The Arts & Crafts movement of the late nineteenth century is one of my recurring themes. Here is what I have already written related to this subject. In its time, it mainly concerned the homes of the well-to-do, those who could afford the work of craftsmen rather than of machines in factories.
The image at the head of this photo is of a house near Windermere in the north of England. Until the 1970’s, it was a girls’ prep school and my mother taught sport and physical education there. I often went there with her in the 1960’s when she was teaching and I didn’t have school that day. I grew up in a large Victorian house, but this place, called Blackwell, made a lasting impression on me – particularly the peacock friezes and the half-timbered parts evoking buildings of the Middle-Ages and the Renaissance in most of northern Europe. Whenever I discovered buildings and furnishings from that era and design philosophy as a boy, my reference was Blackwell. This house is now owned by the National Trust, open to the public (I revisited it with my wife a few years ago) and beautifully restored.
The Arts & Crafts Movement mainly concerned domestic architecture and furnishings, but it influenced a few public buildings like Carnegie libraries and a handful of churches. It was essentially a movement in reaction against the aesthetic philosophy of the Victorian era, mass production in factories, something not unlike our own era of manufactured goods designed not to be repairable!
In this little entry, I concentrate on the “philosophy” of this movement and why it appeals so much to me.
The first characteristic is simplicity and sobriety. I installed my chapel within a few months of my last visit to Blackwell. The building gave itself perfectly to a space with very little decoration, a match between stark white walls and a lightly stained wooden ceiling. It isn’t Arts & Crafts, but it is me. Being oneself is part of Morris’ philosophy.
William Morris said –
Simplicity of life, even the barest, is not a misery, but the very foundation of refinement.
Clutter was a characteristic of Victorian homes and churches. Arts & Crafts was a spiritually-inspired movement, aiming to free us from clutter and noise, mass production and consumption, from materialism. Perhaps this tenet is expressed in minimalism, which seems to have gone to the other extreme, a kind of anti-beauty. Simplicity is not so much the abolition of beauty and ornament, but is a monastic and spiritual notion of looking for the essential – God and the finer things of life. It is expressed in the old Shaker hymn from across the Atlantic – ‘Tis the gift to be simple… Simplicity
The essential characteristic of Arts & Crafts is beauty – a concept based on harmony and order. Beauty isn’t an add-on, but is a part of our life. In the spirit of Morris, we create our own living space, free from a spirit of following fashion or the dictates of designers. It can be the same thing in churches, bearing in mind the basic traditional structure of the narthex, nave, choir and sanctuary. Something else can convey the spirit of Arts & Crafts: contrast the music of Elgar and Vaughan Williams, Berlioz and Ravel. Of course, Elgar wrote grandiose and patriotic music to earn his living, but he was a profound, interior and simple man. A different spirit entered the early years of the twentieth century before the hecatomb of World War I.
There is nothing better for our spiritual life and worship than designing our chapels ourselves and doing the work. A man with practical aptitude can turn to any skill and learn its techniques. Myself, I have training in woodwork, but have adapted these skills to metals and masonry. I have often had e-mails asking how one can have a chapel like mine. I always answer – Just do it.