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John & Katharine Maltwood Collection

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John & Katharine

Cultural Context of the Collection - Part 1: Background

It was the Arts and Crafts Movement of Victorian England together with the more exotic speculations of Continental Symbolism that were to mold the artistic outlook of the young Katharine Maltwood. Fundamental to the philosophy of the Arts and Crafts Movement, especially in its early development, was the conviction that industrialization was destroying human values, and that the uncontrolled advance of technology was a threat to man's spiritual and physical well-being. Thus the movement, stemming from William Morris and his mentor, the Gothicist John Ruskin, was by its very nature a proselytizing one dedicated to the general improvement of society. In the 1880's the impact of Ruskin and Morris's teaching crystalized in the guild ideal and the formation of several societies to promote that ideal. One of which, the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society, founded in 1886, gave its name to the movement.

It is obvious however that the forces which shaped the movement were in evidence much earlier in the century. The historian and philosopher, Thomas Carlyle had warned of the dangers of the Industrial Revolution and its affect on the human soul. His concerns that the division of labour deprived the worker of the pleasure of guiding his product from conception to completion, and that machines had replaced the traditional standards of beauty with those of economy and profit were to become central to the Arts and Crafts Movement.

As well as being based on reactions, such as Carlyle's, to the machine age, the ideology of the Arts and Crafts Movement was also based on a concern with doctrine and style in architecture and design. There was an attempt to get away from the practice of borrowing forms from historic styles and to base design instead on the intrinsic properties of materials and structure. The origin of this school of thought can be traced back to much of the theory and practice of Augustus Welby Pugin, an architect and designer in the first half of the nineteenth century. Pugin was concerned to combat "the present decay of taste". He believed architecture should be "the expression of existing opinions and circumstances" rather than "a confused jumble of styles and symbols borrowed from all nations and periods". Like the Romantics, he believed Gothic was Britain's true native style but he was the first of the Gothic revival architects to relate that style to the spirit that had created it. Thus, with Pugin, Gothic became an expression of faith rather than fashion and he hoped for a restoration of the Christian spirit which had inspired "the noble edifices of the Middle Ages".1

The greatest prophet of the Arts and Crafts Movement was the art critic and theorist John Ruskin. Like Pugin, the model for Ruskin's utopia was the Middle Ages and "Christian architecture" where he felt individual values were recognized and there was no denial of the human element. The perfection and precision of classical architecture were suspect to Ruskin since they represented a system where the workman was no more than a slave. The soulless mechanism of the industrial age was no better in his opinion and only served to "unhumanise" men. Thus he concluded architecture and artifacts should unashamedly reveal their man-made origin and reflect man's essential humanity with all its roughness and individuality.

Like Carlyle, Ruskin also believed in the ethic of work and the dignity of the working man but he went further in his belief that "industry without art is brutality.''2 For both he, and his follower William Morris, passionately believed in the ideal of art and craftsmanship as a redemptive force in society and that beauty was as necessary to man's survival as food and shelter. Thus they promoted a return to purity and beauty in art with honesty of expression, materials, and workmanship which would, they hoped, establish and reflect a new happy and harmonious way of life.

Inspired by Ruskin's writings, William Morris wished to create an artistic environment for the everyman, in his own words to "make work art, and art work.''3 In addition he was influenced by Medieval history, anti-materialism, and nascent socialist thought and hoped for a renaissance of an idealized Middle Ages or "Gothic man". He was the first to put the ideas of Ruskin successfully into design theory and artistic practice in the workshops of Morris and Co. which he founded in 1861. Here he promoted a fondness for purity and simplicity in good solid, hand-crafted furniture, decorative painting and design, textiles, stained glass, metalwork and printing. In his devotion to the idea of decoration and applied arts Morris looked to medieval tapestry, Jacobean hangings, Oriental design and other ancient craft societies for artistic inspiration. In the Morris circle the collecting of Persian and Oriental rugs, porcelain and paintings became very fashionable. In everything they sought the "truth and beauty" in the simple, the pure and the hand-crafted. Through his many enterprises as well as his writings Morris became the principal taste-maker of his day and this influence can be seen in much of the Maltwood Collection.



All content on this page is copyright © 7 February, 2006
Rosemary Brown, the Maltwood Art Museum and Gallery, and the University of Victoria

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