Arts and Crafts Pioneers: Fitzroy, the Rhymers, Stewart Headlam and Oscar Wilde

Arts and Crafts Pioneers: Fitzroy, the Rhymers, Stewart Headlam and Oscar Wilde

In advance of the publication of Arts and Crafts Pioneers by Stuart Evans and Jean Liddiard, on 15th February, co-author Jean Liddiard provides us with some enticing extracts from the story of the Century Guild.
In this second of three instalments, she focuses on some of the book's most colourful characters... 

 Selwyn Image The Brownies stained glass window, designed for Soham House, Newmarket, Suffolk, c.1890. Made by James Powell & Sons. Image courtesy of the William Morris Gallery.


From 1889 the Century Guild’s base after Southampton Street was ‘Whiteladies’, no 20 Fitzroy Street– known as ‘Fitzroy’– an 18th-century house on four floors which Mackmurdo extended at the back with a studio. The glamour of the Fitzroy ménage amid the gloom of late Victorian London is memorably described by writers and artists who flocked there, among them author Victor Plarr, who recalled the February 1891 meeting:

The Rhymers held one memorable meeting in Mr Herbert Horne’s rooms in the Fitzroy Settlement. They were, then, so to speak, rediscovered and reconstituted, having previously been but a small group of Dublin poets. It was an evening of notabilities. Mr Walter Crane stood with his back to the mantelpiece, deciding, very kindly, on the merits of our effusions. And round Oscar Wilde, not then under a cloud, hovered reverently Lionel Johnson and Ernest Dowson, with others. This must have been in 1891, and I marvelled at the time to notice the fascination which poor Wilde exercised over the otherwise rational. He sat as it were enthroned – and surrounded by a deferential circle. Describing the scene from hearsay, my friend Mr Morley Roberts declared that Wilde wore a black shirt front and that Dowson and Johnson, small fairy creatures in white, climbed about upon it. Of the close of this meeting . . . the same brilliant weaver of fantasies declared that all the people present joined hands and whirled down the stairs like human catherine wheels, striking sparks as they went on the stone stairs, where to this day hang Professor Image’s fine cartoons of Saint Peter and other saints.’



HP Horne woodcut of Diana, from the Century Guild Hobby Horse, vol. 4, April 1889HP Horne tailpiece showing pair of finches singing in a gooseberry bush, from the series designed for the Century Guild Hobby Horse, vol. 3, June 1888, and vol. 7, July 1892.


HP Horne decorated tailpiece showing Matthew Arnold’s dachshund Geist, for the series designed for the Century Guild Hobby Horse, vol. 5, April 1890; Christopher Whall woodcut The Two Babes: A Midwinter Bucolic, the Century Guild Hobby Horse, vol. 4, Jan. 1889.
All four images courtesy of the William Morris Gallery.


Yeats remembered how his eagerness to discuss ideas rather than simply read his poems caused ‘a gloomy silence’. He felt incurably provincial among the ‘polite’ Oxbridge-educated Rhymers, full of their ‘great erudition’, but knew that for him it would have destroyed his vital Irish and mythological subject matter.

Reading aloud focused attention upon the formal qualities of the verse, and again Yeats attested to its power: ‘I shall, however, remember all my life that evening when Johnson read or spoke aloud in his musical monotone, where meaning and cadence found the most precise elocution, his poem suggested “by the Statue of King Charles at Charing Cross”. It was as though I listened to a great speech.’ Johnson exemplified the CG practitioner exercising his craft, in his own individual ‘Hobby Horse’ manner, combining the careful, musical refining of precise diction and metre with the Cavalier reference increasingly typical of himself and Horne. To 1890s poet (and CGHH contributor) Ernest Dowson and those of his fellow Rhymers he admired, who had got together precisely because they were finding it difficult to get published, Johnson as literary editor could offer the respected showcase of the Century Guild Hobby Horse.

Another notable CG associate and patron, Stewart Headlam, close friend of Selwyn Image, was a controversial Anglo-Catholic parish priest and founder member of the Socialist Fabian Society who devoted his life to the poor of London’s East End, especially children, and theatre and music-hall workers including actors and dancers rejected by the established Anglican church. The radical Headlam pursued not only his social and artistic interests, but took practical action on social and personal issues close to his heart, such as Wilde’s downfall in 1895. Image supported Wilde throughout his trial for what was then the crime of practising homosexuality, attending every day, and he brought in Headlam to stand as a guarantor of bail for Wilde; both sustained Wilde throughout his imprisonment. Headlam signed a petition for his early release with George Bernard Shaw, and on 19 May 1897 offered his Bloomsbury house, which had been redesigned by the Century Guild, as a temporary refuge on Wilde’s release from prison when all London had closed its doors to him.


Charles Shannon lithograph Song of Songs, from the Century Guild Hobby Horse, vol. 6, April 1891. Image courtesy of the William Morris Gallery.


 Wilde’s friends Ernest and Ada Leverson visited him at Headlam’s that day and commented, probably unaware of the CG contribution, ‘the drawing room was full of Burne-Jones and Rossetti pictures, Morris wallpaper and curtains, in fact an example of the decoration of the early eighties, very beautiful in its way, and very like the aesthetic rooms Oscar had once loved’. This is painfully reminiscent of Wilde’s description of his Tite Street house when its contents were sold to pay for his bankruptcy in April 1895, in a letter to his lover Lord Alfred Douglas Jan – March 1897, ‘that all my charming things were to be sold: my Burne-Jones drawings: my Whistler drawings: my Monticelli: my Simeon Solomons: my china: my Library with its collection of presentation volumes from almost every poet of my time, from Hugo to Whitman, from Swinburne to Mallarmé, from Morris to Verlaine’. Wilde showed his appreciation of Headlam and Image by sending them both presentation copies of The Ballad of Reading Gaol.


A double page spread from Arts and Crafts Pioneers showing HP Horne's title pages of Diversi Colores 1891 and Poems and Carols 1894. British Library. 


The particular charm of Headlam’s circle, a bohemian mix of artists, poets, radical clergymen and dancers in his Mackmurdo-designed drawing room, is attested by Ernest Dowson regretting his non-attendance at one such gathering: ‘I should now be dancing ’neath S Headlam’s Chinese lanthorns with fair sylphs of Th’Empire &Alhambra . . . I am rather sorry because it would have been novel and unconventional to say the least of it.’ The CG, with the designing of Headlam’s Bloomsbury drawing room, and from 1889 its own Fitzroy establishment ‘Whiteladies’ was seminal in establishing the importance of the appropriately presented venue in the artistic and literary milieu of the fin de siècle.



-- Jean Liddiard, February 2021


You can order your copy of Arts and Crafts Pioneers HERE.

It will be released upon publication on 15th February 2021. 


This book by Stuart Evans and Jean Liddiard accompanies a major exhibition at the William Morris Gallery, entitled, Within The Reach of All: The Century Guildwhich will be the first exhibition in 20 years to explore the pioneering aesthetics and lasting legacy of this influential association of artists, designers and craftspeople.

The exhibition is now rescheduled to run from 1 April 2021 - 31 August 2021, but please do check the William Morris Gallery website before planning your visit.