THE ARTS AND CRAFTS EXHIBITION SOCIETY

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I have been looking at the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society catalogue for their 1935 exhibition, which shows the Society (which gave its name to the Arts and Crafts movement and had doubts about the propriety of machine-made goods) flirting with design for mass production.

It was a small step but a significant one. William Morris’s ambivalence about machinery had hardened into outright opposition and in the 20th century the craftsman evolved from a generalist with a wide range of abilities (usually based on architecture), who sometimes contracted the execution of his work to a tradesman, into a specialist, frequently working alone and controlling every stage of production.

Pevsner argued that the lead in design in the 20th century passed from the Arts and Crafts to pioneer modernists like Adolf Loos, Peter Behrens, Josef Hoffman, the Deutsche Werkbund and the Bauhaus, and by the 1930s, some design thinkers doubted that there was much room for the crafts. Gropius, in a lecture he gave in England in 1934, argued that their future lay not in production but in “research work for industrial production and in speculative developments in laboratory workshops where the preparatory work of evolving and perfecting new type-forms will be done.” Herbert Read took a similar view in Art and Industry.

These ideas became so widespread that craftspeople were either persuaded by them or understood the need to engage with them. Among potters, even two of the most craft-based were briefly enchanted by them, Bernard Leach toying with the idea setting up a small factory and Michael Cardew trying to design for Stoke-on-Trent. John Farleigh, who was on the modernising wing of the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society, responded to this current of thought by declaring to members that “We are in a machine age, and to ignore it is to ignore life as it is lived today,” but he contended that craft objects that could be reproduced by machine would be better if craftsmen supervised their manufacture, proposing a larger role for the craftsman in industry than that indicated by Gropius and Read.

farleigh black girl

In 1935 the Society included in its exhibition a section devoted to design for Mass Production, stating that the artist-craftsman “is admirably fitted to design for ‘batch-production’, ‘quantity-production’ or ‘mass-production’ in industry”. It led with Farleigh’s wood engravings for Bernard Shaw’s Adventures of the Black Girl in Search of God (above) and the exhibit was dominated by design for print, with lettering by Edward Johnston, Noel Rooke, Grailey Hewett and Alfred Firbank. There was some furniture by Romney Green and Gordon Russell, some printed fabrics by Heals, and some pottery designed for Doulton by Reco Capey. This was a hardly a major departure from hand-work. Ambrose Heal was a staunch supporter of the crafts and a member of the Society, and Doulton’s was an art pottery rather than a manufacturer of tableware. There was no evidence of any serious engagement by the Society with industry or any real interest in industrial design. Nevertheless, it was too much for some members. Leach was in the opposing faction and resigned. Staite Murray agreed with him that the Society’s policy of encouraging design for industry would “subvert the object of the Society to preserve the Crafts.”

The exhibition of British Art in Industry in 1935 talked of a “struggle for supremacy” between machine methods that made possible cheap goods and hand craftsmanship that could give goods individuality and character. The “art and industry debate” that persisted throughout the 1930s was never resolved and was brought to an end by the war, when craft production became an impermissible luxury. By 1944, two-thirds of Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society members were said to be designing for industry.

One thought on “THE ARTS AND CRAFTS EXHIBITION SOCIETY

  1. William Morris himself saw the dilemma and had some items machine printed. As today’s crafts people have demonstrated there is a need for both hand made and machine made. We would be much the poorer if we had no individual makers and could only buy what Amazon chose to supply.

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