Masters of their craft

Be­yond Ren­nie Mack­in­tosh lies a host of arts and crafts stars, finds Shirley Whiteside

The Herald - Arts - - Books -

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

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