the town. A 'Hall of Residence' was established for the single
men in Braithwaite House and various cottages were rented for those with
families. Ashbee took a house in the centre of town renaming it somewhat
grandly the Woolstaplers Hall.
outside the Woolstaplers Hall Chipping Campden
from a few of the men who grew homesick and returned to London the guildsmen
thrived in the town. Almost as soon as they had settled in, visitors started
to arrive curious to see this little island of utopia in the English countryside.
The locals on the other hand didn't quite know what to make of this invasion
from the metropolis: in the first place some were openly hostile with
local shopkeepers overcharging the newcomers and others resentful at having
been evicted from their homes to make way for higher-paying outsiders.
The wages paid by the Guild were always more than the local agricultural
wage. The local gentry in their turn didn't quite know what to make of
the Ashbees. Were they the proprietors of this new enterprise on their
doorstep or not? Relations would become easier as the years passed and
the Guildsmen became involved with the life of the town. As in the East
End a range of social activities were arranged by and for the men and
their families. These were generally open to the local inhabitants, and
ranged from the regular plays and lectures put on at Elm Tree House, to
the Cotswold School of Handicraft which ran classes in cookery, woodwork,
gardening, music and keep-fit. Much to the amazement of the town the 'lazy'
village lads were organised by one of the men into a Harriers running
club and later the Guild would build an open-air swimming
pool for the town. And swimming would feature in the annual summer sports
alongside football, hockey and cricket matches. Local people played in
the townband set up and led by one of the Londoners.
Two of the numerous visitors to Campden during this time were none other
than the grand architects of Fabian socialism Sidney & Beatrice Webb,
who had taken a nearby cottage whilst engaged in writing their epic history
of local government. The irony of the Webbs writing on municipal state-run
socialism in the midst of his rural arcadia was not lost on Ashbee who
was highly amused by their visit. Another visitor was Ashbee's old mentor
Edward Carpenter who came to give a lecture on Small Holdings and Life
on the Land. In many ways the comradeship of the Guild with its genial
company of young men enjoying themselves together came close to achieving
Carpenter's ideal of 'homogenic' love between men, which was based on
Ashbee's own barely-concealed homosexuality, which both he and his wife
Janet came to terms with remarkably well, given that these were the years
after the Oscar Wilde trial.
Guild workers family
outside cottage Chipping Campden
are cheap today
Although the Guild produced some of its best work during the Campden years,
financially some departments had been experiencing difficulties since
they arrived. The jewellers and silversmith had been struggling against
competition from semi-machine-made methods of other firms in London and
Birmingham who produced goods much cheaper, and which to the customers'
eyes were identical to the Guild's pieces. For the first time in its history
the Guild as a whole recorded a loss in 1905. Trade had been low, with
some men having been on short time during the year. There had been a general
slump in trade that affected many independent craftsmen, not just the
Guild, though the distance between Campden and the Guild customers was
thought to have contributed to the loss of work. The Guild took the loss
in its stride and carried on much as before, though belts were somewhat
tightened and attempts made to be more competitive. The following year
after poor sales of a hand-printed Bible the Essex House Press was forced
to wind up: whilst the financial impact of closing the press was small,
the symbolic loss of William Morris's printing machinery was great. The
following years balance sheet, although not as bad as the previous showed
another loss. The Guild was now on the brink of bankruptcy. Whilst it
struggled on into the next year the measures to save it became increasingly
desperate until finally it went into voluntary liquidation and was forced
to sell its stock to pay its debts.
pointed to its utopian idealism as the root of its demise, but the Guild
was sunk largely by the competition of machine made replicas available
in such shops as Heals and Liberty's. The Guild had lasted in one form
or another for some 21 years: no mean achievement for an experiment in
workplace democracy and community building. Many of the Guildsmen stayed
on in the Cotswolds; some of them taking up the offer of American soap
magnate Joseph Fels who bought 70 acres to be divided into small holdings
in neighbouring Broad Campden. In 1909 a less formal and looser Guild
was set up by those men still working in the area.
In the later
part of his career Ashbee developed his ideas on Arts & Crafts, influenced
by his friendship with the American architect Frank Lloyd Wright: ideas
he expressed in his book, Where the great city stands published in 1917,
in which he outlined his hopes for post war society. It contained plans
for a co-operative Garden City at Ruislip. From 1917 to 1923 he worked
in the Middle East, latterly in Palestine for the British Military Government,
where he took over from Patrick Geddes the somewhat daunting task of quite
literally building a new Jerusalem; an appointment that did not last,
as Ashbee, though Jewish, was apparently stubbornly pro-Arab.
establish craft-based communities but never on the scale achieved at Chipping
Campden. Edward Barnsley and Earnest Gimson created a loose community
of craftsmen around their workshop at Sapperton.
Members of the Scottish Arts & Crafts Movement were intrumental in
the founding of a homesteading scheme at Stirling
in 1909. Craftwork and the revival of 'traditional' crafts has played
a significant and continuing role in utopian experiments and back to the
land movements right up to the present day. Chipping Campden still looks
much the same as it did in the days of the Guild and the Old Silk Mill
still houses craftworkers along with a small museum of the Guild of Handicrafts.