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John & Katharine Maltwood Collection

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Cultural Context of the Collection - Part 3: In England

The idea of exoticism as a way of life never caught on in Britain in the same way as it did in Symbolist circles on the Continent. In contrast to the more personal dream-like escapism in French Symbolism British art was more concerned with didactic and moral implications as a means of social reform. The mystic and literary Symbolist George Frederick Watts was the most prolific and typical English artist in this respect. Although his art seems aloof, private and drawn away by strivings upwards, it was in fact closely bound to many of the main artistic impulses in Victorian England.

Watts was intensely patriotic in his work and presented his portraits of famous men and women and large allegorical paintings to the nation in the hope of inspiring and educating the public. His didactic allegories such as Love and Death, Hope, Destiny, Aspiration, and The All Pervading reveal his preoccupation with morality and unknown cosmic forces. Watts was also a traveller and, like Katharine Maltwood, was strongly attracted by the spirit of Egypt's immemorial past. This can be seen for instance in The Sphinx of 1886-7 which he described as the "epitome of all Egyptian art, its solemnity - mystery - infinity".6 This reflects something of the Symbolist fascination with the sphinx as an eneffable mystery.

Towards the end of the nineteenth century there was a cult of Watts expressed in interviews with the great man and in widely distributed reproductions of his work. Katharine Maltwood kept in her collection an article from 1904 which quotes an interview with Watts about the role of art in society. Here she indicates her agreement with his view that art must be eternal, didactic and ethical. It must express profound ideas in order to perform its part in the scheme of evolution and help humanity in its search for the truth.7

By the 1880's and 1890's the Arts and Crafts Movement had expanded in England with the formation of several societies dedicated to promoting Arts and Crafts ideals. In 1882 the architect A.H. Mackmurdo founded the Century Guild, consciously emulating the Medieval Guild system: the aim being to "render all branches of art the sphere no longer of the tradesman, but of the artist".8 Most of the designers involved in it were of a younger generation than Morris and his associates and they extended the tradition established by Morris. Among them was the young Frank Brangwyn who was later to become a friend of Katharine Maltwood.

Brangwyn is best known for his huge mural decorations but in addition he painted genre, architectural subjects, industrial scenes, seascapes and figures, in oil and watercolour. He also designed furniture, rugs, metalwork and jewellery and was a noted etcher and lithographer. As part of his training Brangwyn worked in the Oxford Street workshops of William Morris from 1882-84 where he assisted in the designing of tapestries. He fully sympathized with Morris's medieval ideas of the function of graphic arts to produce beautiful things, to embellish and to create a well designed habitation. To this background was added the experience of his travels to North Africa, the Middle East, India, Malaya and Japan, during which he was particularly inspired by Oriental art. In 1895 Brangwyn assisted with the decorating of the Hotel Bing in Paris turning it into the famous Maison de l'Art Nouveau and also designed stained glass for Tiffany in New York. Here something of the aesthetic approach with its sinuous and organic, linear forms can be seen in his style.

Katharine Maltwood was a great admirer of Brangwyn's art and ideals and collected several illustrations of his work including the great mural scheme The Splendour and Fruitfulness of the Empire. Originally designed for the House of Lords, it was rejected in 1930 and was executed for Swansea Assembly Hall instead. Rich and exotic in colour it shows a multitude of races, animals, plants and vegetation in a heroic representation of the Empire.

Two years after the foundation of the Century Guild, the Art Workers' Guild was established in 1884 and brought together several groups of architect-craftsmen who again looked to Ruskin and Morris as their spiritual fathers. Serious and moral in tone, they were concerned with the ethics of art and its production. They discussed the relationship between artist, architect and craftsman and believed that Royal Academy policies were destroying the essential unity of the arts.

While the Guild remained a private club for the interchange of ideas its offshoot, the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society, promoted craft ideals and achievements in the public sphere and on an international level. Walter Crane was the first president, with Morris and Burne-Jones amongst others on the committee. The first display, intended to attain a prestige comparable to the Royal Academy, was held in 1888 and Walter Crane outlined their aims in terms redolent of Ruskinian teaching: "The movement ... represents in some sense a revolt against the hard, mechanical conventional life and its insensibility to beauty (quite another thing to ornament). It is a protest against the so-called industrial progress which provides shoddy wares, the cheapness of which is paid for by the lives of their producers and the degradation of their users.''9 Exhibitions followed in 1889, 1890, and 1892 and displayed furniture by C.R. Ashbee, Reginald Bloomfield and W. R. Lethaby.

Out of these exhibitions another craft guild arose - C.R. Ashbee's Guild School of Handicraft which produced furniture, pottery, metalwork and silverware. To this group belonged designers such as M.H. Ballie Scott and Charles Rennie Mackintosh, the principal figure of the Glasgow School.



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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