Charles Ashbee – C.R.A., as he asked to be called – must be counted as a successful man. He was an architect whose houses stood up, a designer whose work has always been appreciated, a homosexual who in his fifties became – almost absent-mindedly, it seems – the father of four daughters, and a dreamer who, by founding the Guild of Handicrafts, put his ideals into practice and then kept them going for twenty years. He has not many competitors there.
For a complete view of this much-loved, offensively beautiful, tactless, irritating, unknowable man – unknowable in spite of his frank gaze – we have to wait for the family biography and for the definitive study by Alan Crawford. Meanwhile Fiona MacCarthy has written The Simple Life, an excellent introduction to C.R.A. and his most ambitious experiment. This was the Great Move of 1902, when he led his band of 150 craftsmen from the East End of London to an unknown land, Chipping Campden in the Cotswolds. In the picturesque and then half-decaying little town he envisaged workshops and kitchen gardens for his cabinet-makers, jewellers, blacksmiths, weavers and printers. He had already written an inspirational book for his apprentices, From Whitechapel to Camelot. Even more courageously, he took the foremen down to look at Campden in November, though he does appear to have given them plenty to drink. Then, as a socialist, he took a poll – one man, one vote. One of the apprentices walked eight miles through the snow to bring Ashbee the result. It is interesting to learn that the cabinet-makers, the most unionised of all the workshops, were decisively in favour of the Move.
C.R.A. was born in 1863, the son of Henry Spencer Ashbee, a wealthy businessman and bibliophile and, as his granddaughter has pointed out to me, a serious pornographer. The mother was from a good Hamburg Jewish family, of the kind that in every generation produces a sensitive aesthete to plague them. C.R.A. refused to enter the business, and is said to have been cut off with £1000. At Cambridge, where his closest friends were Roger Fry and Lowes Dickinson, he was passionately open to influences, as to the winds that blow. In 1886, Edward Carpenter came on a visit, and ‘after supper we had a delightful walk through the green cornfields in the afterglow. He unfolded to me a wonderful idea of his of a new freemasonry, a comradeship in the life of men which might be based on our little Cambridge of friendships. Are we to be the nucleus out of which the new Society is to be organised?’ Deeply impressive were the sage’s words about the simple life, and, apparently as part of it, the ‘homogenic force’ which transformed homosexual love into an energy which would redeem society. Carpenter was Ashbee’s man, though the Guild, of course, was inspired by William Morris. This was in spite of the fact that Morris had thrown ‘a deal of cold water’ on the idea: for him, by that time, nothing would do short of revolution. But undoubtedly Ashbee had shown the Lamp of Sacrifice. He could perfectly well have salved his conscience in his high-minded practice as an architect. Instead of this, he set out with his men for the Promised Land.
His mission was not so much to revive traditional crafts – that had been done already. It was to restore the workers’ birthright of fresh air – as Fiona MacCarthy points out, his role was ‘close to the Garden City prophets’ – and to spread the gospel of joyous work. The likeminded Romney Green once said that if you leave any man alone with a block of wood and a chisel, he will start rounding off the corners. Ashbee’s trust, in defiance or perhaps in place of experience, had this quality. And what was more, leave him alone with any group of craftsmen and he would have them singing glees or producing an Elizabethan play, or giving readings from Carpenter and Ruskin.
The New Life in the Cotswolds had three golden summers, with all the workshops commanding good prices, then a decline, and by 1908 it had foundered. Mismanagement perhaps, and unfair competition from Liberty’s and other commercial semi-mechanised craft enterprises. But C.R.A. blamed society, which had not seen fit to support his great experiment. Bitterest of all to him was the dismantling of the print shops, which he had taken over, together with Morris’s honourable grumbling old socialist foreman, from the Kelmscott Press. But his optimism survived: so, too, did his cantankerousness. In 1918 he was appointed Civic Adviser to the British Military Governor in Jerusalem, with responsibility for planning both the old and the new cities. But he did not last long in the job. He disliked being told what to do, and his sympathies were inconveniently with the Arabs.
In preparing her book, Fiona MacCarthy has found plenty of original material. The main sources are the diaries of Ashbee and his wife – for, against all expectations, C.R.A. married a young girl, Janet Forbes, who took swimmingly to the Simple Life and the awkward position of ‘comrade wife’ among the many ‘comrade friends’. We are told that she called her husband ‘Dear Lad’. Ashbee’s journals were meant to be edited, and he did edit them, all 44 volumes; Janet’s entries are in a different key, full of spirit and bounce.
