Critical Histories of the Arts and Crafts Movement

The Arts and Crafts movement has long-been hailed for the radical shifts it generated and realised in artmaking and culture with its critique of the conditions and value of labour, design and ornament reforms, promotion of “truth” to materials, association with socialist politics, provision of new opportunities for women art- and craft-workers, and alignment with early-green thought.

Despite numerous publications on the Arts and Crafts movement, conventional narratives of the movement are routinely celebratory and remain critically underdeveloped. This session invited papers to propose new, critical analyses of the Arts and Crafts movement, and to consider aspects of the following questions. How might we interrogate the complexities and contradictions of the movement’s principles, in theory and practice? How can we re-frame the movement’s received demise in the 1910s and examine its legacies from the 1920s onwards? How might we re-write the intertwined histories of Arts and Crafts and strands of Modernism? How can we tell new histories of the movement through LGBTQ+ and BAME artists, designers, craftspeople? How might we examine the history of the movement through decolonial and critical race lenses, and consider its relationship with empire, global trade and colonial resource extraction? And how can we push the geographical parameters of existing scholarship beyond Europe, the United States of America, and Japan, to consider Arts and Crafts in colonial territories and the Global South?

Session Convenor: 

Thomas Cooper, University of Cambridge 


Imogen Hart, Independent Scholar 

‘Of the racial influence in design’: race and different in the English Arts and Crafts Movement 

This paper argues that under-examined racial ideologies have shaped the English Arts and Crafts movement and its legacies. The paper is structured around three questions. First, when was race explicitly discussed in the movement? Analyzing the use of the word ‘race’ by several figures associated with the movement, including Walter Crane, J. D. Sedding and W. A. S. Benson, I explore what the term may have meant for these authors and their readers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. I consider these texts in the context of contemporary ideas about nation, culture and evolutionary theory. Secondly, where is race implicit in Arts and Crafts design theory and practice? Drawing on critical race theory, I demonstrate that assumptions about race are present even in texts that do not mention the word and in both figurative and abstract objects. Finally, how would we begin to tell a new story of the movement that acknowledges the explicit and implicit presence of race in Arts and Crafts discourse? I argue that the English Arts and Crafts movement participates in the construction of Whiteness and suggest that an important task for a critical history of the movement and its legacies is to name its Whiteness. I re-evaluate the primitivism and nationalism of the movement in the context of race and explore how ideas about race are embedded in the Arts and Crafts ideals of craft, labour and the unity of the arts. 

Charlotte Ashby, Birkbeck, University of London 

Chinese Porcelain in British Arts and Crafts Discourse around 1900  

This paper will explore the ambiguous position of Chinese ceramics in British Arts and Crafts discourse around 1900. Paralleling the complexities and contradictions of Britain’s semi-colonial relationship with China, the reception of Chinese ceramics, principally porcelain, was multivalent. Ubiquitous in the British home since the 18th century, Chinese porcelain were highly visible but subject of multiple forms of engagement. ‘Chinese style’ was one of many pseudo-artistic styles criticised by theorists like Ashbee and Crane. At the same time, the technical mastery of Chinese glazes was an object of close study and admiration for the Arts and Craft potter, the design reformer and the collector. In all this, the Chinese craftsperson remained curiously absent, unknowable and relegated to an impenetrable past, with none of the autonomy ascribed to the mediaeval craftsmen.  

Through an analysis of the representation of Chinese ceramics in British art periodicals, such as The Studio, and the growing body of specialist publications, it is possible to trace the uneasy construction of a relationship in which Chinese crafts were simultaneously admired and denigrated. In the twentieth century, as the British presence in China became more established, multiple efforts are made to impose order and rigour on the relationship with Chinese art. The whole process was enmeshed in a transnational networks that stretched across Europe, America, Japan and China, often overlapping with and overshadowed by Japanist networks. Despite these attempts to secure the relationship to China on the basis of scientific imperialism, the discourse echoes with failure as Chinese makers, knowledge and objects elude the writers’ grasp.  

Lotte Crawford, Arts University Bournemouth 

‘Glances which flash’ in the Darkness: Eroticism in the Sapphic Modern  

My research is concerned with a network of British artist-craftswomen whose textile and painterly practices of the 1880s and 1910s responded to their ethnographic observations, documentation and collections of arts and crafts from India and Sri Lanka.  

This paper explores erotic mutations of Arts and Crafts ideals developed by a community of British women through their imperial encounters in the Indian subcontinent. I will examine multiple acts of transcultural translation contained within a folio of writings, paintings and drawings of the fifth-century Buddhist Ajanta Caves, India. Sensual drawings and paintings were made between 1909 and 1911 by the copiest Lady Christiana Herringham (1852–1929) and textile artist Dorothy Larcher (1884–1952).  

Through Herringham and Larcher’s imagined Ajanta, I will interrogate the ways in which legacies of nineteenth century British imperial, erotic and homosexual contexts are made visible and troubled by queer women’s modern art. This paper primarily focuses on their writings and artistic depictions of nude women taken from wall-paintings of the Jātakas (the lives of Gautama Buddha). I will explore the ways in which their interpretive ‘tracings’ of the original cave walls reveal connections between imperialism, sexuality, enchantment and self-reflection.  

By exploring queer and imperial ways of seeing through comparative approaches to aesthetics and literature, I will reveal wholly unexplored connections between British artists united by their colonial engagement with the arts of South Asia. Ultimately, I wish to demonstrate the instrumentality of arts of the subcontinent and queer networks to the development of British women’s modern art in the early twentieth century. 

Emma C. Wingfield,  Lecturer, University of the Arts London, and Doctoral Researcher, Goldsmiths University of London. 

Crafting Motif: Indigenous Textile Design and Contemporary Arts and Crafts Industry 

The rural village of Waraniéné in northern Côte d’Ivoire has produced handwoven cloth by Dioula weavers for over a century. Beginning as individual craftspeople for hire, the weavers formally incorporated in the immediate postcolonial period under government and NGO development initiatives targeting arts and crafts industries. The early twenty-first century saw the local craftspeople navigate continued influence from colonial/postcolonial systems, intensified global trade, and socio-economic conflicts that become interwoven into the fabric’s history and at times pushed local craftsmanship to conform to the global North’s notions of “African” textiles. The craft continued to exist because of local weaver innovation while simultaneously combating global appropriation that often upholds static classification and labels that obscure the changing realities and designs of this dynamic industry. The textile itself becoming a physical archive of its own history and design innovation through the replication of motif. This paper will investigate weaving at Waraniéné as an opportunity to explore Indigenous textile production and design as a contemporary craft industry that balances creative visions of the weaver rather than as a postcolonial commercial construction. It directly challenges western hierarchical notions of the arts and crafts movement and opposes the variance between these two dichotomies within the global market. The Dioula word for weaver at Waraniéné is kpêrê dan baga, which translates to the person who uses the loom. The definition itself emphasizing the agency of the craftsperson embodies when entering the space of the loom, advancing the mastery of craft within global creative visions.  

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