Archive for Arts & Crafts movement

Venetian Red Bookshelf: A. S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book

Posted in Book Review, Ceramics, Christine Cariati, Design, Fine & Decorative Arts, Textiles with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 18, 2010 by Christine Cariati

by Christine Cariati

A. S. Byatt‘s The Children’s Book is a complex tapestry of a book. It begins in 1895 and ends during the Great War. It is woven through with sensuous descriptions of textiles, pottery glazes, art, clothing and sexual longing, as well as musings on what it is to be an artist or a writer.

As usual, Byatt’s writing is erudite, some would say to a fault. The Children’s Book is unrepentantly intellectual, filled with long, complex digressions on art and nature—and it basks, unashamedly, in the life of ideas. In The Children’s Book, Byatt mines all of her interests—history and natural history, the visual arts, literature, fairy tales, the decorative arts—and weaves them together in an epic tale of two generations of several artistic families (including nearly 20 children) who live in the Kentish countryside.

Victoria & Albert

How could I not love a book that begins in the South Kensington Museum, (later the Victoria & Albert), and immediately engages us with lush descriptions of the forms, ornamentation and glazes of gorgeous decorative objects? The main characters live in a house decorated in the aesthetic of the Arts & Crafts movement, with furniture and wallpaper by William Morris and his cohorts. Their lives are, at first glance, idyllic—Midsummer parties on vast lawns, with theater and puppet shows, open conversation about sexuality, talk about the suffragette movement, the Fabian Society and Socialist idealism. But there’s a dark undercurrent that quickly becomes apparent—a web of adultery, selfishness and secrecy.

William Morris

Byatt is particularly good at illuminating the irony in the disparity between her characters’ professed beliefs and the way they live their lives—whether in the social, sexual or artistic realm. Byatt also doesn’t shy away from showing us the destructive effect that parents’ misguided creativity can have on their children. Most ominously, the carnage of the coming war looms unseen, and many of the children we meet in the opening chapters will be casualties of that war. We feel tragically helpless, even as we worry about the ill effects of  their haphazard upbringing, we suspect these children will not live far into adulthood.

1895 was the end of the Victorian era and the beginning of the Edwardian age, when the cult of childhood began. It was the heyday of children’s literature—J.M. Barrie, Kenneth Grahame and E Nesbit were writing their masterpieces. In fact, Byatt’s heroine, Olive Wellwood, who lives with her husband Humphry and their seven children in a country cottage called Todefright—a beloved children’s writer of dark, somewhat Germanic versions of English fairy stories—is largely inspired by E Nesbit. Olive says:

Well, I sometimes feel, stories are the inner life of this house. A kind of spinning of energy. I am this spinning fairy in the attic, I am Mother Goose quacking away what sounds like comforting chatter but is really — is really what holds it all together.

Other characters suggest hybrids of H.G. Wells, D.H. Lawrence—and writers Virginia Woolf, Rupert Brooke, George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde have cameos. It is also a conflicted age. As Byatt writes, “people talked, and thought, earnestly and frivolously, about sex,” at the same time showing “a paradoxical propensity to retreat into childhood, to read and write adventure stories, tales about furry animals, dramas about pre-pubertal children.”

This novel has a multi-stranded narrative, touches on many complex issues and has an enormous cast of characters. Among the interesting characters are Prosper Cain, Special Keeper of Precious Metals at the South Kensington Museum, and Benedict Fludd, a tempestuous and visionary potter (based largely on Eric Gill), who is also a monstrous, sexual predator. (Byatt’s choice of names, such as Cain and Fludd, seem somewhat biblical.) The book is filled with artists and political idealists. Midway through the book, many of the characters, in various combinations, attend the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1900, and there are riveting descriptions of the exposition and its exhibits—including the work of Klimt, Rodin and Lalique.

Exposition Universelle, Paris, 1900

The action often grinds to a halt while Byatt lectures us about pottery glazes, the history of puppet theater or discourses on social issues. Each character’s clothing is lovingly detailed, works of art are described, fairy stories told, historical facts abound. Many find this surfeit of digression an irritant in Byatt’s work, and think the book overstuffed with ideas and descriptions. I can’t really dispute Byatt’s verbosity and her tendency to lecture. Nevertheless, Byatt’s descriptive abilities border on the sublime, and I relish a novelist who thinks—no, knows— that art is important, and who invents characters, for all their serious flaws, who are engaged with the moral struggle to define (or evade) their responsibilities, assess their gifts and search for (or resist) some kind of enlightenment through creativity.

If you decide to read the book, I recommend you slow down and enjoy the ride, including the numerous side-trips and detours. It may, as some critics argue, be too much, but in my opinion, most contemporary novels offer way too little—so I’ll vote  for an excess of ideas, beautifully described, any day. If you’ve read The Children’s Book, please share your thoughts with Venetian Red.

