“The importance of good design and handicraft cannot be exaggerated, for upon their health depends the health of all art whatsoever; and the test of the conditions of the arts in any age must be sought in those crafts of design which minister to the daily life and common enjoyment of humanity.” (Crane, W. 1892)
As the quote implies this essay will be dealing with art, design and craftsmanship. Not art or design in general but with one particular movement, the Arts and Crafts Movement, which during a time of great change, when many craftsmen began to feel threatened by the doom of the industrial revolution and tried to revive the roots of their work; when artists and workers tried to combine their artistic skills with their handicraft abilities to create a world of quality human work supplying valuable goods with aesthetic value. It is not only about the artistic contributions of the movement but also about the distinctive political ideologies influencing and underlying the history of it. In particular it deals with the life, carrier, art work and influence of one of the great men of this period, Walter Crane. It deals with one of the artists who best represents the atmosphere of the time; and presents my view of this particular artist as an important part and contributor to the overall art movement.
The Arts and Crafts
In the 1860s’ Great Britain an outspoken minority became more and more dissatisfied with the public taste and decline of craftsmanship brought by the Industrial Revolution and slowly began to form into an opposing art movement, which we nowadays know as the Arts and Crafts Movement. One outstanding figures from the beginning was William Morris (1834-1896), who was a writer and artist, by many considered the founding father of arts and crafts. He found his inspiration in the works of John Ruskin (1819-1900), who blamed the machine of being the source of many of those days’ social ills. A healthy society, on the other hand, had to be built on skilled and creative craftsmen; a skilled workforce. Later on, when the movement grew and many societies, groups or communities were formed, some argued about the role of the machine in a craftsmen’s life. Should it be rejected completely? Many tried to find a way, a compromise how to master the machine while not becoming its slave.
The British Arts and Crafts Movement tried to revive the traditional craft techniques found in the countryside but rapidly declining as the industrial era emerged. Many artists, designers and craftsmen traveled to rural areas trying to maintain traditions in crafts. Arts and Crafts rebelled against mass-production producing bad-quality/bad-design goods (Jirousek, 1995). To emphasize the non-machine, human aspect of their works, many products were left slightly unfinished, thus giving them a feel of a human touch.
One should not forget that the political aspect of Arts and Crafts Movement was one of the most important characteristics of the movement. William Morrison himself later in his carrier diminished his artistic output and gave himself completely to the socialist cause. Many artists, like William Morris or Walter Crane, were directly involved in spreading socialist propaganda by creating pamphlets, banners, writing books, and generally spreading the word about the socialist cause. These political beliefs can be traced back to the works of J. Ruskin and his social critiques; healing a nation through quality craftsmanship.
The purpose of art was a moral purpose – art for everyone, made by humans, every piece of work done with sweat, blood and tears. The movement did not only have a political background and it was not simply a rebellion against mass-production; the overall design went against formerly used designs and art techniques as well. As already said the movement involved many different areas of craftsmanship, including architecture, furniture making, decorative arts, home design and more. The design found its inspiration in fauna, flora and the countryside, revival of old techniques and medieval designs. Many of these aspects and characteristics of the era can be found in the lifelong artistic accomplishments of Walter Crane.
Crane, one of the most influential artists of his age, and certainly one of the best representatives of England’s late 19th century Arts and Crafts Movement, was born August 15, 1845 in Liverpool, as the second son of Thomas Crane (1808-1859), a portrait painter and miniaturist. Since his early childhood Crane had the best opportunities to develop his artistic gifts and skills under the guidance of his father, who very early discovered the steady eye, crafted hands and the creative mind of his young son, fueling his talents with art history education, visits to galleries, interest in the countryside, animals and many more (Working Class Movement Library, 2009).
In the year his father died, Walter Crane became an apprentice of a wood engraver, William James Linton (1812-1898), after already having his early works shown to John Ruskin and passing with approval, he spent three years working for Linton – drawing for the block, making vignettes and sketches for advertising cuts – a great chance for a young man to find his inspiration in the works of contemporary artists passing through his hands. The three year period stretching from 1859 to 1862 was one of the most important developments of his artistic life. As he himself later referred to it in his pocket book as “one of the most important events of my life,”(Working Class Movement Library, 2009). Linton liked Crane’s work to such an extent that he helped him to find commissions after his apprenticeship even though Crane put much effort into creating his own work connections as well.
