Noble craftsmen and nice sofas

The Arts and Crafts Companion
November 19, 2004

Design history has been a growth area since the 1970s. But as the academic subject has flourished, so too has its popular doppelganger, style history.

With one foot in design history and the other in the homes and gardens market, style history packages the look of the past in easy-to-swallow chunks.

It is probably fair to say that the publishers of The Arts and Crafts Companion see this as a book for the style market, albeit one that expects an element of serious history for £29.95. The back cover promises a Habitat-like content: "Architecture. Furniture. Soft furnishings. Glass & Lighting". The cover flap points out that "the ideals of the Arts and Crafts movement continue to have relevance for the modern-day homeowner". It also describes the Arts and Crafts style as "instantly recognisable" and herein lies one of the book's problems. At heart, the Arts and Crafts movement was less a style and more a set of values that found expression over a long period. Furthermore, its values were so rooted in its context - that late Victorian revulsion against the evils of laissez faire capitalism - that treating its visual characteristics as easily transferable to today's homeowners rather misses the point.

Pamela Todd certainly acknowledges the historical context and starts her book with a chapter on the movement's philosophy and background. However, she exacerbates the problem of defining the style by spreading her net wide and including, under the banner of Arts and Crafts, virtually all the star names of Victorian art and design. A "who was who" chapter includes Augustus Pugin; Owen Jones, whose Grammar of Ornament exemplified the copying culture that the movement was reacting against; and Charles Rennie Mackintosh, purveyor of Art Nouveau, a style loathed by the movement's hard-line disciples. Walter Crane, for one, would have deplored the choice of cover image, which represents the Arts and Crafts movement with a Mackintosh pink enamel panel.

Todd's book is actually a companion to late Victorian and early 20th-century Anglo-American designers, and as such it is a workmanlike if eclectic summary. There are potted biographies, a sensible bibliography and the text is readable. As is inevitable with overviews, the author is not wholly comfortable in all the areas discussed: glass and ceramics are weak; architecture and furniture more robust. One useful aspect is the addition of American designers and firms into a story that is usually told as an essentially English tale.

The book's most unsatisfactory aspect remains its overall scope. Alongside the surprising inclusions there are omissions: no Gordon Russell, Frank Pick or Harry Powell; a chapter on Arts and Crafts gardens but not on Arts and Crafts dress. America is well represented but not the Japanese folk arts movement, which by all accounts will feature strongly in the Victoria and Albert Museum's forthcoming Arts and Crafts exhibition.

The 300 sumptuous images include some less familiar, and therefore more interesting, things. But the images also underline the difficulty of squeezing the Arts and Crafts movement into the broad chunks of style history. What, readers may wonder, is the family likeness that links the adjustable chair designed by Philip Webb in 1866 and Baillie Scott's oak settle of 1901? Both are from the Arts and Crafts movement but visually they are almost as far apart as a horse and a motor car.

Cathy Ross is head of later London history, Museum of London.

The Arts and Crafts Companion

Author - Pamela Todd
Publisher - Thames and Hudson
Pages - 320
Price - £29.95
ISBN - 0 500 51160 8

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