The townies who made Chipping Campden beautiful
The social and creative experiment led by a leading Arts-and-crafts designer may have faltered, but it produced outstanding works of craftsmanship and its influence lives on, says Clive Aslet
IT’S difficult not to smile. Fifty or so craftsmen, belonging to the Guild of Handicraft, founded in 1888, were led from the Egypt of London’s East End to the Promised Land of the Edwardian Cotswolds, boaters, handlebar moustaches and all. There they occupied some of the cottages that the collapse of agriculture had left empty and took enthusiastically to rural life, or a typically idealistic interpretation of it, surprising the inhabitants of Chipping Campden with their Swedish exercises and swimming expeditions.
‘presence Imperfections announce the of a craftsman, as Ruskin would have wished
Healthy fresh air was one of the attributes of their newfound Arcadia, along with the pre-industrial traditions of what was then a sleepy, if not backward part of England (although the Cockneys were in rather better physical shape than some of the agricultural families).
C. R. Ashbee (1863–1942), who led this exodus, was an unlikely Moses. Dreamy-eyed, with a dandyish beard, he was a restless man—architect, designer, social reformer, traveller and early proponent of ‘homogenic’ love, following Edward Carpenter in his belief that male sexual relationships could help bridge the divide between classes.
Enthusiastic beginnings petered out. As might have been predicted, the Great Move did not fulfil the hopes that the Guild had of it; there wasn’t a sufficiently developed market for hand-wrought pieces, which were more expensive than the products of Birmingham Factories. In 1907, the Guild went into liquidation. Yet another example of Arts-and-crafts idealism had been wrecked on the unforgiving rocks of commercial necessity and human nature. However, they’d had a good five years of it and, as this exhibition curated by Ashbee’s biographer Alan Crawford together with Mary Greensted shows, the experiment was far from a complete failure. There are, for a start, the objects that were made at the 18th-century silk mill in Sheep Street. Ashbee’s silver designs have an almost cultish quality: the quest for beauty was on a par with religious faith. That may help to explain the liturgical character of the pieces—decanters that would not look out of place on an altar, dishes that might hold wafers rather than fruit, mustard pots decorated with semi-precious stones. Compared to the contemporary works of Fabergé in Russia, for example, they look slightly clunky—but are they the worse for that? Imperfections announce the presence of the craftsman, as Ruskin would have wished. I was fascinated to see the pair of elaborately hinged doors from Ananda Coomaraswamy’s piano. Coomaraswamy was an Indian scholar who lived at Broad Campden in the Norman Chapel that Ashbee had restored for him and his wife, Ethel. Life around Chipping Campden in the Ashbee years was never dull. Although the Guild failed, its influence lived on. Nine of the
Silver-mounted decanter set with a chrysoprase (1903)