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Eminent Victorian: William Morris and “The Beauty of Life”

Posted in Christine Cariati, Fine & Decorative Arts, Textiles, Wallpaper, XC with tags , , , , , on June 11, 2009 by Christine Cariati

by Christine Cariati

WilliamMorrisOn his first trip to France in 1855, the 21-year-old William Morris wrote to his mother: “I do not hope to be great at all in anything, but perhaps I may reasonably hope to be happy in my work.” This, for me, sums up Morris’ greatness: his prodigious energy, insatiable curiosity and passion had the underpinnings of a tremendous work ethic, moral integrity and true decency. When Morris died in 1896, at the age of 62, his doctor said the cause of death was simply “being William Morris.” And no wonder—Morris was a poet, novelist, bibliophile, translator, embroiderer, calligrapher, engraver, gardener, decorator, dyer, weaver, architectural preservationist and Socialist. He designed furniture, printed and woven textiles, stained glass, tiles, carpets, tapestry, murals, wallpaper, books and type. An early environmentalist, the floral designs for which he is famous were informed by his knowledge of horticulture and inspired in part by medieval tapestries and the many gardens he planted and tended.

WMIrisWilliam Morris, design for Iris, printed cotton, c.1876

WMJasmineWilliam Morris, Jasmine, wallpaper, 1872

In 1847, after an idyllic childhood, Morris was sent away to Marlborough College a few months after the death of his father. He hated the school but loved the surrounding landscape and spent as much time as possible roaming the countryside. While at Marlborough, Morris abandoned his family’s tame Protestantism and embraced the music, ritual and aesthetics of Anglo-Catholicism. When he went up to Oxford in 1853, he intended to devote his life to God, but he soon abandoned the church for art. He always had a taste for things medieval and Gothic—it is said that he read the novels of Walter Scott at age 4. While at Oxford, he was very influenced by the work of John Ruskin, especially his essay “The Nature of Gothic” in his book The Stones of Venice. Oxford was also where he met his life-long friend, the painter Edward Burne-Jones, the son of a gilder from Birmingham who educated Morris about the plight of working-class laborers.

WMEBJEdward Burne-Jones and William Morris, 1890
photo:William Morris Gallery, London

William Morris was a Renaissance man in Victorian times. He is considered to be the founder, along with John Ruskin, of the Arts & Crafts movement. In his lecture, The Beauty of Life, given in 1880, Morris said: “Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.” He despised the aesthetic failings of the machine age and the division of labor that broke down production, from design to execution, into separate tasks. He extolled the joys of handwork and the integrity of creative labor. He wanted to unify art and craftsmanship. He wrote: “If I were to say what is at once the most important production of art and the thing most longed for, I should answer, a beautiful house.”

A William Morris interior was the antithesis of the Victorian aesthetic of overstuffed rooms, draped with endless yards of fabric, filled with memorabilia, potted plants and heaps of mass-produced decorative embellishments.

VictorianroomVictorian drawing Room, Wickham Hall, Kent, 1897

Even though Morris combined densely patterned carpets, upholstery and wallpaper, the designs, influenced by nature but with orderly, flat areas of color and a graceful linear quality, had a clean simplicity and elegance.

KelmscottDrawing Room, Kelmscott Manor

Earlier I mentioned Morris’ decency. He insisted on a pleasant environment for his workers and his workshops were filled with light and air.

MertonAbbeyMerton Abbey, hand-blocking chintz in the print shop

He also believed everyone should have access to beautiful things: “What business have we with art, unless we can all share it?” He was a man who embodied enormous contradictions: an environmentalist who derided industrialization and urbanization, yet spent much of his life working in London; a Socialist who designed luxury goods for the wealthy and predicted the demise of capitalism. This latter conflict, in part, led Morris away from design into activism and book publishing, but not before appointing his disciple, the extremely talented John Henry Dearle, as the chief designer at Morris & Co.

JHDArtichokeJohn Henry Dearle, Artichoke wallpaper, 1899

JHDcherwellJohn Henry Dearle, Cherwell, wall hanging, 1897
Block printed velveteen

Morris devoted the last 10 years of his life to book publishing. Dissatisfied with the state of British publishing, he founded the Kelmscott Press “with the hope of producing some which would have a definite claim to beauty.” Not surprisingly, it was very important to Morris for his books to have a strong visual element and they were filled with exquisite detail, including illustrations, decorative motifs and printed cloth book covers.

WMbookcoverWilliam Morris, The Roots of the Mountains (London, Chiswick Press, 1890), bound in Honeysuckle printed cotton

WMBookWilliam Morris, for the Kelmscott Press
Proof, title-page, The History of Reynard the Fox, 1893

Even more significant than his own prodigious output is the role Morris played as a catalyst, leaving an enormous legacy to craftsmen, designers, writers, publishers and politicians. He also inspired the founding of many schools and guilds devoted to the Arts & Crafts aesthetic.

