Arts and Crafts

Oscar Wilde

First published in 1888.

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The University of Adelaide Library
University of Adelaide
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Table of Contents

  1. Mr. Morris on Tapestry
  2. Sculpture at the Arts and Crafts
  3. Printing and Printers
  4. The Beauties of Bookbinding
  5. The Close of the Arts and Crafts

Mr. Morris on Tapestry

(Pall Mall Gazette, November 2, 1888.)

Yesterday evening Mr. William Morris delivered a most interesting and fascinating lecture on Carpet and Tapestry Weaving at the Arts and Crafts Exhibition now held at the New Gallery. Mr. Morris had small practical models of the two looms used, the carpet loom where the weaver sits in front of his work; the more elaborate tapestry loom where the weaver sits behind, at the back of the stuff, has his design outlined on the upright threads and sees in a mirror the shadow of the pattern and picture as it grows gradually to perfection. He spoke at much length on the question of dyes—praising madder and kermes for reds, precipitate of iron or ochre for yellows, and for blue either indigo or woad. At the back of the platform hung a lovely Flemish tapestry of the fourteenth century, and a superb Persian carpet about two hundred and fifty years old. Mr. Morris pointed out the loveliness of the carpet—its delicate suggestion of hawthorn blossom, iris and rose, its rejection of imitation and shading; and showed how it combined the great quality of decorative design—being at once clear and well defined in form: each outline exquisitely traced, each line deliberate in its intention and its beauty, and the whole effect being one of unity, of harmony, almost of mystery, the colours being so perfectly harmonised together and the little bright notes of colour being so cunningly placed either for tone or brilliancy.

Tapestries, he said, were to the North of Europe what fresco was to the South—our climate, amongst other reasons, guiding us in our choice of material for wall-covering. England, France, and Flanders were the three great tapestry countries—Flanders with its great wool trade being the first in splendid colours and superb Gothic design. The keynote of tapestry, the secret of its loveliness, was, he told the audience, the complete filling up of every corner and square inch of surface with lovely and fanciful and suggestive design. Hence the wonder of those great Gothic tapestries where the forest trees rise in different places, one over the other, each leaf perfect in its shape and colour and decorative value, while in simple raiment of beautiful design knights and ladies wandered in rich flower gardens, and rode with hawk on wrist through long green arcades, and sat listening to lute and viol in blossom-starred bowers or by cool gracious water springs. Upon the other hand, when the Gothic feeling died away, and Boucher and others began to design, they gave us wide expanses of waste sky, elaborate perspective, posing nymphs and shallow artificial treatment. Indeed, Boucher met with scant mercy at Mr. Morris’s vigorous hands and was roundly abused, and modern Gobelins, with M. Bougereau’s cartoons, fared no better.

Mr. Morris told some delightful stories about old tapestry work from the days when in the Egyptian tombs the dead were laid wrapped in picture cloths, some of which are now in the South Kensington Museum, to the time of the great Turk Bajazet who, having captured some Christian knights, would accept nothing for their ransom but the ‘storied tapestries of France’ and gerfalcons. As regards the use of tapestry in modern days, he pointed out that we were richer than the middle ages, and so should be better able to afford this form of lovely wall-covering, which for artistic tone is absolutely without rival. He said that the very limitation of material and form forced the imaginative designer into giving us something really beautiful and decorative. ‘What is the use of setting an artist in a twelve-acre field and telling him to design a house? Give him a limited space and he is forced by its limitation to concentrate, and to fill with pure loveliness the narrow surface at his disposal.’ The worker also gives to the original design a very perfect richness of detail, and the threads with their varying colours and delicate reflections convey into the work a new source of delight. Here, he said, we found perfect unity between the imaginative artist and the handicraftsman. The one was not too free, the other was not a slave. The eye of the artist saw, his brain conceived, his imagination created, but the hand of the weaver had also its opportunity for wonderful work, and did not copy what was already made, but recreated and put into a new and delightful form a design that for its perfection needed the loom to aid, and had to pass into a fresh and marvellous material before its beauty came to its real flower and blossom of absolutely right expression and artistic effect. But, said Mr. Morris in conclusion, to have great work we must be worthy of it. Commercialism, with its vile god cheapness, its callous indifference to the worker, its innate vulgarity of temper, is our enemy. To gain anything good we must sacrifice something of our luxury—must think more of others, more of the State, the commonweal: ‘We cannot have riches and wealth both,’ he said; we must choose between them.

