Arts and Crafts: an influence in Anglican aesthetics

I haven’t much time these days to write the kind of articles I really would like to write. However, I have ideas of one on the pot boiler about Anglican Papalism, which I will try to describe in a constructively critical way. In the meantime, here is one of my earlier articles I posted on the Anglo-Catholic shortly before my getting deep-sixed.

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I would like to share with you something that has been close to my heart for much of my life, a brief and inspired artistic and aesthetic movement that lasted from about 1880 until World War I. Whether or not this movement was a direct product of Anglicanism, or simply contributed to its culture during La Belle Epoque is difficult to discern. The design of many English churches is owed to this movement as is much of the aesthetic philosophy underpinning the early liturgical movement in Anglicanism.

The main aspect of Arts & Crafts philosophy was Christian Socialism, not the present-day political ideologies that use that word, but a reaction against materialism, the excess of mechanisation and industrialisation as began in the nineteenth century. It was essentially a spiritual vision through the spirit of Christian humanism and the promotion of human dignity through humanising work and creation. Unfortunately, this movement, by and large, did not survive the Great War of 1914-18. Optimistic belief in human progress was destroyed in the trenches by the bombs, shells and bullets!

This movement of the early twentieth century shows itself in so many different forms, not only in buildings and interior design, but also in literature and philosophy. I situate men like Nicholas Berdyaev in this movement, with his theory of the aristocracy of the spirit and the creativeness of man. Anglican priests and liturgists like Percy Dearmer fit in perfectly. The Arts and Crafts Movement was a profound criticism of the theory of progress through technology and materialism. Man would only find his creativity through spirituality and being human.

William Morris (1834-1896) is the household name of this movement. He went up to Oxford in 1852 with the intention of taking Holy Orders. His true vocation was elsewhere. I will not go into all the details of Morris’ life, as it is easily found on the Internet. His writings, as those of Ruskin, reflect the aspirations of the Ritualist slum priests almost to a tee! Man is not a tool, but God’s transfigured creation.

The Arts & Crafts movement was not simply a medievalist or romantic movement. It was resolutely modern and post-industrial. I feel in my deepest being that a movement based on this philosophy would be what is needed today as man is moving inexorably towards ever more godless totalitarian dystopias and the loss of his spiritual soul and his very humanity.

What is characteristic in the artistic and aesthetic dimension of this movement is simplicity of design and work by hand. Like Hilaire Belloc and Chesterton, this movement gave a link to the medieval artisan guilds. One may find a considerable interest in Chinese and Japanese art and their influences in the Art Nouveau. Perhaps what brought the movement to a premature end was not only the war of 1914, but also its failure to produce arts and furnishings for the people. Hand-made things are a luxury and only well-to-do people can afford them. The very purpose of industrialisation has been to mass-produce consumer goods at affordable prices. There is the irony.

We can see here that the movement’s best work was not consumer goods for private clients but buildings of public utility like libraries and churches. When creation was of more universal appeal, the underlying idea found its coherence and beauty. In music, there was a folk song revival at the end of the nineteenth century as composers sought their English identity. Gustav Holst and Ralph Vaughan Williams were uppermost in their work in collating traditional songs and incorporating their melodies in their compositions. In passing, I mentioned Percy Dearmer. He and Vaughan Williams worked together to create the English Hymnal in 1906, bringing folk-song tunes and plainsong to take their place alongside the old favourite Anglican hymns we all love.

Few know that this movement inspired the National Trust and many associations and societies that care for rural England and ancient buildings. New towns of the early twentieth century were designed to combine the convenience of living in town with closeness to nature.

Before closing this brief article, I would like to outline the influence of the Arts & Crafts movement in the Church. What Sir Edwin Lutyens (1869–1944) and Sir John Ninian Comper (1864-1960) were for architecture, Fr. Percy Dearmer (1867–1936) was for English church furnishings and the liturgy.

Some specialists in Victorian and Edwardian neo-medieval architecture denigrate Dearmer and the Wareham Guild, but the key to understanding this man and his work is the cultural movement in which he was situated. He was not a “medieval purist”, but a man of his time. He emphasised art and beauty in worship. In the Parson’s Handbook, his goal was to help in “remedying the lamentable confusion, lawlessness, and vulgarity which are conspicuous in the Church at this time“. Perhaps he was aiming his invective against baroque altars that symbolised Anglo-Papalism. Here is an introductory note on the English altar written by Dearmer followed by illustrations of altars produced by the Wareham Guild or others working to similar standards. I would see this as a part of an abiding Anglican patrimony, though our own hard work and a Christian humanist vision of the future.

There is something very appealing in the “noble simplicity” of this movement, reflected in the teaching on the liturgy and recommendations for reform in Sacrosanctum Concilium of Vatican II. There is a certain collusion between the liturgical ideals I have tried to convey for discussion and consideration and the influence of this movement a hundred years ago. History tends to go around in circles, and human evolution, progress, civilisation – or whatever you want to call it – is not linear. It develops ideas and cultures, and when something else comes along, it is inspired by an older idea. I think particularly of the transition between the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance. We also live in a series of reactions, counter reactions and transitions. Modernity has become anti-human in all its pretentions to being “secular humanist”. The culture of death cannot continue forever. There must be a new Christian humanist reaction. Perhaps it will take its inspiration in that colourful and joyful period between roughly 1890 and 1914. I would certainly hope so.

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A few links for further reading:

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2 Responses to Arts and Crafts: an influence in Anglican aesthetics

  1. Stephen K says:

    I am a great admirer of William Morris and I think you have summarised the threads running through his philosophy and the Arts and Crafts Movement very neatly. I am particularly fascinated by the way so many dynamic movements erupted in the 19th century or fought for attention but all linked along a spectrum of aesthetics and ethics. Alongside the Oxford Movement, you had the social reformers, the Chartists and many varieties of humanist humanitarianism and socialism. You also had the Orientalism in religion, art and literature: Marie Corelli, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Hermetic order of the Golden Dawn, Theosophy, Annie Besant and Krishnamurti, and many more. Froude’s historical essays are insightful too. There are so many threads one could explore! The spiritual and humanitarian excitment and focus of those 19th century movements seems to have been lost, but you see the traces of them in the continuing efforts of people seeking spiritual and religious renewal in community life and a return to simpler or more holistic and naturist ways of life and theology. The New Age and revivals of Christian monasticism are the heirs to some of these ideas.

  2. James Morgan says:

    You might also mention Ralph Adams Cram, the eminent American ‘gothic’ architect. he was also an Anglo-Catholic, and wrote a number of books, most of which are no longer available.

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