CraftsmanThe Craftsman, October 1901
(The first issue, dedicated to William Morris)

William Morris contributed to, and inspired, the renaissance of British craftsmanship which led to an exciting new generation of British textile designers—Dorothy Larcher, Phyllis Barron, Enid Marx among many others. These designers embraced many of Morris’ ideals, but were determined to develop a new, more international aesthetic—experimenting with vegetable dyes, block-printing and traditional hand weaving techniques and taking inspiration from Italian, Scandinavian and Eastern European folk art. Some, inspired by the Bauhaus in Weimar, moved into industrial production.

Dorothy Larcher, Small Feather, block printed linen, 1930sDorothy Larcher, Small Feather, block-printed linen, 1930s

Morris loved beauty and nature but especially delighted in the man made co-existing in harmony with nature—and every beautiful object he created in his intensely productive life was a tribute to that vision.

“My work is the embodiment of dreams in one form or another.” Letter to Cornell Price, Oxford, 1856.

WMsnakesheadWilliam Morris, Snakeshead, printed cotton, 1876

No Trifle—William de Morgan & the Iznik Tradition

Posted in Ceramics, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, People & Places, Textiles with tags , , , , , , , on May 17, 2008 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER

The making of patterns is no trifle—it’s a rare gift to be able to do it.
—Edward Burne-Jones

Ottoman-era tiles, Yeni Camii, Istanbul

Iznik tiles, Yeni Camii, Istanbul.

De Morgan "Mongolian" motif

William de Morgan, Tile, “Mongolian” motif.  (Photo courtesy William de Morgan Tiles by Jon Catleugh)
Note: the Ottoman inspired colors and ogee (double S shape) motif of the vines.

I first encountered William Frend de Morgan’s (1839-1917) tile work at Kelmscott Manor, William Morris‘ summer home in the Cotswold district of England. While I knew something about the Arts & Crafts movement in England, as well as Morris and the better known members of his circle (Rossetti, Burne-Jones, Madox Brown), I confess, that at the moment of our “introduction,” I knew nothing about de Morgan and his work. Nonetheless, his alluring designs spoke eloquently for him. Beyond the obvious connection to Morris’ design aesthetic, there was something else naggingly familiar about the designs. Armed with this thought, I began to investigate the man and his work.

De Morgan first met William Morris in 1863, and moved immediately into his close circle of artist friends, all of whom were passionate about restoring the hand-crafted arts to Britain. Morris suggested de Morgan work in “the Firm” (at that time Morris, Marshall & Faulkner) by designing stained glass. De Morgan tried it for a while, but gave it up in the early 1870s to concentrate wholly on ceramics. (Not such a long leap, given the similarity in firing techniques.)  De Morgan’s designs are testament to the power of Morris’ vision. The two worked together for many years and de Morgan’s tiles seem to channel the spirit of the master’s aesthetics all-too-adeptly.  But de Morgan was his own artist stylistically, and, as I came to appreciate, he was the first ceramicist to embrace Ottoman-era ceramic design & production methods wholeheartedly.

In our current age of instant images, it is difficult to imagine the impact that newly-discovered cultures had on the Victorians. Certainly, they were well-familiar with the Greeks & Romans. Beginning in the 1850s, however, as printed cottons from India and ceramics from the Far East arrived in Britain, exotic new design aesthetics were “discovered” by Victorian artists. Under the influence of Owen Jones and his The Grammar of Ornament, published in 1868,  newly-leisured middle-class latched onto the Persian and Ottoman styles in a big way. Elaborate smoking rooms and Turkish baths, both of which traditionally sported tiled walls, became the rage.  The brilliant palette of the Ottoman designs, as well as the juxtaposition of pattern against pattern and fanciful animal and floral motifs would have seemed incredibly exotic, and desirable, to a population which until recently had dressed themselves and their houses for the most part in drab, pattern-less designs. The exhibitions of Ottoman and Persian arts staged by the new South Kensington Museum (later the Victoria & Albert Museum) had enormous and immediate impact on Morris and his circle.

A tireless experimenter, De Morgan vigorously embraced the Ottoman method of production, fascinated by luster, the metallic glaze used by the Ottomans and later Renaissance-era Spaniards and Italians. By 1879, de Morgan had developed a reputation for his “Persian” color palette—ultramarine blue nestled against turquoise and green figure prominently throughout his work. Moreover, he “lifted” without much modification the imaginative peonies, roses, carnations, hyacinths and tulips that grace Iznik ware.   Beginning in the 1870s his designs began to incorporate ogee (double s) and palmette elements,  motifs arguably perfected by the Ottomans.  All in all, de Morgan’s designs were always close to the spirit of the originals, though not exact copies.

William de Morgan was a prolific designer and characteristic Victorian, accomplished in many fields. At the time of his death in 1917 (of influenza) his portfolio of tile designs contained upwards of 1200 drawings. This figure probably doesn’t represent an accurate accounting of his total output.  In addition to painting, he produced five best selling novels.

Wider Connections

Good information on de Morgan through the usual source material on the Arts & Crafts movement is scant. For an in-depth discussion of his life and work, see Jon Catleugh‘s book, William de Morgan Tiles.

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