o enjoy good houses and good books in self respect and decent comfort, seems to me to be the pleasurable end towards which all human beings ought now to struggle,” wrote William Morris more than a century ago. His ideas about making the home central to our artistic expression, turning them into havens where everything is beautiful, useful and convivial, have a lot to answer for.
If, as a nation, we are a little house-proud and propertyobsessed, then we are nothing compared to Morris and other members of the Arts and Crafts movement who spent their lives exalting the sanctity of the home. Oscar Wilde summed it up in his lecture on “The House Beautiful” in 1884. “Do not use anything which you do not know to be a pleasure to yourself and which you do not believe was a pleasure to the workman who made it.”
The legacy is still with us, as Antonia Harrison, curator of the Compton Verney art gallery in Warwickshire, demonstrates in a new exhibition, The Arts and Crafts House: Then and Now, opening at the end of this month. “Contemporary homemakers are as keen on ideas of sustainability and they are looking at the use of materials and vernacular styles in the same way,” she says. “With Arts and Crafts there was such a fascinating mix of architecture, design and socialism. I have become completely hooked on it.”
For the exhibition she has pulled together plans, textiles, embroidery, wallpaper, furniture and restoration stories. It begins with the fathers of the movement John Ruskin and Morris, moves on to Sir Edwin Lutyens and his work with the garden designer Gertrude Jekyll (whom he called “Bumps”), then to Baillie Scott and CFA Voysey, and digs deep into the interiors of Morris’s Red House. It fills seven rooms.
The Arts and Crafts movement evolved as a reaction against the industrial age and its attendant degrading poverty and mechanisation which severed people from their rural past and valuable old skills. “These days the parallel is the digital age,” says Antonia. “We still try to escape to the country but, like the Arts and Crafts movement, we find that we need the cities as places to earn money and places in which to sell the products.”
Prize pieces in the exhibition include Morris’s first embroidery, called “If I can”, with his first use of his favourite bird motif. “We have a ladderback chair made by Philip Clisset, a Morris & Co Sussex chair, and a settle by Ernest Barnsley,” says Antonia. “We also have Morris’s first two wallpaper designs, Trellis and Daisy, and designs by Voysey showing the magical hyperreal side to nature which he loved.” There are modern pieces, too, such as Sebastian Cox’s Getting Away From It All work-pod and Dan Pearson’s wild flower meadow inspired by Morris’s work.
In his early 20s Morris, newly married to the stableman’s daughter and Pre-Raphaelite beauty Jane Burden, set off to live in Bexleyheath where Philip Webb had designed Red House for him. It was made of brick and tile, with steep pitched roofs, a staircase tower and a well, and it had touches of the medieval about it. Morris and his friends gathered and made everything themselves from the furniture to the candlesticks and wall paintings. Dante Gabriel Rossetti described it as “more a poem than a house”.
The friends then set up Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co to carry on making simple furniture, hand-blocked wallpapers and embroidered panels, and their huge influence on national taste began. It was, as Walter Crane (whose wallpapers are kept by the V&A), described it, “a revival of the medieval spirit in design; a return to simplicity, to sincerity; to good materials and sound workmanship; to rich and suggestive surface decoration, and simple constructive forms”.
So it began with Red House (now in the hands of the National Trust) and spread through many houses across the country, celebrating the old pastoral way of life, delighting in the use of local materials, reviving old crafts, rediscovering what they thought of as “real England”. The Cotswolds became a country headquarters when CR Ashbee and his Guild of Handicraft moved in 1902 from London’s East End to Chipping Campden, where they set up their workshops and worked, ate, sang and romped together.
Architects such as Ernest Gimson and Sidney Barnsley followed and settled there too, which is why so many houses there have been reworked in the Arts and Crafts style. Barnsley built Beechanger in the village of Sapperton without the use of machinery at all. And Morris famously rented Kelmscott, near Lechlade, where Jane and Rossetti indulged in a long affair. It is now open to the public and has lent pieces for the exhibition.
Kingcombe in Chipping Campden is a star Arts and Crafts house currently for sale. Built by the furniture-maker Sir Gordon Russell in 1925 with gardens by Sir Geoffrey Jellicoe and Russell Page, its ponds and swimming pool are fed by natural springs. Smiths Gore (01451 832832; smithsgore.co. uk) and Savills (020 7016 3780; savills.co.uk) are asking £4.25m.
Nearby Court Barn Museum is dedicated to celebrating the furniture makers, silversmiths and potters who moved here to create their idea of Camelot.
Suzie Norris-Reeves and her husband David bought their house in Hampshire’s Meon Valley because they were hugely attracted to the Arts and Crafts details. Suzie runs the fashion school at Southampton Solent University and recognised the hand of a master in the fireplaces and decorated walls. “The house was reworked by Christopher Hatton Turnor who was apprenticed to Lutyens in 1902. He later designed the Watts Gallery near Guildford, which featured prominently in the TV series Restoration Village.”
She brings her students to learn from it. “We have a front door made of lead similar to the one in the Watts Gallery. Inside we have lots of plates and blue-andwhite Delft tiles set in the walls, and a fantastic original fireplace in the dining room with wooden fretwork and oak pillars around it.” Suzie is now splitting the 14bedroom house in two and selling one half through Jackson-Stops & Staff (01962 844299; jacksonstops.co.uk) for £995,000. She has renamed it Hatton Turnor House. “Let us keep his name alive,” she says, “because what he did was important.”
The Arts and Crafts House: Then and Now is at Compton Verney House, Warwickshire (comptonverney.org.uk), June 27-September 13. It transfers to the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle
Star: Kingcombe, top, is an Arts and Crafts house inspired by William Morris, above. Top right: CFA Voysey’s nursery chintz, from the Compton Verney exhibition