Masters of their craft
Beyond Rennie Mackintosh lies a host of arts and crafts stars, finds Shirley Whiteside
Designer William Morris is often hailed as the father of the late 19th-century arts and crafts movement, a trend often viewed as peculiarly English. Inspired by the revival of medieval and Gothic styles led by AN Pugin and the Christian socialist writings of John Ruskin, it was a rebellion against the perceived dehumanising effects of mass production and industrialisation and sought to revive a pride in craftsmanship.
Trades guilds and societies were formed to foster and sell the work of artists, designers and craftsmen. The movement sought to produce objects that were useful and aesthetically pleasing, from buildings and stained glass windows to paintings, embroideries and furniture. But unlike Art Nouveau or Art Deco the focus was less about the finished o b j e c t and more about the attitude and principles of the person creating it. As much a po l i t i c a l movement as an artistic one, it was thought that encouraging ordinary working people to engage in arts and crafts classes would enrich their lives and their society.
The utopian message soon took root north of the border. This period of Scotland’s art history has been poorly served but with the publication of Elizabeth Cumming’s Hand, Heart and Soul, there is now a detailed account of how the movement developed in this country.
Perhaps Scottish arts and crafts have been largely neglected because of the long shadow cast by architect and designer Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Early in his career, as part of The Four (Mackintosh, his wife Margaret Macdonald, her sister Frances Macdonald and Frances’s husband Herbert McNair), he embraced arts and crafts and he and Margaret handworked and painted their famous gesso panels for Miss Cranston’s Ingram Street tea room in Glasgow. But there was more to Scottish arts and crafts than Mackintosh, as Cumming demonstrates.
From the ideology of arts for all, a number of female Scottish artists and designers emerged. As well as the Macdonald sisters, artists such as Jesse King and the Irish-born Phoebe Anna Traquair came to prominence. Although women’s embroidery groups were set up in England under the arts and crafts banner, little creativity was encouraged. Women merely embroidered patterns created by designers such as William Morris. Traquair took embroidery to another level with sumptuous panels stitched to her own designs.
Morris proved to be an important inspiration, visiting Scotland regularly to give talks about themovement’s guiding ideas. And another Englishman, Francis “Fra” Newbery, director of Glasgow School of Art, was instrumental in the growth of arts and crafts. The School became the movement’s Glasgow hub, running classes and talks. There, artists and designers could develop their skills and network, and a distinctive Glasgow Style evolved. However, the movement blossomed outside the central belt too, with societies inAberdeen andDundee as well as in Glasgow and Edinburgh.
This handsomely produced volume has beautifully photographed examples. It is much more than a glossy coffee table book, being a dense but enjoyable history of a fascinating period in Scottish life. Cumming, the great-great niece of artistdesigner William SkeochCumming of the arts and crafts Dovecot Studio in Edinburgh, has a passion for her subject that goes well beyond the simple facts and figures. Here, she has produced an absorbing tale. Hand, Heart and Soul, The Arts andCrafts Movement in Scotland, by Elizabeth Cumming, Birlinn, £25. PANEL BEATER: The Victory (18991902), part of an embroidered draughtscreen entitled The Progress of the Soul by Phoebe Anna Traquair