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

Country Life Every Week - - Exhibition -

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)

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