All entries for Tuesday 12 July 2005

July 12, 2005

The Master Craftsman: an Article for New Design

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When asked to deliver a lecture in 1858, John Ruskin told the audience that ‘All art worthy of the name is the energy – neither of the human body alone, nor of the human soul alone, but of both united, one guiding the other: good craftsmanship and the work of the fingers joined with good emotion and work of the heart.’ Ruskin’s words were to influence the world of design and they would later reverberate through the Arts and Crafts movement. The Arts and Crafts movement is to be celebrated in an international exhibition held at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London between the 17th March and 24th July 2005.

Karen Livingstone, the curator of the exhibition, states, ‘This is the first major Arts and Crafts exhibition ever to be held in this country and it will look at the international perspective on the movement. There have been regional Arts and Crafts exhibitions but never one that had studied the movement in such a broad way. For example this is the first exhibition to consider Japan’s Arts and Crafts movement. No previous show has included so many aspects of the movement all together.’

Art and Life

‘Many people have heard of the Arts and Crafts movement, but fewer people know the history of the term’, continues Livingstone. ‘We hope to rectify that with this exhibition’. In an age of late capitalism and mass production, the ethos of the Arts and Crafts movement may well give us pause for thought. It was Ruskin’s focus on the process of design and production elevated the role of the craftsman over mechanisation, the division of labour and the new work regimes of a prospering capitalist system. Ruskin revelled in the differences or even imperfections inherent in craftsmanship.

The Victoria and Albert Museum’s major spring-summer exhibition is developed to show that while the Arts and Crafts movement idealised handicraft and the rural life, the group was also sophisticated and urbane with a strong commercial awareness and an aspiration to influence design and manufacture. ‘The movement began in the 1860s’, explains Livingstone, ‘but it had a wide influence and spread internationally. In each set of Arts and Crafts objects there is a reference to a simpler way of life, yet each country applies this rule in a different way. The Arts and Crafts movement was about remodelling the design process whether the objective was to create a country cottage or a city mansion.’

Objet D’art

The exhibition presents over 200 Arts and Crafts objects and the diverse international representation is intended to show how the movement spread beyond the UK to the US, Europe, Scandinavia and Japan. Consequently, the exhibition will include four rooms.

The British rooms are reconstructions which reiterate that while the ideals of Arts and Crafts lay in the countryside, the movement would not have survived without urban influences and patrons. The American craftsmen room displays how the influence of living in the countryside is enmeshed with the ideal of the American family. Finally, there is a Japanese model room which reveals how Western and Eastern influences merged in the Arts and Crafts movement. Livingstone explains that ‘the Japanese Arts and Crafts movement asked the question how do we revive our historical past but also be modern and embrace Western ways of living? The Arts and Crafts movement was radical in its influence on Japanese design.’


The Arts and Crafts group was one of the first UK movements to have an international influence and it can be claimed as a school of thought that originated in the UK. British thinkers like Ruskin suggested that art had a moral value for the producer and the consumer. This concept was influential in many fields but particularly in the field of design and it seems appropriate that this exhibition is being held in London. ‘The Victoria and Albert Museum has one of the biggest collections of Arts and Crafts objects in the world and is perhaps only rivalled by the collection of Cotswolds Arts and Crafts in Cheltenham Museum and Art Gallery’, explains Livingstone. ‘Ruskin and William Morris were read all over the world and their influence was certainly wide-reaching.’

Many British designers are represented in the exhibition such as C.F.A. Voysey, Charles Rennie Mackintosh and C.R. Ashbee. The objects on display vary from simple crafted objects to elegant designs for wealthy patrons, including textiles, stained glass, ceramics, metalwork, jewellery, books, architecture, photography, paintings and sculpture. ‘The Arts and Crafts movement was a highlight in the history of British design’, states Livingstone. ‘No other movement has had such a widespread influence on an international scale.’

One of the most interesting designers represented in the field of furniture design is the British designer, Sir Ambrose Heal, who worked for Heal and Son from 1893 until 1953 as a craftsman, designer and chairman. Heal’s had opened in 1810 as a firm specialising in hand-made beds. Heal was the fourth generation in the family business and it was during his reign that the Arts and Crafts movement proved to be very influential. ‘Heal’s has a history of interest in being involved with Arts and Crafts’, explains Livingstone. ‘The company was instrumental in taking Arts and Crafts to a wider public. Some Arts and Crafts advocates like Asbee set up craft workshops for production, but it was difficult to make a profit in doing so. Heal’s held onto the idea of craftsmanship but they were aware of economic viability.’