According to Dobrowsky (2007) turning point of Walter Crane’s career was his introduction to the wood engraver and skilled color printer Edmund Evans (1826-1905) in 1863. After two years they started to work together on sixpenny toy-books for children, including nursery rhymes and fairy tales. The books quickly became popular and established Crane as one of the favorite children book illustrators in the country. They continued to publish these books throughout 1865 to 1876, during what time their techniques developed and changed. One of the obvious changes for example was the increased use of color, going from only red and blue illustrations to more colorful ones and using black not only for the key block but later for outlines as well. After publishing their last book of the series, The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood, Crane and Evans started a new book series mostly with English nursery rhymes and songs called The Baby Opera (fig.1; fig.2), followed by the Baby’s Bouquet and The Baby’s Own Æsop. Crane’s work for children continued mostly through late 1860s and 1870s. It was most influential since Crane managed to introduce a new method of illustration inspired by his studies of Japanese color prints. “Their treatment of definite black outline and flat brilliant as well as delicate colorsâ€¦ struck me at once, and I endeavored to apply these methods to the modern fanciful and humorous subjects of children’s toy-books and to the methods of wood-engraving and machine-printing.” (Crane, no date) His work after 1880 is largely referred to as his mature work – illustrations for adults, even though there were still some works for younger readers published clearly worth mentioning such as for example The Household Stories (fig.3; fig.4), a collection of the Grimm brothers’ fairy tales.
Great examples of his mature work are the so called Flower series books, beginning in 1888 with Flora’s Feast, followed in 1891 by Queen Summer (fig. 5; fig.6). Crane’s biggest accomplishment of the 1890s was illustrations for Edmund Spencer’s Faerie Queene; by many considered his “crowning achievement.” The varied work of his later carrier not only includes illustration but many other areas of interest, such as wallpaper design, textile work, pottery, tiles and glass. Many of the Arts and Crafts Movement’s artists were skilled in a multitude of craftsmanship subjects.
The amount of books published started to diminish in late 1880s, when Crane began to shift his attention to his political life, art theory (fig.7) and teaching. He established the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society in 1888, worked as a part-time director of design at the Manchester School of Art, and for a short time became the director of the Royal College of Art (Dobrowsky, 2007). Politically influenced by Linton already as an apprentice, Crane deepened his political views in the 1860s; he became a supporter of the Liberal Party and some of their more outstanding political figures. Many of his political involvements were inspired by William Morris, by his work, such as Art & Socialism, but by his friendship as well. According to Simkin (2010) Crane firstly met Morris in 1870 but they did not become close friends until 1881, just around the time Crane’s political involvement began to grow. During his carrier Crane produced many pamphlets (e.g. Morris’ pamphlets), leaflets, magazine covers, banners and posters promoting his political ideas. One of the more distinct characteristics of the Arts and Crafts Movement is its overarching share of political views and ideologies. It was a socialist movement and Crane was no different in it.
In December 1914 Crane’s wife was killed in a train accident; this event left Crane devastated and he died three months later in Horsham Hospital, on March 14, 1915. (Simkin, 2010)
My slight impression on Walter Crane’s life leads me to believe that he was, and in many ways still is, one of the most important and influential figures of his age. Choosing him over all the other artists of Arts and Crafts Movement for the subject of my essay came naturally to me since I am interested in drawing, painting and so illustration work and book design as well. All arts and crafts artists had to be skilled in their drawing techniques and generally in what they were doing but for me, he is standing out of the crowd for his lifelong commitment to work, his artistic achievements and influence upon others as well as the appealing illustrations he has done, thus coloring in many children’s fantasies, but also their parents’ libraries.
The Arts and Crafts Movement struggled against the growing industrial era, but could not stop it. And even though some of their ideals were never fulfilled – and most probably never will be – their legacy of using one’s hands to create and not a machine can be resourceful inspiration for contemporary artists. I find it interesting and inspirational, especially after a century passed and I do live in the machine world.
Walter Crane is for me a representation of the many things that the Arts and Crafts Movement stands for – original, skilled and highly developed craftsmanship, a personal, human attitude towards manufacturing goods, his socialist political views and involvements were in line with the general ideologies of the movement and certainly not last, his ability to create beauty.
This essay has given me a lot of new and valuable information about the covered subject, deepened my understanding of the Arts and Craft Movement and the general art scene of the late 19th century. I believe that there is still a vast area of study, which should be covered in my studies, so I hope my work will inspire me to broaden my research and continue in trying to better understand art history and all it encompasses, and so discover all the beauty of human creativity lying within.