Both their points of view are reconstructed here with skill and delicacy. Then there is the view of Chipping Campden itself. A long drama began when the local gentry, the vicar, the Parish Council and the cottagers heard that a hundred and fifty crazed socialists were expected from London. Even more unsettling were the visitors, for C.R.A. was determined to show his experiment to the world. Teachers, lecturers and American well-wishers poured in, tourists came with the swallows and buttercups. Laurence Housman and Masefield came and wrote folk-ballads; the Webbs came, and C.R.A. sang ‘Widdecombe Fair’ to them ‘in a singularly sweet tenor voice’, beginning: ‘Mrs Webb, will you lend me thy grey mare?’ Yet in four years’ time the Guild and even its new experiments in rural education were acceptable to and accepted by Campden. Perhaps only someone as high-handed as C.R.A. could have seen it through. That might stand as his greatest achievement.
It should be added that Ashbee, unlike most of his fellow dreamers of dreams, ran his Guild as a genuine profit-sharing co-operative. But his temperament never allowed him to face, as Morris did, the great tormenting paradoxes of his position. How can nostalgia for an imagined past be reconciled with an unimaginable future, a future whose news is from nowhere? Morris himself, across the supper table, had told him ‘the thing is this, if we had our Revolution to-morrow, what should we socialists do the day after? ... We should all be hanged because we are promising the people more than we can give them!’ Ashbee does not seem to have understood. Again, how can the Romantic solution, which must be total, and therefore boundless and free, be realised through constant restrictions – so much machinery and no more, so much comfort and no more, the Simple Life? Even more obtrusive was the absurdity of selling simplicity only to wealthy patrons. This difficulty C.R.A. avoided, at first by thinking as little as he could about them, while involving them in considerable expense by allowing his craftsmen ‘to do the job well and take their time’. Later he showed a certain indulgence towards the beauty-loving people of the world and in particular towards the ‘British aristocratic’.
The Simple Life can’t, in its eight chapters, discuss these questions at length, nor does it make clear how far Ashbee supervised or even dictated the designs which the Guild workshops produced. But the book maintains an expert balance between C.R.A’s career, the movement he represented, and his private life. It is easy to accuse him of the bad habits of faith and hope. To treat him ironically is even easier, and seems consoling. But Fiona MacCarthy, although she has a keen sense of humour, is always just. For example, in describing his eccentric choice of Guildsmen – one of them was ‘called’ from a cat’s-meat barrow – she writes: ‘His ideal method of selection (and who has found one better?) was to grasp the man’s hand to see what mettle he was made of, simultaneously gazing searchingly into his eyes ... The making of the object and the making of the man went together, as he frequently explained to anyone who cared to listen to him.’ All the ridiculous and the sublime of C.R.A. are there.
The book is well illustrated and designed, though the footnotes are so confusingly arranged that Morris would certainly have thrown it out of the window, and Ashbee would have given one of those deep reproachful sighs which worked wonders.
Philip Mairet, whose letters and autobiographical notes have now been collected and published, was one of C.R.A.’s young assistants at the end of the Campden period. He worked as a draughtsman and general dogsbody, too entranced to notice the Guild’s economic decline. Campden, he wrote, ‘gave us something comparable to the years at an old University, which none of us had been privileged to enjoy’. Very much in the spirit of the place, he was drawn by ‘a profound affinity’ to an artistic woman much older than himself, the wife of a visiting Eurasian philosopher, Dr Coomaraswamy. When at length they were able to marry, it was with ‘a pale gold wedding ring made for us at Campden’, and a meal in a vegetarian restaurant at sixpence a head. This was the Simple Life in passionate action.
Mairet was the son of a Swiss watchmaker settled in London. In later years he acted at the Old Vic, worked as a farm labourer, was imprisoned as a conscientious objector, became a ‘trusted pupil’ of Adler, then took to journalism and succeeded Orage as editor of the New English Weekly. The impression given is not of a man who couldn’t settle, but of someone passionately interested in everything. In his old age he turned to, or was drawn to, the study of Christian philosophy, which absorbed him totally. He died in 1975, in the middle of writing one of his innumerable letters.
Mairet’s papers have been collected by his friends, and they are introduced, with a char acteristic touch of dry affection, by C.H. Sisson. More might have been said, I think, about Mairet’s draughtsmanship, which can be judged by his fine illustrations to Ashbee’s Modern English Silverwork. But Sisson presents him as a rare, even extraordinary human being, ‘conscious of the deep currents under the affairs of the century’, and, at the end, as much at home with death as with life.
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