The lecture was listened to with great attention by a very large and distinguished audience, and Mr. Morris was loudly applauded.

The next lecture will be on Sculpture by Mr. George Simonds, and if it is half so good as Mr. Morris it will well repay a visit to the lecture-room. Mr. Crane deserves great credit for his exertions in making this exhibition what it should be, and there is no doubt but that it will exercise an important and a good influence on all the handicrafts of our country.

Sculpture at the Arts and Crafts

(Pall Mall Gazette, November 9, 1888.)

The most satisfactory thing in Mr. Simonds’ lecture last night was the peroration, in which he told the audience that ‘an artist cannot be made.’ But for this well-timed warning some deluded people might have gone away under the impression that sculpture was a sort of mechanical process within the reach of the meanest capabilities. For it must be confessed that Mr. Simonds’ lecture was at once too elementary and too elaborately technical. The ordinary art student, even the ordinary studio-loafer, could not have learned anything from it, while the ‘cultured person,’ of whom there were many specimens present, could not but have felt a little bored at the careful and painfully clear descriptions given by the lecturer of very well-known and uninteresting methods of work. However, Mr. Simonds did his best. He described modelling in clay and wax; casting in plaster and in metal; how to enlarge and how to diminish to scale; bas-reliefs and working in the round; the various kinds of marble, their qualities and characteristics; how to reproduce in marble the plaster or clay bust; how to use the point, the drill, the wire and the chisel; and the various difficulties attending each process. He exhibited a clay bust of Mr. Walter Crane on which he did some elementary work; a bust of Mr. Parsons; a small statuette; several moulds, and an interesting diagram of the furnace used by Balthasar Keller for casting a great equestrian statue of Louis XIV. in 1697–8.

What his lecture lacked were ideas. Of the artistic value of each material; of the correspondence between material or method and the imaginative faculty seeking to find expression; of the capacities for realism and idealism that reside in each material; of the historical and human side of the art—he said nothing. He showed the various instruments and how they are used, but he treated them entirely as instruments for the hand. He never once brought his subject into any relation either with art or with life. He explained forms of labour and forms of saving labour. He showed the various methods as they might be used by an artisan. Mr. Morris, last week, while explaining the technical processes of weaving, never forgot that he was lecturing on an art. He not merely taught his audience, but he charmed them. However, the audience gathered together last night at the Arts and Crafts Exhibition seemed very much interested; at least, they were very attentive; and Mr. Walter Crane made a short speech at the conclusion, in which he expressed his satisfaction that in spite of modern machinery sculpture had hardly altered one of its tools. For our own part we cannot help regretting the extremely commonplace character of the lecture. If a man lectures on poets he should not confine his remarks purely to grammar.

Next week Mr. Emery Walker lectures on Printing. We hope—indeed we are sure, that he will not forget that it is an art, or rather it was an art once, and can be made so again.

Printing and Printers

(Pall Mall Gazette, November 16, 1888.)

Nothing could have been better than Mr. Emery Walker’s lecture on Letterpress Printing and Illustration, delivered last night at the Arts and Crafts. A series of most interesting specimens of old printed books and manuscripts was displayed on the screen by means of the magic-lantern, and Mr. Walker’s explanations were as clear and simple as his suggestions were admirable. He began by explaining the different kinds of type and how they are made, and showed specimens of the old block-printing which preceded the movable type and is still used in China. He pointed out the intimate connection between printing and handwriting—as long as the latter was good the printers had a living model to go by, but when it decayed printing decayed also. He showed on the screen a page from Gutenberg’s Bible (the first printed book, date about 1450–5) and a manuscript of Columella; a printed Livy of 1469, with the abbreviations of handwriting, and a manuscript of the History of Pompeius by Justin of 1451. The latter he regarded as an example of the beginning of the Roman type. The resemblance between the manuscripts and the printed books was most curious and suggestive. He then showed a page out of John of Spier’s edition of Cicero’s Letters, the first book printed at Venice, an edition of the same book by Nicholas Jansen in 1470, and a wonderful manuscript Petrarch of the sixteenth century. He told the audience about Aldus, who was the first publisher to start cheap books, who dropped abbreviations and had his type cut by Francia pictor et aurifex, who was said to have taken it from Petrarch’s handwriting. He exhibited a page of the copy-book of Vicentino, the great Venetian writing-master, which was greeted with a spontaneous round of applause, and made some excellent suggestions about improving modern copy-books and avoiding slanting writing.