Like the other advocates of the Arts and Crafts movement, Heal felt strongly about the effects of the Industrial Revolution, in particular the inferior furniture which had flooded the market-place as a result of mechanisation. It is interesting to note that although Heal favoured craftsmanship, he was also concerned that the designs should be simple and well-proportioned. Consequently, his furniture rejected the stains, polishes and carvings that were popular at the time. The resulting country cottage furniture had a sleeker, cleaner line and its price was accessible to the masses. ‘The most radical idea inherent in the Arts and Crafts movement was the notion of design for ordinary, simple, working-class people’, explains Livingstone. Heal’s aesthetic ethos retained a consciousness of the economics of commercial production.

Heal’s success made him an influential character in the world of Arts and Crafts. Livingstone describes his authority in the sphere of design: ‘Here at our office, we have Ambrose Heal’s diary and it is clear from his address list that he was working with the best designers of his day. Heal produced his own ranges, but he also worked with the top commercial and freelance designers of the day, such as Lindsey P. Butterfield and C.F.A. Voisey.’ Heal later became a member of the Arts and Crafts Society and the Art Worker Guild. He moved in radical circles of the Arts and Crafts scene.’ In 1933, he was knighted in recognition of his innovative design and his influence on improving design standards.

Fine Feathers

Heal’s is no longer a family business after being acquired by Habitat/Mothercare (later Storehouse) in 1983. However, the company is still very aware of its Arts and Crafts roots and Livingstone calls them ‘the perfect sponsor for an Arts and Crafts exhibition’. Examples of Heal’s work such as the Heal Letchworth dresser will be an integral part of the Victoria and Albert Museum Arts and Crafts exhibition. ‘Ambrose Heal was originally a cabinet maker’, Livingstone reminds us. ‘Such objects are original with good design and good craftsmanship, but they are also economical.’ After London, the exhibition will move to the Indianapolis Museum of Art and later the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco.

Other examples can be seen at Heal’s flagship store on the Tottenham Court Road, where Heal’s are also launching a collection of reproduction furniture inspired by the Arts and Crafts movement. For example, an original Lindsey P. Butterfield apple print fabric featured in the Victoria and Albert museum exhibition is used in a new line of luggage and stationary. The effect is surprisingly contemporary.

Also at Heal’s store is a piece that captures the essence of the Arts and Crafts movement: the ‘Fine Feather’ mahogany bedroom suite, which features inlaid pewter motifs. The dressing table reads IF THIS BE VANITY WHO’D BE WISE, a reference to a work of the writer, Rudyard Kipling and the wardrobe reads, FINE FEATHERS MAKE FINE BIRDS, which is an allusion to one of Aesop’s moral tales. The design engages with the principles of the Arts and Crafts movement in a light-hearted manner. It tries to educate its user with such literary references, which are particularly relevant regarding the use of a bedroom suite with its mirrors, cosmetics and fine clothes. However, this aspect is handled deftly without seeming to moralising and ultimately a beautiful object is created. Heal achieved what Ruskin hoped for: a synthesis of good craftsmanship and good emotion.

For more details see the Victoria and Albert Museum website

Like a Marble or an Eye

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In the recent Next Generation list released by the Poetry Book Society as a counterpart to the 1994 New Generation poets, Owen Sheers features as one of the youngest poets included on the list. Born in Fiji and brought up in London and Abergavenny, Sheers is sometimes thought of as the ‘pretty boy’ of Welsh poetry, which is probably encouraged by his strong media presence. Sheers is the sometime presenter of arts programmes for BBC Wales and he has also appeared in glossy print promotions. David Bailey was commissioned by The Times in 2000 to photograph the foremost practitioners in the arts and sciences along with an up-and-coming peer of their choice. Andrew Motion, the poet laureate, was featured alongside Owen Sheers; Motion described Sheers as the poet most likely to create new advances in the field of poetry.

Sheers’ credentials are impeccable. He has been included in The Independent on Sunday’s list of best British writers and has won an Eric Gregory Award. Sheers also boasts considerable support from poets of the Welsh bastion such as Robert Minhinnick. The Blue Book, initially published in 2000, was shortlisted for the Forward Prize and it is easy to see why. The easy eloquence of Sheer’s observations creates an alternative selfhood for Welsh writers which is urbane, cosmopolitan and well-travelled. The title poem of the collection refers to a report published by the government in 1847 on the state of education in Wales. As Sheer’s epigraph reminds us, the report concludes that the Welsh are ‘dirty, lazy. ignorant, superstitious, deceitful, promiscuous and immoral’ as a direct result of ‘Nonconformity and the Welsh language’.

