Saturday, 8 December 2012

Arts and Crafts

Often regarded as the forerunner of the Art Nouveau movement, Arts and Crafts originated in Britain toward the end of the 19th century, running concurrently with mainstream Edwardian tastes. It emphasized an idealized handcraft, often naive and made by untrained hands using humble tools and non-precious materials. The influence of its stylistic ideals had a strong and long-lasting effect well into the 1920s. 

John Ruskin (1819-1900) laid down the main principles of the movement, and his belief that the industrial world could not produce works of art, only poorly made mass-produced goods, inspired William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones, among others. Ruskin also believed in cooperative guilds, or workshops, as the ideal working environment. 

Murrle, Bennett & Co. Pendant, 1904
Jewelry was an important expression of the Arts and Crafts movement, and there were many fine exponents of the field. Indisputably, C. R. Ash bee (1863-1942) was the leader, setting up his School and Guild of Handicrafts in London in 1888.

One of the guiding principles of the Arts and Crafts movement in the production of jewelry was the emphasis on non-specialization in individual skills within the trade, relying upon a more holistic approach. Unfortunately, this led to poorly made pieces, which were seen as generally dull and old-fashioned, and so did not sell. The Arts-and-Crafts style may be well known today, but it did not take off at all at the time, people in fact preferring the mass-produced articles. Now, of course, collectors clamor for the individually handmade items, and pay fine prices too.

Murrle, Bennett & Co. Pendant, 1904 

This pendant by Merle, Bennett & Co. is very much in the Liberty style. While the firm produced jewelry in their own very distinctive style, they also produced what were once thought to be Liberty “copies", such as the pendant illustrated below. In fact, research has suggested that Merle, Bennett & Co. actually made this "Liberty “style of piece before Liberty did and sold them to the Liberty shop, which went on to sell them very successfully. There is a great deal of confusion about the origins of some designs, especially when one considers Knox's Cymric work, but it appears that there was a free flow of ideas and designs between firms and designers, and hence an overlap of styles naturally occurred.

Art and Crafts Pendant, late-19th century 

One can immediately see the difference in quality between the Murrle, Bennett & Co. piece opposite and this piece. The maker of this exceptional piece is not confirmed but it is very much in the style of the Birmingham School, perhaps by Arthur Gaskin (1862-1928), or possibly by Ash bee of the Liberty group. I would like to think, however, that it is by Sarah Martineau at the height of the suffragette movement, because it incorporates its colors of mauve, white, and green - if so it was probably an individual commission.

Arts and Crafts Materials 

Arts and Crafts jewelers shunned precious materials, and used less glamorous materials and semi-precious stones instead. The materials were altered as little as possible, allowing their natural state to be displayed, so diamonds were rarely used and only as uncut stones. Turquoise, mother of pearl, and baroque pearls were popular, along with the favorite stones of the Renaissance jewelers: amethyst and garnet. They were rarely faceted, but instead were set in such a way as to show their natural flaws and textures. Enamel is probably the material most strongly associated with Arts and Crafts; the necessarily hand-made nature of the process saw enameling become the preserve of the movement. Jewelers such as Alexander Fisher (1864-1936) and Nelson Dawson (1859-1942) were its leading proponents.

Although in England the Arts and Crafts movement appears to merge with Art Nouveau, one can distinguish between the two on the basis of production methods: pieces from the former should be completely handmade. 

Liberty and Co. employed many Arts and Crafts designers, the most famous of whom was Archibald Knox (1864-1933). He inspired the Celtic Revival for which Liberty jewelry and other lines became so well known. 

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