A superb Plautus printed at Florence in 1514 for Lorenzo di Medici, Polydore Virgil’s History with the fine Holbein designs, printed at Basle in 1556, and other interesting books, were also exhibited on the screen, the size, of course, being very much enlarged. He spoke of Elzevir in the seventeenth century when handwriting began to fall off, and of the English printer Caslon, and of Baskerville whose type was possibly designed by Hogarth, but is not very good. Latin, he remarked, was a better language to print than English, as the tails of the letters did not so often fall below the line. The wide spacing between lines, occasioned by the use of a lead, he pointed out, left the page in stripes and made the blanks as important as the lines. Margins should, of course, be wide except the inner margins, and the headlines often robbed the page of its beauty of design. The type used by the Pall Mall was, we are glad to say, rightly approved of.

With regard to illustration, the essential thing, Mr. Walker said, is to have harmony between the type and the decoration. He pleaded for true book ornament as opposed to the silly habit of putting pictures where they are not wanted, and pointed out that mechanical harmony and artistic harmony went hand in hand. No ornament or illustration should be used in a book which cannot be printed in the same way as the type. For his warnings he produced Rogers’s Italy with a steel-plate engraving, and a page from an American magazine which being florid, pictorial and bad, was greeted with some laughter. For examples we had a lovely Boccaccio printed at Ulm, and a page out of La Mer des Histoires printed in 1488. Blake and Bewick were also shown, and a page of music designed by Mr. Horne.

The lecture was listened to with great attention by a large audience, and was certainly most attractive. Mr. Walker has the keen artistic instinct that comes out of actually working in the art of which he spoke. His remarks about the pictorial character of modern illustration were well timed, and we hope that some of the publishers in the audience will take them to heart.

Next Thursday Mr. Cobden–Sanderson lectures on Bookbinding, a subject on which few men in England have higher qualifications for speaking. We are glad to see these lectures are so well attended.

The Beauties of Bookbinding

(Pall Mall Gazette, November 23, 1888.)

‘The beginning of art,’ said Mr. Cobden–Sanderson last night in his charming lecture on Bookbinding, ‘is man thinking about the universe.’ He desires to give expression to the joy and wonder that he feels at the marvels that surround him, and invents a form of beauty through which he utters the thought or feeling that is in him. And bookbinding ranks amongst the arts: ‘through it a man expresses himself.’

This elegant and pleasantly exaggerated exordium preceded some very practical demonstrations. ‘The apron is the banner of the future!’ exclaimed the lecturer, and he took his coat off and put his apron on. He spoke a little about old bindings for the papyrus roll, about the ivory or cedar cylinders round which old manuscripts were wound, about the stained covers and the elaborate strings, till binding in the modern sense began with literature in a folded form, with literature in pages. A binding, he pointed out, consists of two boards, originally of wood, now of mill-board, covered with leather, silk or velvet. The use of these boards is to protect the ‘world’s written wealth.’ The best material is leather, decorated with gold. The old binders used to be given forests that they might always have a supply of the skins of wild animals; the modern binder has to content himself with importing morocco, which is far the best leather there is, and is very much to be preferred to calf.