'The Blue Book' takes this as the starting point for a meditation on the history and future of the Welsh language. The poem begins with the view of an outsider looking in on Welsh culture: ‘Rather silence than these corrupt tongues, / the words of the father shall not be passed on to the sons’. The biblical language reflects the chapel culture inherent in Welsh culture and language, yet it also encourages the reader to think of English interventions in Wales as interruptions to a kind of holy order between the Father, the Son and Holy Ghost or the father, the son and the Welsh language. Sheers is adamant that the control over language is part of a colonialist project:

Because this is how an empire is claimed
not just with stakes in a stolen land,
but with words grown over palates,
with strength of tongue as well as strength of hand.

The conclusion of the poem moves away from the colonialist projects of empire to consider the future of the Welsh language. The speaker studies a comment on his brother’s Welsh homework: ‘Pam nad yw hyn wedi ei orffen?’ The comment, ‘Why isn’t this finished?’, is a mundane reprimand to his brother’s laziness, yet it is also a triumphant vindication of the survival of Welsh. However, the speaker laments his lack of language and the fact that he cannot take part in the triumph; he is ‘a hundred and fifty years and one tongue apart’.

The Blue Book is a poem that epitomises Sheers’ poetics which are very much concerned with identity, culture, language and place. Sheers’ collection includes: Welsh praise poems for characters who defy stereotypes; elegies full of wonder and lament for people lost; explorations of Welsh industrial and rural landscapes; and poetry that extends beyond the borders of that small country to Fiji and beyond.

Some of the most poignant poetry concerned with celebration of character revolves around the figure of the mother. In 'Not Yet My Mother', the speaker explores a photograph which presents a younger version of his mother and is startled to recognise himself in her image:

All of which told me again,
that this was you at seventeen, holding a horse
and smiling, not yet my mother,
although I was clearly already your child.

Sheers’ treatment of the mother avoids stereotypes and it is good to see a male poet treating female figures in a subversive manner. Thus it is disappointing that the treatment of men and women in The Blue Book is not always so innovative and this conservatism seems to be rooted in the influence of a certain brand of Welsh chauvinist poetry. The kind of masculinity presented, from medieval bards’ odes to the penis to modernist poets’ anxiety over femininity, can be simplistic and self-aggrandizing.

Of course, some male poets have remedied such chauvinisms, the prime example being Sheers’ mentor, Robert Minhinnick. However, Sheers seems to have revisited certain nuances of Welsh chauvinism in some of the poems in The Blue Book. In 'Harvest', an intense and measured poem is spoiled by the proclamation ‘I am a man, and I have acid hands’ revelling in a masculinity which is erosive to womanhood. 'May Ball' is generally an interesting poem concerned with class politics, yet the speaker’s encounter with the woman’s lifted skirts and reverie in a phallic laser show seems detrimental. The triumph of class mobility is figured through the act of intercourse with an elegant woman. The feminine becomes a symbol used for male expression.

Other poems continue in a similar vein. 'Klimt’s Kiss' endorses the traditional masculine artistic tendency of using woman as a visual spectacle:

His to kiss and keep
in the gold cloak of his art.
Her kneeling to him in prayer.

In this account, woman is an object of visual pleasure for the artist and feeds male fantasies with her subjection and humility. This aspect of Sheers’ work is difficult to manoeuvre and it is difficult to reconcile his treatment of women here with other poems such as 'Not Yet My Mother'.

However, Sheers’ is obviously a talented poet and it is interesting to note his female influences in addition to Welsh chauvinist authority. Poets like Gillian Clarke, Hilary Llewellyn Williams and Sally Roberts Jones can be heard in the nuances of Sheers’ work. His treatment of the rural landscape and people is embedded in the cycles of life and death. Like Gillian Clarke, Sheers’ is preoccupied with bodies: ‘the afterbirth […] / a jelly fish placenta’ and ‘pulpy hooves’ in ‘The Hedge Foal’ and the birthed animals in ‘Lambing’ with ‘hooves/as soft as plums’ are all reminiscent of Clarke’s theme and style.

In a general sense, Sheers’ collection can be described an uneasy marriage of varied influences synthesised with his own brand of urbane charm. It can only be hoped that in future collections, Sheers will prefer his feminine influences, which have for too long been eclipsed in Wales by certain chauvinist poetics.


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