English Art and English Rubbish

Peter Campbell

  • C.R. Ashbee: Architect, Designer and Romantic Socialist by Alan Crawford
    Yale, 500 pp, £35.00, November 1985, ISBN 0 300 03467 9
  • The Laughter and the Urn: The Life of Rex Whistler by Laurence Whistler
    Weidenfeld, 321 pp, £14.95, October 1985, ISBN 0 297 78603 2
  • The Originality of Thomas Jones by Lawrence Gowing
    Thames and Hudson, 64 pp, £4.95, February 1986, ISBN 0 500 55017 4
  • Art beyond the Gallery in Early 20th-century England by Richard Cork
    Yale, 332 pp, £40.00, April 1985, ISBN 0 300 03236 6
  • Alfred Gilbert by Richard Dorment
    Yale, 350 pp, £9.95, March 1986, ISBN 0 300 03388 5

In England, where the opposite can easily seem to be the case, there is always someone around to say that the visual arts matter. Not just that they are life-enhancing or give pleasure, but that they are a test of the health of a society. Bad art means bad lives are being lived. Good policies will be known by the art they encourage. The works C.R. Ashbee is remembered for – a couple of original if slightly awkward houses in Chelsea, some pretty silver and jewellery of an almost Art Nouveau sinuousness, some indifferent private press books – would not by themselves have warranted a book on the scale of Alan Crawford’s admirable biography. It is Ashbee’s attempts to give practical expression to the idea that art matters that make Crawford’s apology for a book ‘more ponderous than its subject deserves’ unnecessary.

Ashbee’s ideas were a legacy of Ruskin and Morris: the Ruskin who could write of a little girl he saw in ill-fitting hand-me-downs when he was lecturing in Oxford that ‘nothing spoken about art’ could be ‘of the least use’ to anyone in his audience. ‘For their primary business, and mine, was with art in Oxford, now; not with art in Florence, then; and art in Oxford now was absolutely dependent on our power of solving the question – which I know that my audience would not even allow to be proposed for solution – “Why have our little girls large shoes?” ’ Ruskin’s genius for expression and almost insane intensity and acuity of perception were a poor basis for discrimination, let alone action. Even if his manner had been effective, the change in scale from his cosmic vision to the politics of arts and crafts as represented by Ashbee would be a little comical.

Crawford sees the difference between Ruskin and Ashbee in terms of English sentimentality: ‘the stark challenge which Ruskin and Morris issued was softened by a quirk of British culture: by the fact that the country where the industrial revolution began was still half in love with other and older ways of life ... it was the Romantic image of villages and fields and yeoman stock which excited national pride. The Arts and Crafts Movement was as much a product of this cosy, popular anti-industrialism as of Ruskin’s searing insights and Morris’s courageous logic’ The Arts and Crafts solution did not convince Morris himself. His response to Ashbee’s request to support a guild and School of Handicraft in the East End is recorded in Ashbee’s diary: ‘William Morris and a great deal of cold water ... he says it is useless, that I am going to do a thing with no basis to do it on ... “Look I am going to forge a weapon for you; and thus I too work with you in the overthrow of Society.” To which he replied: “The weapon is too small to be of any value.” ’

Ashbee’s experiments, from the workshops of the Guild of Handicraft to town-planning in Jerusalem, showed, as no theoretical writing of his or anyone else’s could, the limits of what ‘romantic socialism’ could achieve. They were not limits he admitted. Crawford’s final image – ‘The high brow and the little beard, the unquenchable idealism ... old, a little feeble, but undaunted’ – takes one back to the account of Ashbee at Cambridge: ‘Those “isms” with which he was so taken up ... Ruskinism, transcendentalism, socialism, became the starting-point for practical experiments; they were first principles, and they stood almost unchanged throughout his career.’

He was born in 1863. His mother was the daughter of Charles Lavy, a prosperous Hamburg merchant who had set his son-in-law up in business in London. She was ‘perhaps the deepest and sometimes the most difficult love of his life’. His father is now best known for his collection of erotica: his bibliographies – Notes on Curious and Uncommon Books – are still the closest thing to a standard work on the subject. He seems to have been an affectionate parent, but a heavy one: it was the assumption of male dominance in family life that Ashbee found most unattractive in his father. Young Ashbee went to Wellington, where he later indicated he had been unhappy, although the school records show him succeeding and conforming. After school, refusing to enter the family firm, he went to Cambridge. He was very happy there: ‘only the best and simplest metaphors are appropriate to this stage of his life,’ Crawford says, and goes on to speak of ‘an awakening, a flowering’.

At Cambridge he began that habit of practical philanthropy which was both a virtue and an indulgence for someone who found Edward Carpenter’s ‘ideal of comradeship among simple honest ordinary lives’ so attractive. He left Cambridge and began to lecture and teach. He was inspired, as Crawford puts it, by ‘a mixture of angry youthful idealism and of upper-class notions of duty tinged with panic’. Working on Carpenter’s farm, he wished he ‘could shake off this devilish gentility’. It was Carpenter who made him fully aware of his homosexuality, and who advised: ‘get to know the people – you will never understand yourself or your work till you do.’

Apprehensive about ‘top-hatty philanthropy’, Ashbee went to the East End, to Toynbee Hall. ‘There are some splendid men here,’ he wrote in 1886, ‘and a great deal of unostentatious heroism.’ It was here that plans for putting Ruskin into practice took shape: a school and workshop where the teachers would work in the shop and recruit the pupils to it. The School and Guild of Handicraft was opened in 1888 in a rented workshop in Commercial Street. The moment was opportune. Philanthropically, because money was available – riots had made social issues a fashionable anxiety. Educationally, because the moment was ripe to break the ‘South Kensington’ mode of finely-detailed drawings, and to develop the practical side of craft. Commercially, because there was a market for craft work among both architects and the general public. ‘As an architect myself,’ Ashbee wrote, ‘I can testify to the need for such work.’ Although Ashbee was not alone in starting a craft guild, its organisation, an intricate co-operative where notions of profit were less important than those of emotional involvement, was unusual in the context of the craft movement. Ashbee’s aim was to make ‘the bulwarks of real love so strong in our men and boys that no castrated affection shall dare face it’. When the school closed in 1895 it seemed to many a consequence of the very values which Ashbee saw as being at the centre of his enterprise. ‘Weapons taken up in hope,’ Crawford says, ‘were always turned against him.’

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