Head, Hand and Heart: Perfect Imperfections
How many of you who have taken a trip to the Post Office recently have noticed the new Royal Mail issue of stamps entitled ‘Morris & Company’?
The set is very attractive and features work from the latter half of the 19th Century by William Morris, Philip Webb, John Henry Dearle, Kate Falkner, William De Morgan and Edward Burne-Jones. As the handmade craft movement within the UK would probably not exist in its current form without these pioneers and others like them, I thought I would use this post to write a little tribute!
Morris & Company was a reincarnation of an earlier design firm called Morris, Marshall, Falkner & Company. The earlier company, set up by Morris and some of his Pre-Raphaelite colleagues set out initially to make ‘fine art crafts’, in stained glass, embroidery, architectural carving, tapestries and furniture. At first the firm produced much of its work for ecclesiastical purposes, playing a role in the widespread church restoration projects that were ongoing at that time. As the business progressed however, more work for private customers was undertaken in an increasing range of mediums, producing many of those famous designs that are still sold today as fabrics and wall papers and embroideries.
William Morris is generally credited with being one of the founders of the Arts and Crafts movement in the UK, though for Morris the principles that underpinned this aesthetic movement were not simply visual. They extended into politics and social reform. Morris himself was a highly active socialist and this ultimately overtook his interest in the arts. The writings of John Ruskin, one of the primary Victorian art critics, played an important part in the development of his thinking.
Ruskin believed that art and nature and society were connected. He praised the work of the Middle Ages and of the Gothic style, believing that this hand made work was superior to the standardised products that flowed from the Victorian factories. These handmade works, he argued, were the treasures that we chose to preserve in our museums, made by the common people with a freedom and continuity of creative thought that had been lost from modern production. He longed to restore the times when the honest, hand crafted item was the norm, manufactured through a craft production process of one person or a small team, rather than the large scale division of labour seen in the factories of the Industrial Revolution. He believed these industrial processes were killing creativity and wiping out traditional skills.
Morris, Ruskin and their group balked at the ostentatious displays at the Great Exhibition in 1851, seeing exaltation of mechanical prowess and wealth at the expense of craftsmanship and solid design. To Morris and his fellows, the pieces lacked the essential integration of function with form and of form with decoration. It was this focus upon all aspects of a piece working together as a coherent whole that became central to the Arts and Crafts movement.
Augustus Pugin, was a prominent figure of the 19th century Gothic Revival, an earlier movement which provided many of these central design roots for Morris and his contemporaries. As an architect, Pugin’s ideas came from the design principles and practices of the buildings of the Middle Ages. He defined this style (in simple terms) as one in which buildings were constructed in as unaffected a way as possible, with decoration strongly integrated to the form.
Pugin’s ideas did not limit themselves to architecture however, and the Gothic Revival style swept across all kinds of creative arts, displaying their influence through both form and surface pattern. Bold forms, strong colours and linear, flattened patterns so typical of the Middle Ages, were clearly visible in the designs of Morris and his colleagues. In the Acanthus wallpaper illustrated above for example, you can see clear echoes of mediaeval stone carvings of vegetation, common in churches of that period.
The influence of Pugin’s ideas can also be seen in the objects of the Arts and Crafts movement, created with a simplicity of form and, in homage to the early craftspeople, often left slightly ‘unfinished’ by Victorian standards. Common features such as visible carpentry joints and other indications of the construction process became very much part of the Arts and Crafts style.
This return to making by hand using traditional skills, meant that the maker was ever present in these ‘imperfections’, allowing these pieces to be removed from the impersonal nature of machines and the social injustices of industry. Part of the beauty of these crafts was their innate humanity, the visible relationship between the maker and their materials, their refusal to try and emulate the ‘refinement’ of mass produced goods. Ruskin called these imperfections ‘savageness’, a term through which he referred to his perception of Gothic crafts as expressive, freely creative and organically responsive to the instincts of the designer-maker. This stood in opposistion to what he perceived as the slavery of those employed to construct the rigid, unchanging designs of the Classical style. It is perhaps these ideas that led to the motto of the Society of Designers in 1896 ‘Head, Hand and Heart’: Head for creativity and ideas, Hand for craft and skill, Heart for honesty and love.
So what has all this meant for us in the 21st Century? What is our cultural debt to these artists and craftspeople such as William Morris? Well, they didn’t bring a halt to the Industrial Revolution. We still have High Streets full of mass produced, machine made wares; a never ending propagation of Pound stores that ship in cheap, identical goods straight off the production lines. For many of us, these low cost, low quality items satisfy our need to live within our budgets while providing us with functional goods that serve their purpose. There is no doubt that these things have their place; but what would our world look like if these methods of production had never been challenged? What if nobody had stood up and championed the intrinsic value of something made by a human hand? What if nobody had seen the beauty and significance in an imperfection, the way in which it connects us to the maker and the force of human creativity? What if industry and machine production had been allowed to bulldoze over hand made crafts until they had been so entirely devalued and marginalised that they died out altogether?
To me, that world would be a very bleak place. It would be a less beautiful place; a less inspiring place; a less human place. It would be a place that cut us off from an essential part of ourselves; a place that would not connect us to the long line of ancestors who have gone before us and interacted with the materials in their environment through the amazing gift of human creativity.
I have visited museums on occasions and looked at clay pots that have been dug up out of the earth from thousands of years ago. On their surface you can still see the finger prints of a potter; that mark that wasn’t smoothed away before the firing, what we might call an ‘imperfection’. That is the most incredible thing to me, to see that pot and how it creates a link between me and another clayworker from thousands of years ago.
Whether a piece was made 1000 years ago or whether it was made last year, I love to see the mark of a tool, the odd uneven stitch. I love to see the presence of the human being who has invested their time and effort and energy into their creation. As crafters it can be tempting to get caught up in thinking we have to refine something until we erase all evidence of ourselves from it. But what is the point of that? I don’t mean that I think we should produce shoddily crafted pieces that look like we couldn’t be bothered to finish them properly; I simply mean that to me, part of the point of something being hand made is that it embodies something of us and of our humanity. I don’t believe we should be trying to compete with machine made goods, but rather recognising that we can offer something different; a unique alternative that has an entirely different kind of value. We offer our perfect imperfections :).
In celebration of perfect imperfections and of all those art-craftspeople who paved the road for us, I have compiled a little gallery from my fellow Folksy makers. All these handmade pieces have been inspired by or have integrated the work of William Morris and/or the Arts and Crafts movement in some way, through the individual, unique voices of their makers. Enjoy 🙂 xx