Mr. Sanderson mentioned by name a few of the great binders such as Le Gascon, and some of the patrons of bookbinding like the Medicis, Grolier, and the wonderful women who so loved books that they lent them some of the perfume and grace of their own strange lives. However, the historical part of the lecture was very inadequate, possibly necessarily so through the limitations of time. The really elaborate part of the lecture was the practical exposition. Mr. Sanderson described and illustrated the various processes of smoothing, pressing, cutting, paring, and the like. He divided bindings into two classes, the useful and the beautiful. Among the former he reckoned paper covers such as the French use, paper boards and cloth boards, and half leather or calf bindings. Cloth he disliked as a poor material, the gold on which soon fades away. As for beautiful bindings, in them ‘decoration rises into enthusiasm.’ A beautiful binding is ‘a homage to genius.’ It has its ethical value, its spiritual effect. ‘By doing good work we raise life to a higher plane,’ said the lecturer, and he dwelt with loving sympathy on the fact that a book is ‘sensitive by nature,’ that it is made by a human being for a human being, that the design must ‘come from the man himself, and express the moods of his imagination, the joy of his soul.’ There must, consequently, be no division of labour. ‘I make my own paste and enjoy doing it,’ said Mr. Sanderson as he spoke of the necessity for the artist doing the whole work with his own hands. But before we have really good bookbinding we must have a social revolution. As things are now, the worker diminished to a machine is the slave of the employer, and the employer bloated into a millionaire is the slave of the public, and the public is the slave of its pet god, cheapness. The bookbinder of the future is to be an educated man who appreciates literature and has freedom for his fancy and leisure for his thought.

All this is very good and sound. But in treating bookbinding as an imaginative, expressive human art we must confess that we think that Mr. Sanderson made something of an error. Bookbinding is essentially decorative, and good decoration is far more often suggested by material and mode of work than by any desire on the part of the designer to tell us of his joy in the world. Hence it comes that good decoration is always traditional. Where it is the expression of the individual it is usually either false or capricious. These handicrafts are not primarily expressive arts; they are impressive arts. If a man has any message for the world he will not deliver it in a material that always suggests and always conditions its own decoration. The beauty of bookbinding is abstract decorative beauty. It is not, in the first instance, a mode of expression for a man’s soul. Indeed, the danger of all these lofty claims for handicraft is simply that they show a desire to give crafts the province and motive of arts such as poetry, painting and sculpture. Such province and such motive they have not got. Their aim is different. Between the arts that aim at annihilating their material and the arts that aim at glorifying it there is a wide gulf.

However, it was quite right of Mr. Cobden–Sanderson to extol his own art, and though he seemed often to confuse expressive and impressive modes of beauty, he always spoke with great sincerity.

Next week Mr. Crane delivers the final lecture of this admirable ‘Arts and Crafts’ series and, no doubt, he will have much to say on a subject to which he has devoted the whole of his fine artistic life. For ourselves, we cannot help feeling that in bookbinding art expresses primarily not the feeling of the worker but simply itself, its own beauty, its own wonder.

The Close of the Arts and Crafts

(Pall Mall Gazette, November 30, 1888.)

Mr. Walter Crane, the President of the Society of Arts and Crafts, was greeted last night by such an enormous audience that at one time the honorary secretary became alarmed for the safety of the cartoons, and many people were unable to gain admission at all. However, order was soon established, and Mr. Cobden–Sanderson stepped up on to the platform and in a few pleasantly sententious phrases introduced Mr. Crane as one who had always been ‘the advocate of great and unpopular causes,’ and the aim of whose art was ‘joy in widest commonalty spread.’ Mr. Crane began his lecture by pointing out that Art had two fields, aspect and adaptation, and that it was primarily with the latter that the designer was concerned, his object being not literal fact but ideal beauty. With the unstudied and accidental effects of Nature the designer had nothing to do. He sought for principles and proceeded by geometric plan and abstract line and colour. Pictorial art is isolated and unrelated, and the frame is the last relic of the old connection between painting and architecture. But the designer does not desire primarily to produce a picture. He aims at making a pattern and proceeds by selection; he rejects the ‘hole in the wall’ idea, and will have nothing to do with the ‘false windows of a picture.’

