Heart and Soul
Until September 23; City Art Centre, Edinburgh
If the phrase Arts and Crafts movement leads you to think
of trestle tables stacked with tea cosies, tablet, and cutesy home-made
trinkets, then think again. The home arts played a major
role in this movement a century ago, but along with the pioneering
designs of determined professionals, these were among the most radical
statements of their day.
This was an age when cheap mass production was superseding artisans
workshops, leaving the urban environment increasingly devoid of the
human touch. The poor were cooped up like battery hens, and art, far
from their reach, was an elevated discipline: by the rich, for the
rich. A new generation of artists, both liberal and socialist, wanted
to make that world a better place.
Though the movement had its roots in London with figures such as William
Morris and Walter Crane, it was immediately embraced by the Scots.
Considering its foundations in democratic socialism, with a discernible
presbyterian streak, it couldnt fail to catch on here. From
the start, the Scottish Arts and Crafts movement developed its own
distinct identity, producing figures such as Charles Rennie Mackintosh
in Glasgow and Phoebe Anna Traquair in Edinburgh.
Its surprising, given the strength of the movement in Scotland,
that no-one has singled it out for study until now. With the arrival
of the first book on the subject by Elizabeth Cumming, Edinburghs
City Art Centre has followed suit with the worlds first major
exhibition on the Arts and Crafts movement in Scotland.
Co-curated by Dr Cumming, the exhibition presents a historically detailed
account of the movements many interlinked individuals and organisations.
Covering 60 years from 1880, its packed with 350 objects ranging
from grand architectural plans to tiny enamelled jewellery, and almost
as much textual information as the book.
Arranged over three floors, in the heavy atmosphere of a gallery whose
air conditioning, despite improvements, still leaves much to be desired,
the show is something of a marathon. Though there are chairs everywhere
(mostly Mackintosh originals), there is great competition for the
few seats one is actually allowed to sit on.
It all started in earnest in Glasgow in 1883, with the formation of
a branch of the Kyrle Society. Its aim was to bring the influence
of natural and artistic beauty home to the people, by supplying
free music concerts, artworks, flower seeds, and evening classes in
subjects as diverse as handicrafts and hygiene.
Two years later the Edinburgh Social Union (ESU) was formed, with
similar aims. More than 20 decorative schemes (in public buildings
such as hospitals and missions) were arranged and paid for by the
ESU, the only surviving example being the murals at the Sick Childrens
Hospital by Phoebe Anna Traquair. Designed to comfort bereaved parents,
Traquairs fiery-haired angels combine the various beauties of
medieval manuscripts, Byzantine decoration and the romance of the
Traquair was a leading figure in Edinburghs Arts and Crafts
scene, and her dynamic style, along with the painter John Duncans,
best sums it up. Under the influence of cultural impresario Patrick
Geddes, Celtic revivalism played a strong part in their designs. For
Geddes, the Celt was rich in all save money, while the
Saxon was poor in all save paper wealth.
Glasgows movement had different stylistic leanings. It began
with the Glasgow School, known for their painterly rural scenes, mixing
French and Japanese influences. In time, the movement would spawn
the Glasgow Style of Charles Rennie Mackintosh and his circle, bringing
the Arts and Crafts ever closer to Art Nouveau.
The wide range of styles in Hand, Heart And Soul is because, unusually
for an artistic movement, appearance was not its defining feature.
More important was the urge to bring art into the everyday world;
to improve peoples houses and cities with beautiful things which
they could touch and use. The design and decoration of a pepper
pot, said artist Jessie Newbery, is as important, in its
degree, as the conception of a cathedral.
Artists discarded the traditional hierarchies between the fine art
of painting, and applied arts such as furniture-making, textiles,
metalwork, bookbinding, and jewellery. Along with this breaking down
of boundaries came another radical change: women became highly visible
in the professional art world.
One of the most gratifying features of this show is the number of
women artists represented. The rise of applied arts attracted many
more women to Glasgow School Art, and by 1901 almost half of its students
were female, as were a considerable number of their teachers.
These women, like the determinedly professional Traquair, were serious
about their pursuits. As Fra Newbery, head of the school, put it,
the dilettante young lady who would decorate tambourines and
milking stools with impossible forget-me-nots and sunflowers
has been entirely weeded out. Instead we see the work of skilful
metalworkers, professional book illustrators, and world-class embroiderers.
Black, Sunday Herald 08.07.07