Hand, 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 couldn’t 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.

It’s 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, Edinburgh’s City Art Centre has followed suit with the world’s 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 movement’s many interlinked individuals and organisations. Covering 60 years from 1880, it’s 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 Children’s Hospital by Phoebe Anna Traquair. Designed to comfort bereaved parents, Traquair’s fiery-haired angels combine the various beauties of medieval manuscripts, Byzantine decoration and the romance of the Pre-Raphaelites.

Traquair was a leading figure in Edinburgh’s Arts and Crafts scene, and her dynamic style, along with the painter John Duncan’s, 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”.

Glasgow’s 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 people’s 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.

Catrìona Black, Sunday Herald 08.07.07