Three things differentiate designs. First, the spirit of the artist, that mode and manner by which Durer is separated from Flaxman, by which we recognise the soul of a man expressing itself in the form proper to it. Next comes the constructive idea, the filling of spaces with lovely work. Last is the material which, be it leather or clay, ivory or wood, often suggests and always controls the pattern. As for naturalism, we must remember that we see not with our eyes alone but with our whole faculties. Feeling and thought are part of sight. Mr. Crane then drew on a blackboard the naturalistic oak-tree of the landscape painter and the decorative oak-tree of the designer. He showed that each artist is looking for different things, and that the designer always makes appearance subordinate to decorative motive. He showed also the field daisy as it is in Nature and the same flower treated for panel decoration. The designer systematises and emphasises, chooses and rejects, and decorative work bears the same relation to naturalistic presentation that the imaginative language of the poetic drama bears to the language of real life. The decorative capabilities of the square and the circle were then shown on the board, and much was said about symmetry, alternation and radiation, which last principle Mr. Crane described as ‘the Home Rule of design, the perfection of local self-government,’ and which, he pointed out, was essentially organic, manifesting itself in the bird’s wing as well as in the Tudor vaulting of Gothic architecture. Mr. Crane then passed to the human figure, ‘that expressive unit of design,’ which contains all the principles of decoration, and exhibited a design of a nude figure with an axe couched in an architectural spandrel, a figure which he was careful to explain was, in spite of the axe, not that of Mr. Gladstone. The designer then leaving chiaroscuro, shading and other ‘superficial facts of life’ to take care of themselves, and keeping the idea of space limitation always before him, then proceeds to emphasise the beauty of his material, be it metal with its ‘agreeable bossiness,’ as Ruskin calls it, or leaded glass with its fine dark lines, or mosaic with its jewelled tesserae, or the loom with its crossed threads, or wood with its pleasant crispness. Much bad art comes from one art trying to borrow from another. We have sculptors who try to be pictorial, painters who aim at stage effects, weavers who seek for pictorial motives, carvers who make Life and not Art their aim, cotton printers ‘who tie up bunches of artificial flowers with streamers of artificial ribbons’ and fling them on the unfortunate textile.

Then came the little bit of Socialism, very sensible and very quietly put. ‘How can we have fine art when the worker is condemned to monotonous and mechanical labour in the midst of dull or hideous surroundings, when cities and nature are sacrificed to commercial greed, when cheapness is the god of Life?’ In old days the craftsman was a designer; he had his ‘prentice days of quiet study; and even the painter began by grinding colours. Some little old ornament still lingers, here and there, on the brass rosettes of cart-horses, in the common milk-cans of Antwerp, in the water-vessels of Italy. But even this is disappearing. ‘The tourist passes by’ and creates a demand that commerce satisfies in an unsatisfactory manner. We have not yet arrived at a healthy state of things. There is still the Tottenham Court Road and a threatened revival of Louis Seize furniture, and the ‘popular pictorial print struggles through the meshes of the antimacassar.’ Art depends on Life. We cannot get it from machines. And yet machines are bad only when they are our masters. The printing press is a machine that Art values because it obeys her. True art must have the vital energy of life itself, must take its colours from life’s good or evil, must follow angels of light or angels of darkness. The art of the past is not to be copied in a servile spirit. For a new age we require a new form.

Mr. Crane’s lecture was most interesting and instructive. On one point only we would differ from him. Like Mr. Morris he quite underrates the art of Japan, and looks on the Japanese as naturalists and not as decorative artists. It is true that they are often pictorial, but by the exquisite finesse of their touch, the brilliancy and beauty of their colour, their perfect knowledge of how to make a space decorative without decorating it (a point on which Mr. Crane said nothing, though it is one of the most important things in decoration), and by their keen instinct of where to place a thing, the Japanese are decorative artists of a high order. Next year somebody must lecture the Arts and Crafts on Japanese art. In the meantime, we congratulate Mr. Crane and Mr. Cobden–Sanderson on the admirable series of lectures that has been delivered at this exhibition. Their influence for good can hardly be over-estimated. The exhibition, we are glad to hear, has been a financial success. It closes tomorrow, but is to be only the first of many to come.

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