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Introducing: Arts and Crafts Pioneers - the Century Guild and their Hobby Horse

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In advance of the publication of Arts and Crafts Pioneers on 15th February, co-author Jean Liddiard sets the scene for the story of the Century Guild and their publication, The Hobby Horse, with an edited extract from the book. 

 

H P Horne, ‘Bay Leaf’ frieze used in the Century Guild room shown at the Inventions Exhibition, 1885 © William Morris Gallery, London Borough of Waltham Forest

 

Arts and Crafts Pioneers by Stuart Evans and Jean Liddiard will be the first and only monograph on The Century Guild of Artists, the earliest Arts and Crafts guild, making a major contribution to a hitherto neglected but important area of art and cultural history. The Century Guild and its associates became a hub of art, design and culture from the 1880s to the 1890s, at the centre of key issues in fin-de-siècle London, and wasa significant event between the High Victorian and Bloomsbury periods. Largely obscured by later Modernist developments, the Guild’s own architecture, distinctive new designs and new models of creative practice are for the first time revealed as valuable and innovative influences on the Arts and Crafts movement and its successors Art Nouveau and Modernism. 

The Century Guild was a significant pioneer in establishing the Arts and Crafts movement as the first Guild, a forum for all artists - architects, designers, craftspeople and writers- to be equal in status and freely collaborate in creative endeavours accessible to all: ‘the unity of art’. Through the work of the Guild the book will offer a fresh and original perspective on the familiar story of the Arts and Crafts movement, with a range of distinctive and stylish material across the visual and literary arts including new research and newly discovered items. This book will tell the lively story of the three protagonists and their wider circle – a key influence on the period. 

The following is an adapted extract by co-author Jean Liddiard.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

 

 
Selwyn Image, cover design of The Century Guild Hobby Horse, 1884 (first series) vol. 1 © William Morris Gallery, London Borough of Waltham Forest

  

 

The Century Guild was founded in 1882 by the architect Arthur Heygate Mackmurdo and his young assistant Herbert Percy Horne, who were joined at their London practice by the artist and poet Selwyn Image. It was the first practical attempt to answer John Ruskin’s radical call to regenerate art and society, and at Ruskin’s suggestion Mackmurdo pioneered a non-competitive working association of artists and craftworkers during the 1880s and 1890s.

Around 1880 Mackmurdo had taken an office in Southampton Street, Strand. As Mackmurdo’s architectural practice expanded his commissions would financially underpin the nascent Guild. He could exploit his skills and experience as an architect, designer and manager while engaging his enthusiasm for art and social reform. For Mackmurdo the ideal of brotherhood sanctified the Arts and Crafts movement, ‘not . . . an aesthetic excursion, but . . . a mighty upheaval of man’s spiritual nature’.

Mackmurdo and Horne were the two full Guild members, and Selwyn Image a close associate. There were already others associated with it, craftsmen such as Arthur Burgess and Benjamin Creswick. Craft would be elevated to the status of art, democratising good design, and excitingly reaching out also to literature and music.

 


Detail of A H Mackmurdo, Century Guild chair of mahogany with fretwork splat based on aquatic plants, probably made by Collinson and Locke, c. 1882 © William Morris Gallery, London Borough of Waltham Forest / photograph © Paul Tucker

 

Their exuberant intimacy comes across in Image’s published letters: Mackmurdo is variously addressed as ‘My dear Mackmurdo’, ‘My dear Naughty Man’, ‘My Dear Old Man’, and its contraction ‘D.O.M’. Horne is addressed as ‘My dear Horne’,‘ Dulcissime’ (sweetest) and ‘Puereule desideratissime’(most desirable young lad) – these last are medieval Latin, and no doubt parody Horne’s taste for esoteric literary forms while gently mocking his vanity. Author Ernest Rhys recalled with nostalgia the heady attraction of the sociable Tuesday evenings Mackmurdo and Horne held at Southampton Street, and quotes a characteristic note from Horne:

‘we purpose also, with God’s assistance, to open a

most delightful-looking bottle (like an Urbino dish of

Raphael’s) filled with Chartreuse from the Certosa,

yesterday arrived from Florence: also will be burnt

Spikenard and Saffron, Calamus and Cinnamon,

with all trees of Frankincense, Myrrh and Aloes; all

the chief spices. If you do not turn up now, never

again will I attempt to allure you into the immoral

atmosphere of Southampton St – no, not if I had all

the art of the Egyptians.’

Mackmurdo captures the exhilarating atmosphere in his contemporary chivalric vision of ‘social purpose’, 

‘The citadel of the Philistine was attacked upon

 every side and here I have endeavoured to give

 some account of the knights who led the crusade.’

The young Horne would have flourished in this creative atmosphere, listening to the older men discussing the idea of a new kind of association:

‘One guild, which stands for the unity of art

 as the one speech of human emotion.’

 

A letter dated 30 November 1883 from Image to Mackmurdo about the design of the Century Guild Hobby Horse title page shows the group was then already working on the proposal for their journal: ‘I shall spend Sunday designing a Hobby Horse.’

At its centre is Image’s rebus of the Hobby Horse knights: the questing knights evoke Arthurian legend. A tree rises through the brambles, its fibrous trunk, branches and leaves forming a canopy against the rising sun. A shield hanging on the tree is pierced by three arrows, perhaps representing Mackmurdo, Horne and Image – the chivalric knights - defending art.

 


A H Mackmurdo, Century Guild ‘Cromer Bird’ cretonne, in several colourways, probably printed by Simpson and Godlee c.1884 © William Morris Gallery, London Borough of Waltham Forest

 

William Blake– a keynote artist for the Century Guild – may have influenced the linear, fibrous elements in the drawing; and in turn Image’s design probably influenced Aubrey Beardsley. 

'The aim of the Century Guild is to render all

branches of Art the sphere, no longer of the

tradesman, but of the artist. The Century Guild

seeks to emphasise the Unity of Art….

In the Hobby Horse, the Guild will provide a means

of expression for these aims, and for other serious

thoughts about Art.' (Mackmurdo)

 


H P Horne, ‘Praise of the Soul’ (Angel with Trumpet) printed velveteen, used in the Century Guild room shown at the Inventions Exhibition, 1885 © William Morris Gallery, London Borough of Waltham Forest

 

The 1884 issue was not well received by the conservative art press, yet the CG made an impression; the charm of its youthful enthusiasm comes through in a Topical Times article describing a visit to Southampton Street:

‘A visit to the house of the Hobby Horse showed

me some pictures, some furniture, some poems, and

some modelling. The pictures suggested Blake and

mysticism; the furniture looked like a combination

of Chippendale and wooden flames; such of the

poems as I had a chance of reading involved brilliant

violations of all recognised rules of structure, metre,

rhythm, and prosody: and the modelling consisted of

small bas-relievos of a coarse and clumsy character.

But, bless you; they talked regeneration of Life and

Art after a vastly refreshing fashion; and, from my

own private artistic attitude, I wish the dear boys all

success. They told me they meant to produce a drama

‘on their own lines’. Now then, managers generally, sit up

Seriously – enthusiasm such as this is extravagant,

if you like; but there are moments when meeting with

its feverish nonsense is an excellent tonic for that

maladie du siècle, omniscient cynicism.'

 

This innovatory project would generate critical excitement and publicity for the Guild, attracting young contributors and reaching out to specialist and general audiences – so attempting to educate the arts trade and the aspiring middle-class public.

 

-- Jean Liddiard, 14th January 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.

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